Saturday, May 22, 2010

The soundtrack of our lives

Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonog by Beverly & Pack, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  Beverly & Pack on Flickr

Music is everywhere today. We work, study, exercise, drive and read to a constant musical accompaniment. Indeed music has never been so important in our lives. At the same time it is seldom something we concentrate on. When was the last time you sat and really listened to a piece of music?

Back in the seventies the stereo system was a high status possession. Massive decks with amplifiers, tuners and turntable complete with extremely expensive speakers took pride of place in many living rooms and often there was one armchair which gave you the ultimate listening experience. You sat there and listened to your records with often stunning sound quality. I used to listen like that but very seldom do so today. I listen to more music than ever before but almost always while I'm doing something else.

The New York Times has a good article on just this theme, In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back, with a very long string of readers' comments after it. Today hi-fi systems are rare and most music is  consumed as compressed, low quality mp3 files using rather simple earbuds. Music would seem to be one of the few areas where technology has lead to quality and performance being sacrificed for convenience, in stark contrast to say television where enormous improvements in quality have taken place in recent years.

According to one expert quoted in the article:
“People used to sit and listen to music,” Mr. Fremer said, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. “It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.” 

Has music become simply a background activity, one of many distractors we have running when we're doing something else? Since we seldom give it our complete attention we are not too worried about the quality as we were in the days of the armchair hi-fi. It's simply "good enough".

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