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Six Ways Music Listening Has Changed

This article is a companion piece to the blog article How Music Listening Has Changed. That article includes a bullet list of six Then and Now differences that affect my music listening experience:

• The older Top 40 mix of musical styles with a huge shared audience fragmented into many smaller niche audiences , one for each musical style and slant, exchanging more personalization for lost common cultural experiences.

• Much of the best music of the last three decades has come from experiments with rhythm and sound at the expense of melody and harmony .

• 24/7 TV and internet video marketing has supplanted listeners' imagination and subverted the meaning of music into brand and lifestyle choices.

• With increased mobility, faster pace of life, competition from interactive media, and shorter attention spans , music listening has less meaning and importance for most people than it did when sustained attention was commonplace.

• Music reflects the times . Today's songwriters and audiences reflect a more individualistic, materialistic, fearful, uncertain, cynical, and alienated society than back in the day.

Sound quality largely sucks today because two distinct types of compression (file size/bit rate and loudness/dynamic range) destroy music's sonic subtleties and seriously decrease the emotional impact of the listening experience.

Below is a summary Table with all six differences laid out in a common time framework. To comment on any one of them, click on its link in the first column below. Comment on How Music Listening Has Changed to discuss the main idea, the six points taken together, or to add another log or two to the fire. To start a conversation on a different "Then and Now" subject, click here.

Six Ways Music Listening Has Changed from Then to Now


Beginning in the 1980s



melody and harmony

Rock and soul music were filled with rhythm, but also with strong melodies and harmonies. You could sing along with your favorite songs, even as you also tapped your feet or shook your booty.

New music from the rhythmic thrusts of rap, funk, and punk had little concern for melody or harmony. Different sounds and attitudes also marked a break with previous music.

Country music and some pop music have strong melodies, but even most indie rock emphasizes sound and rhythm more than melody and harmony.

Much of the best music of the last three decades has come from experiments with rhythm and sound at the expense of melody and harmony. Just as older elements of pop coexisted with rock and soul for years, so do older elements of rock and soul coexist now with today's rap, punk, pop, and the indie scene.

the times

Music both inspired and reflected social change. Soul music history intertwined with the Civil Rights moment. Romantic love songs appealed to listeners of all ages.

Politics and culture shifted toward libertarianism,

individualism, materialism, multi-national corporatism. Intimacy changed with new

awareness of HIV/AIDS

Gangsta rap and hard core rock project anger and hostility; indie rock dwells on irony and dramatizes self-doubt; and pop tends to glorify gamesmanship, hooking up, and the mechanics of sex.

Music reflects the times. An era of reform, progress, optimism, and confidence (despite Vietnam and the Cold War) produced a different kind of music than an era of conservatism, economic disparities, global threats, and uncertainty about the future. Each generation writes about love and romance in its own terms.

video marketing

Movies, TV and ads helped stimulate music sales, but the experience and meaning of music relied mainly on listeners' imaginations.

With the great success of music videos (Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna), costumes, choreography and packaging became prominent in music sales.

Pop music is used extensively to sell consumer products. Artist packaging and brandng often dictates crafting the music to fit the marketing image.

24/7 TV and internet video marketing has supplanted imagination and subverted the meaning of music into a brand and lifestyle choice. The loss in value is reflected in a "consumer model" shift from the need to own music to satisfaction with mere access.

niche audiences

Most listeners shared very similar musical experiences through eclectic Top 40 radio formats based mainly on nationwide charts (e.g., Billboard's Hot 100).

The creation of multiple targeted radio formats and music TV channels fragmented the audience. "Have it your way" marketing promoted a self-centered mentality.

Music is heard everywhere: online, on phones, in video games, and "audience of one" internet stations. Billboard now carries about 50 distinct weekly music charts.

The Top 40 mix of musical styles with a common audience fragmented into many small niche audiences, one for each musical style. Niche listening, often solitary, means that no music artist, event, or genre can matter now culturally as much as the common Top 40 experience once did.

attention spans

People had time to focus their attention and listen repeatedly to the same music, which deepened its meaning and importance in their lives.

The pace of life accelerates, with new technology like personal comptuters, fax machines, productivity tools, and VCRs to "time shift" TV.

Constant competition for limited time and attention among 24/7 media, internet, cell phones, texting, email, videogames, Facebook, IM, Twitter, etc.

With increased mobility, a faster pace of life, shorter attention spans, and far more competition from other activities and demands, the experience of music listening has less meaning and importance in most people's lives now than it did back in the day.

sound quality

Recording methods evoved over six decades to maximize sound quality within analog limitations. Listeners enjoyed car radios and home stereos; only audiophiles missed better sound quality.

Portable players arrived: first the SonyTM walkman, then the discman. Digital media arrived. The music business strongly marketed "perfect" CD sound and undermined sales of tape and vinyl.

Solo listening to compressed music files while working on a computer; or to internet radio, an mp3 player or smartphone, often while on the move or exercising. "Loudness wars" compress music dynamic range to a minimum.

Music listening has suffered since compressed digital files become the standard unit of music distribution. Sound quality expectations are low. The emotional impact of lower frequencies and musical subtleties is missing from mp3s and CDs with minimal dynamic range, contributing to less attachment and passion felt about the music itself.

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