Thursday, February 14, 2013

How we listen to music...

Adam Gopnik has a very nice essay in The New Yorker on the mysteries of sound and the quest for 3-D recording. I was struck by his description of how the way we listen to music has changed. (I sometimes think with nostalgia about growing up in a 1950's household where "Hi Fidelity" was taken very seriously, trying as closely as possible to re-create the experience in the concert hall. Good old analog vinyl records played on mechanically sophisticated turntables with fancy diamond needles tracking the grooves, state of the art amplifiers, and speakers.... And now I have the best quality wireless speaker one can get, but it still must depend entirely on the compressed audio computer file formats such as .mp3 or.aiff, that throw away the richness I used to know.) His comments on how the music listening of his teen-age kids has changed, they:
...have an entirely different way of listening. They ignore the glowing-tube amp and classy articulate speakers in our living room; they bounce instead to tinny earbuds, and often spend hours listening to Taylor Swift or Radiohead on the still more tinny speakers of their computers. Sound quality seems secondary to some other thing they take from music...they have a more limited conception of larger forms, of the... of the symphony's three or four parts, of the swell and structure of a cantata. It isn't a question of classical tastes against pop; it's a question of small forms heard in motion against large form heard with solemn intent. "Sgt. Pepper: baffles them as much as Beethoven's Ninth. They snatch at music as we snatched at movies, filling our heads with plural images.
Gopnik's article presents fascinating interviews with current music researchers, from engineers like Edgar Choueiri to brain scientists such as Zatorre and Levitin at McGill University in Montreal. (MindBlog has several posts on their work.)


  1. Very interesting. I wonder why sometimes a tune gets stuck in our heads ("earworms").

    On a somewhat related note, thank you very much for writing and maintaining this blog. I have been reading it (on and off, I must admit) for years now, and it's one of the best blogs out there. I can't believe more people don't know about it!

  2. Thank you for your kind words.