Mental Machine Music: The Musical Mind in the Digital Age

[12 April 2010]

By Eric Casero

It would be no great claim to suggest that technological evolution is changing the ways that we listen to music. When changes in our listening experiences do occur, however, it is often so difficult to discern precisely what they are. This is largely because as media consumers, people, especially young people, adapt so quickly to alterations in the media environment that surrounds them. As technology and culture evolve hand in hand, we become so accustomed to the end results of this evolutionary process that it can become difficult to consciously recognize, on a day-to-day basis, that anything ever existed in a different form.

This process of change is a phenomenon that technology and culture share with human consciousness itself. Consciousness may change over time, but it is nearly impossible to track this change with any degree of precision, since we are always engaged in the present, with the past existing only as a sequence of personal memories or the words and images recorded by others. Every now and then, however, we may experience a moment in which a change in our own consciousness becomes something palpable, something real, immediate, and apparent. Such moments not only signal a personal evolution, but also connect us, as individuals, to the continuously swelling tide of collective human intelligence. It is one such moment that provided the inspiration for this piece.

How has the digital age changed our “musical brains”?  At the quantitative level, what factors in the digital age lead our brains toward different musical choices? On the qualitative level, how have our listening experiences changed?

Before I describe this moment, it will be important to establish the premise that every individual who currently lives in the mainstream of Western popular culture has grown up in a particular era of musical consumption. These “eras of consumption” determine, to some degree, how, where, and when we consume music. I spent my own formative music-listening years in the era of physical media, which includes any timeframe where music was listened to in a physical form (CD, LP, tape, etc.). The CD, of course, shared with the LP era the significant property of long-form listening, while adding a new dimension of consumer control by allowing the listener to skip songs at his or her command. This feature of control has, quite obviously, taken on a whole new importance in the digital era of musical consumption, in which a nearly limitless (compared to previous eras) number of tracks can co-exist on a single device at any given time, allowing the consumer to skip, cycle through, and rearrange these tracks to his or her liking.

This leads me to the aforementioned “moment”. At first, this moment seemed like any other, as I drove aimlessly down the familiar streets of my hometown, listening to my iPod, which, although recently acquired, had by this point become a fixture in my music-listening life. For myself, as well as for many young folks at the time, the iPod seemed to represent a series of endless new possibilities for music listening. The potential offered by the digital age for customizing the listening experience was something that had never been seen in any other era of consumption. The moment I am discussing here was not a major event, but simply a flash of realization, a sudden consciousness of the limits of this potential. I realized at this moment that in the few months that I had owned my iPod, I had, despite the device’s seemingly limitless potential, been listening to the same songs over, and over, and over again.

Of course, I had always been listening to a variety of music, different artists, different genres, etc. Since entering the digital age, however, I was showing an increasing tendency to listen to the same songs repeatedly. Even in the CD era, with its inherent limitations on listening possibilities, I had been more flexible in my habits; I would listen to entire albums rather than single songs and would tend to cycle through the multitude of different albums in my collection, rather than focusing my listening habits on a select few.

What is important to note here is that this change in listening habits was almost entirely unintentional. I had not picked up my new iPod and “decided” to change the way that I listened to music; instead, my brain had “decided” to do this for me. I had suddenly realized in this one moment that the changing technological era had literally altered the way that my brain was reacting to the music I was listening to. On the simplest level, this was a quantitative change, in that what I was listening to was different. On a more complex level, however, this was a qualitative change; something about the quality of the actual experience of listening to music had been altered in the movement between eras of consumption. Something, at a barely perceptible level, had changed about the way that my brain was engaging in the listening experience.

This change has led me to write this piece; I want to discern how, precisely, the digital age is changing our “musical brains”. At the quantitative level, what factors in the digital age lead our brains toward different musical choices?  On the qualitative level, how have our listening experiences changed?  Do our brains “appreciate” music the way that they used to?  What does music “mean” to us as conscious individuals?  It seems that technology, although it has increasingly allowed us to customize our listening options, as well as develop a more comprehensive knowledge of the musical environment, has also marginalized and diluted the experience of actually listening to music itself.

The Burden of Choice

The simplest explanation for my changing listening habits has to do with the very possibilities afforded by the iPod. It would seem that the sheer number of musical choices afforded by the iPod can “liberate” a listener from traditional modes of listening, freeing him or her from the rigid, predetermined song sequences of albums (whether on LP, cassette tape, or CD). This freedom, however, may have the unintended consequence of distracting the listener from his or her current listening experience, thereby diluting this experience by diverting the listener’s cognitive focus from the music itself to the musical choices available.

