Essay: The Anxiety of Listening (in the new media age)

By June 13, 2014 No Comments


For the third year theory elective ‘Jazz Analysis’ we were given the brief to research and present a relevant topic of our choosing. Weighing on my mind as of late, I decided to discuss the shifting trends in listening through the integration of new technology and how it may induce an overwhelming sensation. In fact, the topic stemmed from an epiphanic moment screenshot above; after listening to a number of songs on youtube, I realised I had listened/watched close to 10 different videos in no more than 10 minutes and had opened up another half dozen in new links still to be listened to. Butterflying [a term taken from Richard Dawkins] from one video to another without giving more than a minute’s of my time, and in many ways listening peripherally while completing other tasks I came to realise I hadn’t really digested any of the music of the past 10 minutes…

Since presenting to the class I have revised, casualised and adding a heap of content- although the topic is deceptively wide-scoping and so there are still a number of ideas that I have either skimmed over or chosen to neglect all together. I have left both in-essay citations and a bibliography partly out of apathy and but mostly so those interested in further reading can source the information with ease. I would like to add that for the radical left out there that may dismiss my words and the very crux of this discussion as merely cultural pessimism, I in fact sympathise with you as I also believe cultural pessimism runs wild too often in the today’s zeitgeist of thought. In fact it was a cloud constantly hovering over every thought I had penned.  

So this a one young jazz musician’s contribution to the global discourse of a topic I believe will, and has already come to redefine music in the 21st century.



Literary critic and theorist Harold Bloom is considered the forefront authority on the socio-science of influence. His seminal 1973 work ‘The Anxiety of Influence’ outlined an intrepid theory on influence and interpretation past poets had on those present. In brief, Bloom theorised that ‘poetic influence always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation’ and is ‘a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion…’  (Bloom, 1973) or less cryptically that poets struggle to balance the influence of the greats before them in search of their own poetic voice, with many works merely misguided reproductions of the poetic canon.

Whether you agree or disagree with Bloom’s theory one can’t argue his essay sparked academic discourse in attempting to rationalize artistic influence. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Bloom’s theory stems far beyond that of poetry and literature, and can be superimposed on all artistic endeavours- jazz being no exception; art is an additive idiom, that is, through one artist’s reaction of another’s work- whether antithetical, imitative or even misinterpretive- a mutation takes places that ensues progression of x art form. I believe that at the very least the Anxiety of Influence forebodes to apprentices of any artistic endeavour the path to artistry and a creative voice is by no means clear-cut.

In the same way a poet interprets a stanza through reading, a musician digests a piece of music through listening. Listening is the vehicle to which musician’s become influenced, and so as a student of music it is the quintessential pedagogical tool.

Whether it be King Oliver’s influence [and mentorship] of Louis Armstrong, Keith Jarrett’s sonic resemblance in Brad Melhdau’s music, the less explicit influence of Lee Morgan in Ambrose Akinmusire playing [something he frequently notes in interviews] or even Bloom’s literary example of the influence of Nietzsche’s musings on the writings of Fraud; it doesn’t take Bloom’s book to realise that for every great artist there is a great artist who influenced them.

The above musical examples span across a century of music, and in that time the way music has been disseminated- more specifically, the way musicians have digested the music of their ‘influencer’ has changed dramatically. The great majority of listening Armstrong undertook was on stage with his mentor. With the growth and the strengthening of the music industry and continual advancements in music technology, the past half a century has seen most music being digested via recordings.

But in the past decade and a half the music-sphere has faced its most dramatic shift since the very invention of recording technology (Boone, 2008). We have entered the age of information- also referred to as the ‘new media age’ -an era of connectivity and rapid globalisation where instantaneous gratification has swiftly become the norm. The way we listened to music has changed, and so with it has the way we digest it. Terms such as ‘music saturation’ and ‘data overload’ have been coined in the past decade as a direct critique to this changing media landscape. And so I set out to answer the question:

 ‘Has the way we’ve come to listen to music in the new media age led us to be influenced by it differently?’

