Sense and sensibilities

The relationship between humans and music has been changing with every new invention. Music is now more readily available than ever, and the way we listen is rapidly evolving.

Illustration by Ben Coy

Illustration by Ben Coy

“You can lie still in your room and hear room music. There exists, thus, spider music, moss music, cloud and thunderclap music, music of Gaia and music of the spheres; any or all of these are sensitive to saints and sinners. As ye are tuned, so ye shall hear.”
– W.A. Mathieu, ‘The Musical Life’

It is a summer morning and I wake up to the fresh smell of coffee, ham and scrambled eggs in the kitchen. Taking a few steps into the living room, I see my father flexing a newspaper between his fingers, and he nods as I sit across from him. Slowly, as my groggy mind begins to clear, my hearing catches up. The brass and string sections state their intent with aplomb: “Tell me a story worth remembering,” I hear them say. With a minute break, the violins begin to share their pathos, the cellos and double basses joining to reiterate the gravitas of the soliloquy.

This is Scheherazade, Op. 35: I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, a symphonic suite composed by the Russian maestro Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. The piece, based on The Arabian Nights, is a masterwork of classical music. Its musical range provides a stellar depiction of an oriental world, where a young woman named Scheherazade, to escape execution from the Sultan she is married to, begins to spin grand and wondrous stories to uplift the cheated Sultan’s mind. He forgets the execution, and postpones it until the following day, which turns into years. Although Scheherazade’s stories lasted only for 1,001 nights, humanity’s musical stories have survived for much longer, and will continue to survive for centuries to come. But a question remains: How has this love story between humans and music changed over the decades, and can it teach us about our own evolving selves? 

We can all likely return to our own potent memory that reminds us how we individually began our journey as musical beings. For many, this memory is associated with parents, road trips, Disney movies, a CD of chart hits, or a mother’s hum while doing chores. Yet collectively, the history of music is almost as old as human creation itself. The earliest records of information begin in Antiquity, during which rhythmic modes, harps, lyres, and choruses thrived. Then came the Middle Ages with its polyphonic textures, i.e. simultaneous production of many sounds. During the Renaissance, cultural centres of Western music shifted from France and Italy to England and the Netherlands, and secular music arose under the nobility. The Baroque period saw the creation of major and minor tonalities, the rise of operatic music, and an increased appreciation for instrumental music, almost comparable to its vocal counterpart. The classical period and the advent of Romanticism during the 19th century showcased a desire to understand the unknown. Nationalism, individualism and program music were prominent features of this period. As in all other forms of history, the nature and spirits of the time reflected themselves with the progress of music.

Well aged? The Sony Walkman family.  Marc Zimmermann/ Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Well aged? The Sony Walkman family. Marc Zimmermann/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Since the 1900s, advancements in technology influenced by economic, social and cultural events, have aided in propelling the music industry forward. The 20th and ongoing 21st centuries have seen an enormous increase in the frequency at which music is being composed, produced and transmitted. Previously a luxury for the rich and a voice for the lowly, music in its current form has become one of the most profitable entertainment businesses supported by a vast body of consumers. Sound recording and reproduction has played an intricate role in this immense change. The inventions of the phonautograph and the gramophone record in the 1800s, to the compact cassettes and  discs in the 1960s and 80s changed the landscape of audio recording and playback, making musical machines portable, user-friendly, and personal. But for many of us, these are devices of the old and ageing.

It is the creation and commercialisation of the Internet that has changed the rulebook on how we consume music. Now the ringmasters include digital music streaming services such as Spotify (leading with around 100 million users), Pandora (77.9 million) and Apple Music (17 million), amongst a plethora of others. This extraordinarily easy access to streaming music means that we have become the plug in, tune in and tune out generation, and one might imagine this change to have come at a cost. At a personal, impersonal, cognitive, or simply an intuitive cost. 