This sense of distraction is at least partially a function of the way that the human brain makes choices. Our brains are, of course, information-processing machines; they absorb sensory content from the world around us and use this content to make decisions about future actions. When we listen to music actively, we constantly make choices about what we listen to; we perceive available options for listening and select particular listening experiences based on these options. This process of perception occurs when we engage with almost any musical medium, whether it involves the numbers on a jukebox, the track listing on an LP or CD, or the files saved on a computer hard drive. Taking this process into account, it is only logical to believe that having more options available to us will affect the way that we make choices.

Nicholas Carr’s influential essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” proposed that the internet has altered the way our brains work by shortening our attention spans. For Carr, the sheer amount of information sources available to us via the web encourages us to quickly absorb information without any deep sense of concentration. As an illustrative example, Carr cites a colleague who claims that he has stopped reading books since the dawn of the digital age; after becoming accustomed to a high (and highly accessible) level of information, he has “to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing” (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, The Atlantic, June/July 2008). Carr’s claims, while certainly debatable, suggest that the level of information that we are confronted with as consumers alters the quality of our engagement with the information itself.

It only makes sense that this phenomenon would extend to the world of music. By providing us with a plethora of listening options, the iPod encourages brief, momentary listens, rather than deep, extended engagements with any particular piece of music. This is not to say that technology has “ruined” music listening; in fact, it has afforded listeners with an unprecedented breadth of listening experiences. I do believe, however, that the quality of these experiences has, on a cultural level, been irreversibly altered. No longer do we tend to afford the same level of attention to any singular listening experience.

This lack of attention has manifested itself in the continuing decline of the album as our primary listening medium. As album sales continue to drop, downloads of individual songs continue to rise. The album is, of course, not only a physical medium, but a way of structuring listening experiences; albums are not just compilations of songs, but song sequences arranged in a particular order. When we listen to albums, we allow the medium to determine how we listen. In the digital age, we are becoming more and more free to make our own determinations, but this freedom carries with it the responsibility of choice, a responsibility which usurps our mental energy.

From a cognitive perspective, this all comes back to how our brains process information. Let’s say that you have 5, 10, 50, 500, or even 5,000 records sitting in front of you. If you decide to listen to one of these records, you will inevitably scan the choices in front of you and then decide which one is most appealing at the moment. When you sit down to listen to your choice, your brain will inevitably devote some of its energy to processing what you are listening to. It may also devote, however, some of its energy to processing options for future listening. In fact, as you sit listening, you may scan the other 4, 9, 49, 499, or 4,999 records to contemplate which would be best to listen to next (or which one would be worth interrupting your current listening experience for).

The digital age has taken this “processing” phenomenon and amplified it. Now, instead of being limited by the physical options in front of us, our listening options are bound only by the size of our hard drives. While our brains may concentrate some energy on listening to a piece of music, they are likely, at the same time, to be focusing on possible options for future listening, options that have only grown in breadth since the dawn of the digital age.

The notion that the digital age discourages close listening may seem to run counter to the anecdote I recalled earlier, in which I found myself listening to the same songs over and over again. I do believe, however, that there is an important connection to be made here. When I was choosing to listen to the same few songs, my choices were a result of the decision-making processes that were occurring in my brain. For the sake of clarity, let’s say that my favorite piece of music is the Beatles song “Golden Slumbers”. While I may listen to other pieces of music, my brain will not devote its full concentration to those pieces, because it is also considering other possible options for listening. In effect, my brain is telling me “why listen to this song when you can listen to ‘Golden Slumbers?’”  Thus, the “distraction” encouraged by our current era of media consumption leads me back to the same piece of music again and again, as much as I may try to devote my attention to other pieces. My “musical mind” is situated less and less in the present, and more and more in the future, as it devotes higher levels of concentration to future, as opposed to present, listening experiences.

I also want to emphasize here that the difference between previous eras of media consumption and our current age is a difference measured in degrees. It can easily be argued that the “age of physical media” broke with previous ages in the same way. After all, before physical musical media existed, the only way to listen to music was in a live setting. In this case, one’s options for listening were much more limited than they were in the age of physical media, in which one could visually confront the work of several artists simultaneously. Adopting this perspective should allow us to realize that, although technology may be changing the ways that we listen to music, change is, comfortingly, a constant presence.

The Musical Mind in the Digital Age

In his seminal, Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Gӧdel, Escher, Bach, cognitive theorist Douglas Hofstadter proposes a hypothetical scenario where the reader is confronted with a map of the United States in which all physical features are represented, but no names are given for any geographical locations. In this scenario, the reader is asked to fill in the missing names of places in order to construct an “Alternative Structure of the Union”, or “ASU”. Hofstadter writes that “your personal ASU will be very much like the USA in the area where you grew up. Furthermore, wherever your travels have chanced to lead you, or wherever you have perused maps with interest, your ASU will have spots of striking agreement with the USA” (Gӧdel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Basic Books, 5 February 1999).

