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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 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.

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