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Whatever Happened to Actually Listening to Music?

Since people are in the habit of blaming Steve Jobs for everything, even though he’s no longer around, I suppose some might hold him responsible for harming the way in which you listen to music. How so?

Well, therein lies a tale.

So consider the fact that, when the first iPod arrived in 2001, you could place 1,000 songs in your pocket. So you could hear a music library up to that size without actually having to do anything beyond starting playback. The only interruptions were the natural ones between musical tracks on recordings that actually had a built-in separation of that sort.

Or maybe things turned in the wrong direction with the arrival of the first CD, when you could listen to both sides of an album in one step. Even when there was a natural break point for artistic purposes, made under the assumption that you’d be turning over the record, that condition no longer existed.

It was even normal to turn over a recorded tape cassette.

But let’s return to the days when vinyl dominated the market. I’ll get to the so-called vinyl resurgence later. When you wanted to listen to recorded music from your own collection, you would have to remove the sleeve from the album (assuming it wasn’t a 45 rpm or 78 rpm single which usually came only in a sleeve) and the record from the sleeve. Thus removed, you’d probably clean it before putting it on your turntable and placing the tone arm on the grooves. When one side was completed, you would have to get up, turn the record over and repeat the process.

If you had a record changer, you could listen to one side of up to several records. After one side of each record played, you turned them over to continue listening.

The process was obviously more involved if you only wanted to listen to one or more individual tracks.

In other words, there was a personal connection to the process of actually listening to something from your own collection. That investment probably resulted in paying far more attention to what you were listening to. Or at least that was a stronger possibility.

Now I grant people sometimes put things on the changer, and let it play on in the background, not paying a whole lot of attention to the music. But if you wanted to really listen, the process of selecting and preparing the recording should tend to focus your attention on what’s to come.

As a result, it doesn’t seem to turn to mush in the background, and therefore you care more about the performances of your favorite artists. If you’re just listening to endless quantities of music, it may not matter so much. It’s easier for other matters to occupy your attention.

Maybe that explains why modern music production techniques, and many popular artists, come across as homogenized and not as distinctive as they used to be. One song seems to blur into another and very little of it gathers your attention, in part because the act of preparing material for listening requires very few steps. The recording is designed to reflect our digital lifestyle.

This all may be a psychological impact, and I dare say many of you would disagree. Sure, it’s possible to stop playback of digital music, and pick the tunes you want. You can create custom playlists of your favorites, sort of a “best of” compilation. But I know that when I’m in the car and want to hear something from my iPhone on the vehicle’s infotainment system, it’s really better to pull off somewhere to make those selections. Otherwise your attention may be diverted to a flaky touchscreen that may not always detect the activity of your fingers.

It can also make for distracted or unsafe driving.

Of course, it’s not as if you can just turn on the turntable and put my ideas to the test. Most of you don’t own a turntable, or have it stuck away in a closet or basement. But vinyl still exists, and sales are increasing. In fact, it’s probably the only physical music sales category that has demonstrated solid growth.

The vinyl resurgence means that more and more records are being pressed, old plants are being revived, and new ones are being built. The highly specialized record mastering skills of old have to be relearned, although some of the old timers are still at it.

I am not one to suggest you should switch to vinyl. Even if you like the smoother sound and the soft — or not so soft — surface noise, there is the inevitable wear and tear on the record. Unless you have a fairly expensive piece of gear, you can hear audible degradation after a few plays. Even with the costly component, the sound quality after 10 or 20 plays will be audibly worse.

Of course, you can digitize the record on your Mac or PC. Some apps have special features to reduce or eliminate all or most surface noise. But then you’re back where you started with digital music that slowly blends into the background as you listen to it.