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Music appreciation as data processing

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Tuesday, Mar 7, 2006

If you have ever had the misfortune to enroll with a temp agency, you probably had to take some kind of exam that tested you on your Microsoft Word knowledge, and if you are anything like me, you were probably astounded by all the things it can do that most people have no need for. (You’d also know this if Word ever started autoformating your text and you couldn’t make the damn thing stop.) Word is an astonishgly powerful program; like the human brain, 95 percent of it probably goes unused on most people’s machines. To take advantage of its vast functionality, you have to see it as something other than a typewriter. You have to become a processor of words.


I get the feeling that the same is true of iTunes and similar such programs. These programs are not merely stereos that reside on your computer but are probably better understood as music processors. The options iTunes affords you to organize your music in myriad different cross-referenced ways enable you to listen to music in ways previously impossible—it’s not just the shuffling, but the manu ways in which you can shuffle; and the ease with which you can clump genres together or edit songs out you don’t like and compile spontaneous playlists via search criteria. I used to sit on the couch and read while music would play; now all the time I spend listening to music at home I also spend organizing music data. It’s not like I only listened to records when alphabetizing my collection, so this development disturbs me a little.


What iTunes does is make the data aspects of music more apprehensible that music’s aural qualities—one can interact with the data much easier than one can listen to the sound. It takes less concentration and has a more immediate payoff. It feels constructive. I can spent all night adding record covers to my ID tags and applying my preferred capitalization style (down for prepositions of 4 or fewer letters, up for all nouns, pronouns and verbs) and sorting through and devising more useful genre categories. But something is slipping away from me and I’m not sure I even know what it is, and I know that before long I won’t even remember that it’s gone. As an undergraduate I used to type my papers for class on a typewriter, and that seems unfathomable to me now; it’s as though it wasn’t me who did that because I never would do that now—I wouldn’t be able to, I’d be paralyzed with my fingers on the keys the first time I wanted to move a sentence or insert a introductory clause or qualification. Something similar has happened with listening to music; soon I won’t be able to hear a song without thinking about how I want to classify it in my own personal taxonomy.

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