Death of the Music Listener ~ 2017-08-14

How long has it been since you listened to a song? A day? An hour? Maybe you're listening right now. Or are you?

Back in the late 70's and 80's, the hifi (High Fidelity) home stereo was the thing to have. You needed big speakers and a good amplifier so you could really enjoy listening to those records, 8-tracks or cassettes. Everybody who was anybody had a home stereo. And if you were a teenager, there's a pretty good chance you either had or wished you had a nice pair of headphones: The big kind with a plug that covered your ears so you could focus on the music and block out the sounds of your parents asking you to take out the trash... or so I've heard.

Music production and recording technology had reached a critical point where acoustic and electronic instruments were being combined to produce a whole new spectrum of sound, and the average consumer could afford the gear to really enjoy listening to that music the way the artists intended. We even had great-sounding music in the car, and finally, in the 80's, we had the portable stereo, more affectionately known as the 'ghetto blaster.' Reading back at what I just wrote I can't help but thinking what an awesome name that is. Sure, they had portable radios before that... even battery operated ones. You can see them in old episodes of M.A.S.H. and Gilligan's Island. But the ghetto blaster was different, because it was loud and it had full-range speakers. You could hear the highs and the lows and have an impromptu dance party anywhere you plopped it down, until your batteries ran out.

The music was great and it was everywhere. But then what happened?

* * *

In the late 1950's a sci-fi writer named Lloyd Biggle wrote a short story called "The Tunesmith" that was re-published by Orson Scott Card along with one of his stories in the 1980's, and it was here that I became familiar with this insightful work.

In his dystopian future, TV is everything. The opiate of the masses, as they say. The protagonist works as a tunesmith, which is a jingle-writer for TV commercials. Why? Because that's the only place that music still exists. But he loves music more than commercials, and wants to write really good stuff. However, his employers don't want really good stuff. They want him to crank out as many crappy tunes as he can. Well, he gets sick of it and quits his job to play live music in a bar. This bar has gone off the rails and ripped out it's TV. (Even this visionary author could not imagine a bar having more than one TV!)

So, the tunesmith starts playing live music, and the only music people know is the music from the commercials, so that's what he plays. The only instrument people play in this time period is called a 'multichord', which is what today we would call an electronic keyboard or synthesizer. It can play various instrument sounds, but they are all muted somewhat. Toned down so that the music never gets in the way of the commercial message.

After some experimenting, the tunesmith decides that's not enough for him. He digs into his multichord and 'pulls out the filters' or something. Anyway, the idea is, he modifies it so it to play fully and unrestrained. Then he begins playing his own music, something with no commercial message, and the people begin to catch on. Then, the tunesmith finds he can influence the mood of the entire crowd, just with what type of music he improvises.

Eventually, the story of the powerful emotions he brings through his music spread through society, and while he is persecuted and eventually imprisoned, he lives long enough to see the foundation of a society for the performing arts.

* * *

As someone who always wanted to spend my life doing music, this story had a powerful effect on me when I read it, probably in my late twenties in the late 90's. In some ways it felt true. For instance, I knew of the power of music to influence emotions. In other ways, though, I thought it would never happen. Music would never lose its importance in society and it would certainly never become common practice to have it compressed down to be limited in volume and have the frequencies filtered to a minimum. Boy, was I wrong, and boy was Lloyd Biggle right, and I have no idea how he saw it coming.

As the ghetto blaster grew in popularity, so did the desire for a more personal form of portable music reproduction. Sure, you could lug your blaster around with a pair of headphones (and I did that a lot, especially on long family trips) but it always seemed like overkill. Well, the demand was met in the mid-80's by the advent of the Sony Walkman. It was a cassette player, but it was no ghetto blaster. It fact, it had no speakers at all; just a headphone jack. It ran on several AA batteries (instead of taking 8 or more D batteries like a blaster) and came with a belt clip and lightweight on-the-ear headphones that still allowed you to hear what was going on around you. You could listen to music while walking the dog... while mowing the lawn... while skateboarding... while hiking... while sitting in class! People in the current generation have no idea how big of a deal this was at the time. But this was also when we began trading quality for convenience and portability, because let's face it: these little headphones were awful. They were cheap and flimsy and sounded horrible, and I went through many pairs and we all loved them because we could take our music anywhere.