The purpose of this scenario is to illustrate the ways in which the human brain functions like a kind of “mental map”. Our minds, just like maps, consist of large networks of interconnected information. The information that we are intimately familiar with will inevitably stand out to us with a great deal of clarity, while other information may be less clear or, in most cases, simply unknown.

This “map” is also a metaphor for the way that the human brain conceptualizes a kind of “total picture” of the world. Although no single person knows everything about the United States, every person who lives there has a kind of “impression” of what the “total picture” of the country looks like. As Hofstadter’s metaphor illustrates, one’s “total picture” is inevitably colored by biases related to our experience in the world; if we have spent more time in a particular place, this place is likely to be more prominent in our “total picture” of the world than a place in which we have spent less time.

Hofstadter’s conception of the mind as a kind of “map” is useful for considering the ways in which we think about music. After all, each of us, particularly those who take their music listening experiences very seriously, have a kind of “mental map” of music. We have a set of artists, genres, and musical works that are familiar to us in varying degrees, many of which we see as connected to each other in some way.

This “mental map”, this “personal musical landscape”, inevitably determines to some degree the way that we listen to any piece of music. This is what constitutes our subjectivity as music listeners and it is an important aspect of consciousness as a whole. As neural theorist John G. Taylor writes in The Race for Consciousness (MIT Press, 2 July 1999),

consciousness involves memory structures or representations of the past of episodic, autobiographic, semantic, preprocessing, and emotional character. These structures are used to give conscious content to the input in a manner that endows that experience with meaning related to the past. Thus consciousness arises from the intermingling of the recorded past experiences with incoming present activity; as such the process is dynamic.

In other words, our own memories of past events determine the ways in which we interpret present events. The individual brain is in a constant state of flux; as present events are stored in memory, become part of the past, then go on to re-determine one’s perspective on the present.

These memories provide the individual listener with a cognitive background against which to contextualize and evaluate any singular listening experience. This helps to explain why, in our youth, we react differently to music than we do during our later years; any particular artist, genre, or musical piece will seem a lot more striking when we don’t possess a context for evaluating it. As we grow older and listen to more and more music, we are able to situate this music within some kind of musical and/or cultural context, due to our expanded “maps”.

This is why so many young men (including myself at a young age) become so easily obsessed with a band like Led Zeppelin. When I was younger, Zeppelin was one of the first “real” rock bands I had ever heard. Since my own “musical map” contained no context for Zeppelin’s music, it seemed completely new. As I’ve grown older, however, I have gradually become more and more familiar with the band’s influences (Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, etc.). My familiarity with these influences has expanded my “map” and allowed me to place the band’s music in larger cultural context, thus depriving the music of its revolutionary character.

Today, any listener with the means to obtain an internet connection has free access to a quantity of music that vastly exceeds what was available in the previous era of consumption, which was mostly available only through radio. Also significant is the amount of critical material available to listeners at any one time. Whereas music criticism in previous eras of musical consumption was dominated by print magazines, today we have almost unlimited free access to our era’s major music publications, including Pitchfork, PopMatters, and any of the multitude of sites listed on Metacritic.

The sheer amount of musical information that listeners come into contact with in the contemporary era seems to be expanding our “maps” to include a wider and more diverse collection of information.

The Death of the Fan

Because of this level of information, we tend more and more to listen to music as a critic would, rather than as a fan would. The role of a critic is, of course, to judge a work of art as objectively as possible, to situate it within a larger social and cultural context apart from the critic’s own subjective tastes. Because of this role, a good music critic relies heavily on his or her own “mental map” to determine an appropriate context for any piece of music that he or she hears. To judge a work of art theoretically is to detach it from personal experience and examine it in a universal context. This is opposed to the judgment of a fan, who uncritically lauds a particular artist, genre, or piece of music and incorporates particular artists or genres as a component of his or her personal identity.

As a culture, our own personal contexts for music listening are becoming more and more “universal” and objective. Our “mental maps” of the musical world are gradually expanding to accommodate a greater breadth of knowledge. Fans still exist, of course, but once again, the cultural changes I am speaking of happen by degrees.

