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Mental Machine Music: The Musical Mind in the Digital Age

Eric Casero

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?

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.

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