If Bloom considers a poet’s anxiety from reading a collection of anthologies, one can only imagine the anxiety that a musician would face with access to the larger part of the history of recorded music…

This is a topic that encompasses more than socio-musicology and the world of media and cultural theory, and really is partly a question of science, namely neuro-plasticity. With this in mind I have broken down this core question with three slightly more reasonable questions I hope to shed light on:

1. How are we listening differently today?

2. Do our changing listen habits place a lesser value on music today?

3. How are these differences affecting the way we are influenced as music student?

So, let us rewind back to the years before the popularisation of the Internet, where the world was a larger place…

Since the invention of the phonograph- the first recording/play back device, on the cusp of the 20th century- music, at least in certain popular spheres, became in many ways more a physical entity than sonic- an idea first postulated by Marshall McLuhen in his pioneering work ‘Understand Media: The Extension of Man’ where he famously argued that the “medium is the message.” (McLuhen, 1964)

Although written in 1964, with the phonograph his musical subject of analysis- whether it be wax cylinders, LPs, cassettes or CDs, this physicality of music has meant over the greater half of the twentieth century that listening was a spatial affair. To share music you had to lend a physical copy to someone, meaning their worth was directly linked to their physicality. Even in the 80’s and 90’s with the invention of the Walkman and a new wave of portability, Sony’s device relied on the user to have CD’s with them.

McLuhen even had something to say about jazz recordings, stating: “It is a truism among jazz performers that recorded jazz is ‘as stale as yesterday’s newspaper’”. (McLuhen, 1964) I doubt that such a thought is still considered a truism today, highlighting the shift in cultural attitudes towards recorded music over the past half a century.

Now, Cue the rise of the mp3. Music, in the span of a decade, transformed from a purely physical entity to that of a virtual one. From the first commercial digital music player, MPMAN in 1998 [which could hold a grand told of six songs] to the release of the 5gb, 1001 capacity Ipod three years later, digital music portability sprouted from the media-landscape with unseen vivacity. In the same vein was the popularisation of the hard drive and the invention of the cd-burner, allowing us to share, expand and duplicate our music libraries like mitotic cells.

One book notes a 1999 Wall Street Journal report that quoted a young user: “At my school, almost everyone who has an internet connection has MP3s,’ says Brendan, who himself has one and a half gigabytes of mp3s music, the equivalent of several hundred singles.” (Burkat, 2006). If we consider our music libraries today, the sensationalised amount of 1.5gbs seems completely underwhelming to the 21st century listener.


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My itunes library, 2014


Other factors that made up the musical landscape pre-internet include that of distribution. Owning a piece of music relied on a ‘distribution channel’ that between you, the consumer, and the producer included a number of intermediaries such as wholesalers, distributors and retailers. If you wanted to purchase Wayne Shorter’s latest CD all of the above channels would need to link like a chain for you to find it in your local music store. More than just a reliance on the process of distribution there was far greater sense of delayed gratification. Seeking Shorter’s album was far more onerous than it is today. From first reading the review in Downbeat to holding it in your hands could take a good handful of time and effort- it wasn’t as easy as hoping from one online retailer to the next, as we do today.

Today not only are we spoilt for choice but we are gifted with the phenomenon of instant gratification. If we seek something, within a couple of clicks we own it [both through legal and illegal means]. In many cases intermediaries are being omitted from the distribution channel as more and more we see ourselves buying music directly from vendors (Burkat, 2006)

In fact, we don’t even need to even buy the music we listen to anymore- and that’s not even considering illegitimate P2P [peer to peer] file sharing a.k.a torrents. Sites such as Youtube and Soundcloud allow music to be listened to anywhere, at any time, for free.