And then the digital revolution came. Suddenly, we could pack much more music into a fraction of the space of a Walkman, in the form of an mp3 player. Meanwhile in the world of television, screens were getting bigger, DVD's were coming out and the hifi stereo now had to be surround-sound. However, if you're going to have surround sound, you have to put speakers behind you as well as in front of you, and most people didn't want their living rooms dominated with big speakers in every corner. (Personally it's never been a problem for me, but then, I am not the public at large.)

Well, the manufacturers started thinking. Low sounds take a bigger speaker to produce than higher sounds, but higher sounds are more directional than low sounds. In other words, the higher a sound is, the easier it is to tell which direction it's coming from. So, they split up the sounds. They came out with systems that had tiny speakers you could mount on the wall or ceiling in each corner of the room, and then ran all the low sounds into one speaker called a sub-woofer that you could put really anywhere in the room and it would sound fine.

It was okay there for a while, but then most people either never got a surround system, or if they did, they discovered that surround sound was really not that big of a deal to them and they couldn't hear the difference most of the time anyway. Besides, surround only really works if you do all the steps to set it up right, and if you're sitting in the sweet spot right in the center of the speakers where you hear sound from all of them equally, and most rooms and systems just aren't set up that way. All of that adds up to more effort than most people are willing to make or capable of completing successfully. And broadcast TV has never supported surround sound, so it only worked on DVD movies that were encoded with it.

Those of you whose eyes glazed over on that last paragraph are merely making my point for me. Even though pretty much every home stereo and TV currently made says that it supports surround sound, pretty much nobody cares. Besides, most people don't even bother connecting their gigantic TV to their system anyway; they just use the built-in speakers. I mean, I know there are people like me who still do. Our system requires 4 remotes to operate and most of the kids can't figure it out. I have to set it up for them every time, and the youngest is 15. The others are in their twenties.

So we've all got these giant TV's where you can see every freckle and pore from across the room, and yet our sound is poop. In fact, lots of people don't even have a home stereo / surround system any more. Record player? Nope. Cassette player? Are you kidding? CD player? Nope. Any way to play high fidelity, full-range music in the home? Nope.

Where did it all go?

Cell phones, of course. The crappiest possible speaker, at well under a half inch in diameter, designed to be the bare minimum for reproducing the few frequencies that are needed for audible speech, has now become the primary source of music listening. Except if you want to really get serious about your listening you plug in a set of earbuds. Even smaller than the built-in speaker, but supposedly giving higher quality by reason of proximity to the eardrum.

Of course, there is a little bit of a backlash market with the bluetooth speaker craze. You can wirelessly connect your phone to a portable speaker with a rechargeable battery. The speaker might be slightly better than the radio on Gilligan's Island, but it's not ghetto blaster, and it's no home stereo. And there are some exceptions to my examples, but by and large as a trend, this is the way things are going. Music is portable and convenient and everywhere and nowhere. But there's a pretty good chance that the best speakers you own are in the car, and that music is almost always pushed to the background. Because it's so convenient, you're listening to it all the time, but never really focusing on it.

When is the last time you sat in a quiet space and intentionally listened to a particular song or album, perhaps with your eyes closed, without interruption?

That's my challenge to you. Don't let the music be relegated to background noise that plays all the time through tiny, tinny speakers. Dust off the old hifi or get some good full-range over-the-ear headphones for $30 or less (DON'T buy a pair of Beats by Dre, please; Those are fad and fashion, not fidelity!) Anyway, get you some good sound, even if you have to go sit in your car. Don't watch the video; don't text; don't do anything visual. Close your eyes and focus completely on the music. You may just hear things you never heard before.