Surveys done in the UK show that streaming services are being used mostly by demographics between 12-34 years of age, with women and men equally likely to stream music. People 45 years and older make up less than 30% of this group. It is therefore fair to assume that the younger generation is the target consumer group for music streaming services. A core reason for the popularity of streaming among them could also be associated with cost. Lower prices appeal to younger people while people above 45 years are more willing to pay to hear and own copies (such as CDs) of their music. However, surveys do indicate that there is a slow but sure death of purchased music. Drops in digital song downloads, total album sales, CD sales, as well as losses for chain stores and mass markets exposes a lot of negativity in our desire to purchase pieces of music in the streaming era. 

With services like Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora dominating the music streaming market, we're part of the "plug in, tune in and tune out" generation.   Philippe Put/Flickr  (CC BY-ND 2.0)

With services like Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora dominating the music streaming market, we're part of the "plug in, tune in and tune out" generation. Philippe Put/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)


The formats in which music is available to the public have also changed vastly dependent on the genres. Almost half of children's, classical, jazz and holiday/seasonal genres are available as physical albums, with less than 20% accessible as on-demand audio streaming, and even less as digital tracks. As expected, music including pop, R&B/hip hop, dance/electronic and Latin music conquer streaming availability, with rock music more evenly distributed between mediums. These percentages are a direct insight into the psyche of the music industry — in store albums for genres associated with an older age group, and digital or streaming based albums for the younger age range. Consumer psychology understood, satisfaction guaranteed. 

Music is now a commodity available to most individuals. Nielson's Music 360 report for 2016 indicates that 80% of music listeners use some form of online streaming service, with the average hours ranging from 2.5 to 4 hours a day. This includes listening to music in cars, at work, or while doing chores. Number of streaming subscribers worldwide is forecasted to increase from approximately 100 million to 220 million by 2020. While music previously functioned to gather people together and engage in events or festivities, our form of listening to music seems to be becoming an increasingly isolated activity. Be it on a subway, at home, or at work on our computers, musical echo chambers are rampant throughout the world. Although music is considered a potent therapy for a lonely man's heart, quarantining ourselves into a tech-hole could have detrimental consequences. So how has our solo vs. social relationship with music evolved with technology?

Let us target the first idea of insulated musical exploration. There is an intuitive assumption that isolated experiences of music are making us lonelier, unhappy and anti-social. But while the ubiquitous ability to listen to music alone is perhaps the greatest gift (and bane) of digitalisation, it cannot be attributed to digitalisation alone. Private music and the headphone culture originated with Edison's invention of wax cylinder recordings, and lines of cylinders used to be placed in penny arcades, almost like private music booths, for public perusal. The question is therefore not about the ‘newness’ of this form of music acquisition, but what its abundant presence means for the current world. 

Thomas Edison listening to wax cylindrical units (1888).   Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

Thomas Edison listening to wax cylindrical units (1888). Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


Tom de Castella, in an article on the anti-social nature of iPods, astutely observes that "[so] ubiquitous is headphone culture today that it has become a sort of cultural shorthand — often for a spoilt, selfish generation who lack civic values." Although a skeptic of the worldwide phenomena that is headphones, it is difficult for me to defend that listening to music alone indeed makes us uncouth and asinine. Is it any different of a solitary act than reading a book? Do we appreciate people reading books on a subway? It is most likely that we do. Therefore, perhaps the individual act is not the issue, and it is the social context that is the factor for our fears and anxieties regarding the changing music culture. 

Nevertheless, previous scientific reports have shown that major depressive disorder is correlated with amount of isolated time spent listening to music (especially for adolescents). But these results do not answer the chicken and egg conundrum: Is listening to music an escapist action for depressed people, or can listening to music over prolonged periods of time lead to depression? The answers may be inconclusive, but the question remains fundamental to our daily lives.  