More comprehensive than these sites are the increasingly popular music streaming services or ‘stream-on-demand’ that have risen to prominence in the past half a decade. The most well known of these services are Spotify, Pandora, Rdio and Grooveshark, although it seems every company wants a piece of the music-on-demand pie with heavy-weights Google, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung recently launching services among smaller companies such as Australian retailers JB Hi Fi, highlighting just how large the pie must be…

These long-tail focused streaming services allow subscribers access to upwards of 20 million songs for a nominal fee [around $5 to $10/month); some even offering an ad-based service for free. Discourse surrounding the ethics and economics of these platforms has risen to a fiery apex in the past 12 months with musician both big and little in discontent that they are receiving an average of $0.008 cents per play. In an attempt to quell recent backlash Spotify created at the start of the year, a website defending and explaining in equal measure it’s business model [where the above figure was taken from]- although a bold attempt at transparency it only solidifies how fundamentally flawed the streaming platform is. It’s worth a read nonetheless.

Although discussing the affects of this new music movement is an entire essay in itself, one opinion too critical to be left unshared is that of a blogger and David Byrne who wittingly compared this cyberutopia of free and legal music to that of diminishing natural resources.

Streaming-on-demand services…allow one to play exactly what you want, when you want it—as if you own the record…for consumers this is a pretty amazing deal—it’s like Napster, but legal! The government tends to view things that way too—what’s good for the consumer is theoretically encouraged and supported. Sadly, consumers and businesses that cater to their demands don’t often take the long view; they’ve been known to overfish huge swaths of the oceans, spill oil over and over, chop down all the trees in a forest and then wonder why the topsoil that would support reforesting has washed away. So, I wonder similarly if streaming-on-demand might be similarly a business model that will deplete the resource—we who create music—that it depends upon. Many industries have depleted the resources they depend on, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before.”

The impact of these services aside, this change of pace in gratification equates to a large change in consumer’s relationship with music. Firstly, and for me the crux of this entire issue, people of today own and/or have access to exponentially larger personal music libraries than music owners of the pre-internet era, largely exacerbated by illegal downloads.

Now, before I get all dark on you, it’s not all so bad. New media technology has heavily disrupted the gateways of a long oligopolised industry that once ruled with iron-fists; now anyone with a half-decent internet connection [with the proviso they don’t run into a government established firewall] can listen to even the most obscure piece of music, no matter which far-off corner of the globe they may be living. This connectivity also allows fans of niche markets to congregate online, sharing and discussing content, in many ways promoting the longevity of these smaller and more specialised genres. Basically, the internet has broken down regional walls to create a truly global market with global consumers.

Somewhat oxymoronically exposure is another positive of the new media age. Although the standardized counter-argument for the musically clueless, dodgy venue owners and industry executives alike, hybrid jazz-rockers Badbadnotgood and Dirty Loops are encouraging examples of exposure in the digital age- finding commercial success through the popularity of videos they posted on YouTube. Never before have there been so many ways to be heard. The counterargument to exposure being that the likes of Spotify and other music-streaming platforms plug their service to consumers as a tool for discovering new music, but in an attempt to justify the pittance they pay artists in royalties their selling point becomes their vindication, that is, we all get ‘exposure’. [let’s not forget you are competing for play time with both the living and the dead and living]

So, considering out current new media music landscape, what is the affect of continually discovering new music having on us? What does it mean to have an obtusely large music library, or more so, to have access to the entire catalogue of recorded music? The idea of data overload, self-explanatory in its definition, is one that has only come to forefront of analytical thought since the rise of the Internet. This overwhelming catalogue of material has in the eyes of many altered the very way we approach information.

Evolutionary biologist and atheism’s very own Star of Bethlehem Richard Dawkins admitted the internet to be the most radical change in the way we think in his lifetime, in John Brockman’s 2010 collection of essays Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? asserting we have turned to ”a habit of butterflying from topic to topic rather than attending to one thing at a time.” (Brockman, 2010) In the same book, a anthology of short essays from the noted and knowledgeable, Clay Shirky, author and sociologist observes that we place worth in what we find most scarce, but with so much information readily available in the online-sphere we are desensitizing ourselves to the lust for knowledge.

Technological commentator Nicholas Carr, one of the most vocal and published voices on the affects of the internet on our brains wrote an interesting piece in Brockman’s collection, inspired and built from his original essay on this very topic from his well known article published in the Atlantic in 2008. In 2011 Carr released probably the most comprehensive book on the topic to date: Swallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In Brockman’s anthology Carr discussed the decay of the library and books, disputing that assumption that reading from the likes of Kindle and computer screens is fundamentally identical to reading from a book.

