The plasticity of music is amazing. Think about the many ways people can listen, care or enjoy music. For example:
- You can listen to the same song 1,000 times.
- You can listen to 1,000 different songs instead.
- You can listen to the same song every day, or once every year.
- You may have listened a song 40 years ago and never forget it.
- Or there may be a forgotten song from an important moment from your past that when suddenly reencountered may trigger an overwhelming emotional response.
- You can listen a song for 50 times in a short period and then completely forget it. Or hate it.
- There are songs that you enjoy while listening alone but would be horrified to listen in public or in a group of friends. And vice-versa.
- A song you discovered in a very joyful setting will be enjoyed much more than a similar song discovered in a boring moment.
- A song may be annoying first, and catchy later. Or vice-versa.
- There are songs that an entire nation associates with the mourning of a particular person.
- The song you think is the greatest maybe the song your partner ou parent or child think is the worst.
- Different music genres may elicit distinct strong emotional responses from you.
- You may either love or hate to classical music. Or even be completely indifferent to it! And so about jazz, Brazilian sertanejo or Death Metal.
- You may think that mid 1980’s synth pop by soon-to-become middle aged boomers was the greatest music ever made. Or not.
- Maybe you are a hipster nerd always proud to display your musical knowledge or you would be embarrassed if people found out that you read album reviews.
- You can prefer to listen music at low or loud volumes.
- You might enjoy discovering new music or you prefer sticking to favorites.
- You might prefer vinyl LPs or CDs or DSD512 files. Or whatever comes from those random YouTube results.
- Big speakers or in-ear-monitors.
- Bass-heavy sound? Middle-heavy? Treble-heavy? V-shaped? Adjusted Harman curve?
- You can listen to music actively (ie with full attention) or passively (pure background) or somewhere in-between (like walking leisurely)
- You can care deeply about the lyrics, or never pay attention to them (particularly if growing up listening foreign songs…)
- There are many activities to which you may enjoy adding music to: cooking, driving, taking the train, going to sleep, exercising, working, studying, reading, writing blog posts.
- Music is essencial for various forms of dancing.
- You may have a favorite kind of electronic music that play in particular kind of disco/nightclub/rave. (Jungle, house, electro, techno, big beat, IDM etc.)
- Going to live shows can be your favorite pastime in the world.
- You can obsess over a singer-songwriter or a boy band or a whole “scene”.
- You might enjoying recommending music to your friends.
- You may enjoy playing an instrument, or singing.
- You can use music to help you feel calm, happy, relaxed, focused etc.
- You can music to meditate.
- You can listen music the whole day or barely at all. In hours-long sessions or short bursts.
- Random songs or entire albums (chronologically even).
- Your musical taste can be diverse or narrow.
- You can check-off the “1001 Album to Listen Before you Die” list, one by one.
- You may care a lot about knowing bands, albums, producers or not at all.
- You can collect music.
- You can prefer music with or without vocals.
- You can mix listening music with spoken content (podcasts, news etc.) or not.
- You can value music dearly or take it for granted.
For this exercise I jotted down some 40 variables of how people may consume music. There could be more. Obviously, they all affect greatly how music is produced, marketed, distributed, monetized and consumed. And the broad point is that any kind of innovation (either in technology, business model, relevant legislation etc.) can have a very disproportionate impact.
I mean, music history is full of dramatic changes: electric microphones, stereo LPs, transistor radios, multitrack studios, FM stations, speakers loud enough to fill arenas, the walkman, synthesizers, CDs, MTV, SSL consoles, the iPod, Spotify, bluetooth earphones, voice-activated smart speakers, those cool DJs desks, AirPods. In important ways, they all changed everything: the type and variety of music being made, the type of musician, the age/socioeconomic profile of listeners, the amount and frequency of music consumed, the places where it was consumed.
One can almost say that the music landscape has lived in a constant flow of revolutions. Everything is going fine until a new element or gadget comes along and changes the way music is made/marketed/listened. And it is always unexpected. We never knew we needed Walkmans or iPods until we did. And then in hindsight they all look obvious and “inevitable”: of course the miniaturization of electronic components, together with digital compression algorithms and powerful song library management desktop software (offering also a fast and seamless synchronization feature) would naturally result in a stylish rounded metallic device holding a thousands songs that fits in your pocket!
But the obviousness only comes with hindsight. The actual revolutionary innovation had to bring something new. And “new” can take many forms in this music realm. Anything that explores, illuminates, tweaks or solves any or several of those 40+ variable dimensions of music interaction can be a “killer app”. The new idea can change how often we listen or how long. How portable. How instantaneously. How cheaply. How easy it is to search a song. Or remember it. How easy it makes to hide our taste, or share it. How it increases the range of where to listen or with whom etc. etc.
And there is so much room for surprises because our connection with music is very deep, broad and variable. We have a strong emotional connection with music – and those kind of connections can be the most unpredictable and rewarding. In fact, music is more than entertainment, culture, distraction or escapism: it is an input that our minds absorb and use. Music is brain food.
Apparently the brain is “the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe”. And, as I learn from Google, “neuroplasticity – or brain plasticity – is the ability of the brain to modify its connections or re-wire itself. Without this ability, any brain, not just the human brain, would be unable to develop from infancy through to adulthood or recover from brain injury”.
The point I want to make it that we have a similar kind of plasticity in our relationship with music. We are always rewiring our interaction with it. That’s why changes in technology, hardware, software or interface can have such profound consequences on how we consume music.
I can speculate – what is going to be the next revolution in music: maybe those bone conduction headphones? Or future iterations of those speaker-featuring glasses? 360 audio as Sony dearly hopes? Perhaps AirPods Pro Max Series 5 will work without a watch or phone nearby, and the transparency mode will be so good that you can wear them the whole day? (And Siri evolves in a functional digital companion?) Maybe the audio part will the killer app for AR glasses?
Or going into software, the future of music will be intrinsically linked with TikTok and Metaverses? Will AI evolve so far that it can accurately divine our taste? When you go to a party, will your Spotify account register all the songs that you listened (and take note of which made your heartbeat/blood pressure /etc. go up??) Maybe someday music streaming will be fully integrated with your social graph? (2030’s iTunes Ping will be awesome??)
Another interesting point is the suspicion that we may have crossed an important threshold in this technological evolution of the music-brain interface: music streaming platforms, with full catalogues served to a global audience, may look in the future like a primitive central nervous system, the ancestor of something much more impressive.
Because, unlike other art forms or fields of knowledge, music streaming services are more than databases that index and describe whatever exists in the real world: they are becoming de facto main music layer we interact with. And all future improvements can be built upon this digital base.
Nowadays, it is quite feasible to describe music streaming services as low-margin services with limited differentiation. Spotify still struggles to ensure long-term profitability and most of its competitors are tech giants whose music services represent a small fraction of their total revenues. There are several ongoing discussions about user-centric streams models, and how creators are paid, what role exactly each of several ‘stakeholders’ should have etc.
But that’s fine. The evolution of this early digital musical brain we have now is going to be full of surprises and turns. What is more certain is that technology has always powered music plasticity, and the current state of digitalization might very well be an inflection point from which the pace and range of innovation will be increasingly exciting.
And of course, once those new fantastic developments eventually arrive, we will later look back and think that they were all obvious and inevitable.