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6 March 2023

Tone-Deaf: A New Era of Listening


This year’s Spotify wrapped got me thinking: why could I not tell you the name of a lot of the songs popping up on my list? Was I losing my memory? Was I bored of my music? Or was I just mindlessly pressing play?


This year I’ve listened to more music than ever before (a respectable 49,869 minutes) but I have lost the love for the music I hear. No matter what I am doing, there is a soundtrack to every part of my day and this constant exposure to noise that I don't even recognise worries me. More choice has made me value music less. 


Before streaming, I would have passionately listened to a handful of albums throughout the year and would only have been able to afford a couple new albums from my favourite artists. These days I find it hard to say who my favourite artists are, let alone stick to a small collection of my favourite songs. 


We live in an era of endless choice to satisfy our need for entertainment. Whether it is music, film or art, the internet has always got an answer for our cultural appetite. Unlimited options might seem ideal for someone looking to discover new interests but as technology has made an enormous quantity of sounds readily available, it has also changed the way that we consume them. Let me be clear. Digital entertainment is great because it enables instant and constant access to any form of culture ever recorded but instant gratification is not always our best friend.


A limitless library that is on demand and available anytime and anywhere is without doubt a great resource, but I have been overwhelmed by its scale and struggle to pick out what sounds special. 


There are a few reasons why I and other people from the new generation of streaming are feeling  this way. Firstly, we are the guinea pig generation of audiences who have access to a global database, being able to access practically any recorded song in the last 100 years. How is it possible to keep your head above the incessant waves of old and new music being pushed to you by streaming services, in order to decide what you like? It is a hardwired human response to associate things in abundance as being less valuable and so even if we can decide what we like, it becomes harder to appreciate as we listen to more things.


Artists also must keep up with this sound barrage by changing their music. We are in the midst of a sort of musical arms race.


Let’s consider one of the most successful TikTok artists: Pinkpantheress. Going through her top 10 songs on Spotify, I could only find one song longer than two minutes. This is not just unique to her but a symptom of the battle between artists to catch our attention. Gone are the days where concepts like intros and outros were important, now all that matters is that 10 second sound bite which can propel you to social media stardom.  This also explains the maddening rise of the ‘sped up’ genre, which is just catchy songs played at a faster speed which perfectly suits social media platforms. Being original will not necessarily get you noticed in the cacophony of music promoted by these platforms, especially when their main criteria is whatever gets the most views. Not to say that the music industry was previously a bastion of originality but the new era of the TikTok sound requires even less creativity.


Instead of accepting this as the status quo, it’s important to consider all the possible ways to fight this 21st century problem. The first is not to combat it at all, and instead embrace this phenomenon and let the streaming services dictate your musical tastes. Resigning yourself to the algorithm may seem like giving up but I have found many great songs based on Spotify’s recommendations. It’s also important to remember that in previous decades, much of music taste was dictated by the radio and so letting streamers decide is a part of accepting evolution in technology. These playlists are also tailored to our individual taste and so should be more suited to us than the radio.


Alternatively, you could choose older analogue media which has become increasingly popular, as seen in the comeback of vinyl which forces the audience to remain more active in their role as listener. You can’t simply stick a record player on shuffle and hope for the best; it requires a conscious and decisive effort to pick which vinyl to listen to and so there is more motivation to consider what you would like to hear. It also means that once the song has finished, it is not followed by a swarm of suggested songs and so you have time to reflect on what you have just heard.


The third and (for me personally) most challenging option is a detox. I cannot remember the last day where I did not listen to music. Whether in the library, working out or in the shower, I am constantly exposing myself to sound and as much as I enjoy this luxury, sometimes it’s important to fight this impulse. We are overwhelming our brains with endless stimulation, and information overload means it struggles to decide what to appreciate. A reset can be an effective response to establishing what you like to listen to as well as reorienting yourself away from the passivity of music consumption towards an active state of musical passion.


Some will say music is simply a form of entertainment that we shouldn’t need to over discuss or dissect and this is true in a sense. Yes, at the end of the day, as listeners we are willing customers in the music industry but this does not justify a mindlessly compulsive approach. Whatever way you react to your relationship with music, it is important to be conscious of what you are hearing instead of allowing it to disappear into the background.


Author's note: 

Here’s where I go when I’m bored of Spotify:

Here are five albums, some old some new, that I don’t get tired of: Kind of Blue - Miles Davis, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert - Lil Simz, Illmatic - Nas, Exodus - Bob Marley & The Wailers, Channel Orange - Frank Ocean

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