Different modalities of music streaming services have allowed ourselves to become our own personal DJs. Personal playlists abound, you can find and add almost any song you like in the preferred order, for a preferred time. Some find personalisation to be a key feature of each aspect of their lives, shared with few, for those passionate and private moments. As singer Kayla Jacobs charmingly quips, "Personalising music is key for max benefits! Gotta get the right bpm to run to, gotta have the right vibe to make love to... you get the gist." The vast amount of music available on the Internet allows us to fine-tune our musical sensibilities, much like setting up our own distinct libraries, grouped and ordered for custom use. Also, apps such as Shazam and SoundHound have turned the world into our serendipitous inspiration. We walk into a coffee shop and like what’s playing, turn on the app, let it listen to our surroundings for a few seconds, and discover the artist right away. Music is now available everywhere, all the time. 

Streaming services and music portability mean we can be our own personal DJs, creating the perfect playlist for the train ride to work, road trips with friends, or a quiet night in.   Unsplash  (CC0)

Streaming services and music portability mean we can be our own personal DJs, creating the perfect playlist for the train ride to work, road trips with friends, or a quiet night in. Unsplash (CC0)


Escapism, privacy and the personal bubble are some lingering thoughts linked to the headphone-wearing realm. But where is the social context of musical experiences in the digital age? Is it disintegrating, as a generous amount of people suspect, or are we feeding into our deeper biases regarding individual vs collective experiences? Most of my colleagues and friends (musicians and otherwise) were against the notion that customisable pocket music has changed social connections. They opine that the sharing feature provided by most streaming services helps rescue us from isolated musical experiences. You can make your playlists public, make collaborative playlists and share specific songs with people. These features are meant to allow you to follow your "You must listen to this!" feeling.

Emma Schmiedecke, a cellist at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University observes that "sharing [music] with your colleagues, offering it to an audience, any way you can get the music out there for people to enjoy and learn from in an open and enriching way is any musician's goal". 

Music streaming services are slowly emerging as their own social networks. Features such as road trip, party or dinner playlist are specifically tailored to be enjoyed with others. Each playlist is an exercise in controlling the ambience of our environment. Imagine a dinner gathering without some light jazz in the background, or a road trip where your friend does not insist on listening to "Fight Song" for the umpteenth time! While these are meant to appeal to more personal social audiences, apps such as SoundCloud are breaking borderlines by sharing one's own musical creations, be it DJ mixes or remixes, audio recordings or band sessions. It is also particularly useful for sharing pre-concert mixes, especially at a time when concerts are as popular as ever and seemingly unaffected by digital streaming.

However, sharing always comes at the price of judgment. For some people such as Gustavo Mendoza, a Boston-based jazz musician and Berklee graduate, when asked about sharing music with others, states that he has in his mind " image of that weird artist dude handing out mixtapes to strangers, asking everybody to listen to it." This kind of anxiety response is not unheard of: Remember the time you made your friends listen to a piece of music they simply hated and spouted off profanities to change the track? Flip sides indeed. 

Many still argue that the sociality of music hasn’t changed, and we can still enjoy sharing a concert experience with friends just as much as we did centuries ago.   Unsplash  (CC0)

Many still argue that the sociality of music hasn’t changed, and we can still enjoy sharing a concert experience with friends just as much as we did centuries ago. Unsplash (CC0)


As the world keeps modernising around us, keeping track of our changing yet age-old obsession with music is a potent way of reminding ourselves of where we were, are, and might be headed. The digitisation and accessibility of music could have a different purpose now than it did before. On one hand we have created a private musical sphere in public purview, while on the other hand, sharing and celebrating music that reverberates within our social circles could not be easier. These experiences have certainly come at a cost.

Music is an organism in its own right, and with the evolving environment, it has changed and adapted. But anachronistic behaviour is a part of being human, and contrary to popular belief, digital convenience has not completely overtaken tangible, physical versions of music. Vinyl records are more popular than ever, and maybe it is thanks to the digital age that music of all kinds, in all shapes and forms, will be preserved. No matter the medium, digital or otherwise, music will always make us feel any of connected, social, private, personal and more — plugged in or out. 

Edited by Sara Nyhuis