The erosion of the “fan mentality” can be seen in the death of musical icons; as we begin to develop more sophisticated “mental maps” of the musical landscape, we become less and less inclined to see any single performer as exemplary, instead viewing them as a small part of a greater “musical landscape”. Critic Piero Scaruffi notes this phenomenon as he traces the history of rock icons from Elvis and the Beatles in the ‘50s and ‘60s to the “very pale icons” of the ‘90s, such as Britney Spears, Alanis Morissette, etc., who lacked the cultural relevance and ubiquity of their predecessors. Scaruffi credits this phenomenon to the emergence of 24-hour news cycles. “Previous generations”, he writes, “were fed radio or television news at a specific time of the evening, and shared that event with the entire nation.”  As information became more and more prevalent, our culture’s “uniform collective response was lost forever” (The History of Rock and Dance Music, 1951-2008, Omniware, 1 April 2009).

As we lose this “collective response”, we cease to respond to culturally ubiquitous icon figures. For Scaruffi, our shared cultural gestalt has eroded under the strain of information overload.

This loss of “uniform collective response” is certainly important, but I also believe that as our access to information increases, we become more sophisticated in our listening habits. This sophistication can be seen in the musical styles that have become popular in the past twenty years. Increasingly, popular songs, in their construction, rely less and less on pure songwriting, and more and more on their ability to reference other works or genres.

A cursory examination of some of this decade’s most popular songs will bear this notion out. Outkast’s 2003 monster hit “Hey Ya” was, both musically and visually (as seen in the song’s video), a reference to British Invasion hits of the ‘60s. The lyrics presented an ironic twist on the well-worn themes of love and devotion. Weezer has evolved from ‘90s grunge-pop darlings to appropriators of arena-rock clichés; their 2005 hit “Beverley Hills” combines a Def Leppard-esque hook with lyrics composed of tabloid-ready musings. Lady Gaga, one of the music chart’s current queens, is perhaps the contemporary apotheosis of this trend, appropriating the sounds of European dance-pop and combining them with visual imagery straight out of both avant-garde fashion and glam rock. Even the singers who succeed on American Idol succeed largely based on the fact that their vocal styles reference the styles of past singers.

Perhaps the quintessential example of this can be seen in Kid Rock’s recent hit “All Summer Long”. The song was not only a hit because of its youthfully nostalgic subject matter, but because it was built on two recognizable samples, one from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”, and the other from Lynyrd Skynrd ‘s “Sweet Home Alabama”, which also simultaneously served as a key reference point in the song’s lyrics. Strip away the references from “All Summer Long” and there would essentially be no song left.

The music of these artists, while certainly not complex in the sense that it is “difficult” (no shifting time signatures or academic theories of tonality), reflects an increasing cognitive complexity in contemporary culture. I do not think it is a coincidence that hip-hop, a musical form whose success depends largely on its ability to reference other works (through sampling) found its greatest commercial success in the era of the dot-com boom. As young cultural consumers became more and more accustomed to receiving greater levels of information at a time, they sought this same level of information in their choice of music. Hip-hop music delivered this information density by combining the work of multiple past artists with the present artist’s original ideas.

I should once again emphasize that these changes are happening by degree; as we gain access to more and more information, the level of universality that we seek in music increases. After all, in the late ‘60s, the Beatles attained a mastery of the ability to reference a variety of musical styles. The difference between a Beatles song and so many contemporary artists, however, is that the Beatles (as well as other late ‘60s artists like Bob Dylan or even Frank Zappa) songs are meant to reference particular artists and/or genres, as opposed to contemporary artists, who tend to compose pastiches of multiple genres. Almost any track from The White Album stand out as an exemplar: “Rocky Raccoon” references the folk rock of Bob Dylan, “Ob-La-Di” references the ska of Desmond Dekker, and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” references the pop style of the Beach Boys.

I should also emphasize that the “fan mentality” has not completely disappeared from music. It is, however, mostly relegated to teenage audiences, whose “musical maps” are not as sophisticated as their adult counterparts. Artists like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers have attained iconic status with teenage audiences. More “adult” icons of the past few years, however, tend to be viewed more ironically. Lady Gaga is the prototypical example, with her self-aware glam image. Even Britney Spears, however, has made the transition over the past decade from “sincere” teenage idol to ironic adult idol, as much of her contemporary appeal rests on public fascination with her tabloid exploits.

Music in Its Natural Habitat

I believe that the erosion of the “fan mentality” has something (but not everything) to do with the increasing insignificance of the physical nature of musical media. As music is defined less and less by its physical nature (whether in the form of LP, tape, CD, or any other corporeal object), the presence of any particular piece of music on our cognitive state becomes less and less significant. In the era of physical media, any particular piece of music was inevitably associated with a physical artifact. In order to listen to a piece of music, one had to engage with the physical medium associated with that piece of music. This physical medium included images (the album covers), text (the liner notes), and equipment (musical devices required to play music, including turntables, tape decks, etc.).

These factors all lead to cognitive associations that we, as listeners make with the music. Whenever we would think about the music itself, we could immediately associate that music with a set of images, words, and devices. These associations strengthened and developed our cognitive image of any particular piece of music. In the current era of digital consumption, however, these associations are dissipating; we no longer associate a particular piece of music with other, extraneous factors to the degree that we once did.

This sense of dissociation has been clearly felt by anybody who has spent time cycling through songs on their iPod or contemplating musical choices in any digital medium, such as a computer hard drive or a web site (such as MySpace or Lala) that offers consumers a wide range of musical choices. Of course, these media forms rely to some degree on image and text for their presentation, but not to the same degree that musical pieces in the physical era of media consumption did. As technology delivers an increasing number of options for music listening, the music itself becomes increasingly dissociated from any kind of physical medium. This significantly reduces the impact that any single piece of music can have on our conscious state because that piece no longer carries with it the same cognitive connections that it would have in previous eras.

Neuroscientist António Damásio, in The Feeling of What Happens, writes that “we store in memory not just aspects of an object’s physical structure… but also aspects of our organism’s motor involvement in the process of apprehending such relevant aspects: our emotional reactions to an object; our broader physical and mental state at the time of apprehending the object” (The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, Mariner Books, 1 October 2000). In other words, when our mind perceives an object, it perceives not just the object itself, but also other aspects of the objects environment, which we, as conscious beings, associate with that object. Similarly, when we perceive a piece of music, we inevitably associate with seemingly unrelated aspects of the music’s environment, such as images, words, etc.

This helps to explain the dissipation of the “fan mentality”; particular musical pieces no longer create the strong cognitive associations that they once did, because they are longer as closely linked to specific imagery. In the era of physical media, album covers were highly important. In today’s era, it is hard to think of any cover that has attained the cultural relevance of any Beatles album (think Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, etc.). Once again, this may seem to run counter to the scenario with which I began this piece; after all, doesn’t the fact that the digital era encourages me to listen to the same songs repeatedly only reinforce the “fan mentality”? This repetition, however, remains related to the new cognitive listening processes encouraged by the digital era. In my case, it became increasingly difficult to conceptualize a wide variety of listening options; instead, I was only conceptualizing those options that stuck out in my mind primarily through musical qualities, and not through images and other material that I mentally associated with the music.

This process of conceptualization also extends to the physical environments in which we listen to music. After all, our experiences of listening to music do not occur in a vacuum. Instead, the music itself is related, in our minds, to other components of our physical environment, including the time and place of listening, as well as our own mental state. In the digital era, music is increasingly becoming portable, diversifying the environments within which we listen to music. Once again, this change is a matter of degree; although the Walkman helped to make music portable, music has only become more portable in subsequent eras. This portability, as with so many other innovations of the digital era, expands our possibilities for listening to music. It also, however, renders the music itself only a small part of a more expansive cultural gestalt. We may continue to listen to music, but we do so while walking, talking, driving, working, or some combination thereof.

As noted earlier, Damásio discusses the impact of environment on cognition; we don’t simply cognize an object, we cognize it in association with the environment we find it in. As music becomes more portable, we cognize it more and more as a component part of our physical environment, rather than as an experience in and of itself. If we walk down the street while listening to an iPod, we think of the music we listen to as a part of the street on which we walk. If we listen to music while working at home, we associate the music with the work we do. If we listen to music while driving, we associate it with the road on which we travel.


At the same time, our knowledge of and ability to appreciate this music only increases. These phenomena proceed in lockstep with the overall complexity of our media environment. As eras of media consumption proceed one after the other, the media itself becomes more complex, and our minds follow suit.
As with Eve in the Garden of Eden, however, our knowledge comes with a cost: in this case, the cost of intimate listening experiences that demand our full concentration. In “The Conception of Artistic Beauty”, G.W.F. Hegel asked “What is the true content of art, and with what aim is this content to be presented?” He answered “On this subject our consciousness supplies us with the common opinion that it is the task and aim of art to bring in contact with our sense, our feeling, our inspiration, all that finds a place in the mind of man” (On Art, Religion, and the History of Philosophy: Introductory Lectures, Hackett Publishing, 1997). As technological advancements move us into the future, music will continue to bring our minds into contact with new feelings and inspirations; the ways in which it accomplishes this task, however, will continue to change.

Eric Casero is a graduate student with a Master’s degree in English literature. His interests include modern and postmodern literature and culture, and the relationship between culture and the human brain. He will begin studies at Kentucky University in the fall.

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