“A book focuses our attention, isolates us from the myriad distraction that fill our everyday lives. A networked computer does precisely the opposite. It is designed to scatter our attention. It doesn’t shield us from environmental distractions; it adds to them. The words on a computer screen exist in a welter of contending stimuli.”

I believe- and I’m sure Carr wouldn’t disagree- that duality between books and kindles are akin to recorded music and computers, phones and other multi-use devices. We listen in a sort of periphery state- happy to let it drone on in the background as we complete or be distracted by other tasks. Even though we are purchasing, downloading and playing more music than ever, we seem to be listening less. Something that would dismay the late McLuhen who in describing the improvisational element of jazz said “such performance insures maximal participation among players and dancers alike.”

More than just our decaying attention, we hear how our memories, perceptive to this new technological age of connectivity and instant gratification is retaining less of what we digest because it knows we can so easily retrieve the data again if needed, or as an 2011 study labelled it ‘external or transactive memory.’ Check the study out here. Coined as the ‘Google Effect’, Ryan Wittingslow of the University of Sydney worded it well in a article where he said: “In the face of this transition, the imperative to remember information has instead been replaced with the imperative to remember where information is located.”

Science’s warning that our attention spans and memories are diminishing/being altered in many ways seems to validate speculation that extended musical works are becoming less common as artists and industry alike realise consumer’s are more attracted to smaller bits of information. In an interview Pat Metheny disclosed the inspiration behind his through-composed 70-minute epic ‘The Way Up’ as “a reaction to a world where things are getting shorter, dumber, less interesting, less detailed, more predictable.” (Adler, 2005)

Admittedly Metheny is no sociologist. Whether correct, or we incidentally share a heavy bout of cultural pessimism, the studies are yet to confirm. But it is clear that beyond works being shrunk down so have careers (Lawson, 2012). As quickly as musicians can rise to fame so can they fall. This is most noticeable in the pop-sphere with acts like PSY’s Gangnam Stye and Carly Rae Jepsen’s Friday, among a long-list of reality TV competition ‘stars’ who’s music careers are as short-lived Simon Cowell’s patience. One hit wonders have always existed as trans-national labels try and fail to sell the next big act, but now with the internet and the incredible speed of the media cycle- even though more artists are being thrown into this this spinning barrel of popularity than ever, people can’t hang on as long and are getting spat back out at an incredible rate.

The proliferation of new talent understandably equates to a proliferation of music. The amount of music being recorded and disseminated today is nothing sort of mammoth. Nielsen’s annual study into albums per year calculated 75, 000 records released in 2010 in the US alone, both physical and digital [a fall from it’s 2008 peak of 106, 000]. Considering today’s global market I’m sure you can double that to get a ballpark figure.

Within the jazz community a relevant example is the album review section in the magazine Downbeat, which seems to slowly but surely be growing each year. Whether it is an attempt to stay on top of the exponentially expanding jazz catalogue or an easy way to fill pages, I’m not too sure. Couple this with the aforementioned instant gratification and today’s means of collecting music and it’s not hard to see how music libraries are swelling to obtuse sizes are leading to overwhelmed listeners.

So to answer my final question and hopefully come full circle in this discussion, what does this all mean for students of music? Well, without clinical studies examining the role of listening as a pedagogical tool there isn’t no definitive answer but if we compare the above against what we already know we may shed some light…

As stated earlier, listening is the quintessential tool for acquiring knowledge, authenticity and artistic integrity in the jazz idiom. The emphasis placed on the jazz canon, and one’s knowledge and understanding of it by teachers and peers alike only exemplifies the significance of listening. All the celebrated jazz pedagogy textbooks, including Dave Baker’s Jazz Improvisation and Jamie Aebersold’s Jazz Handbook devote entire chapters to listening, with Baker even go to such a length to confer each exercise with prescribed listening. (Baker, 1983)

Listening as a pedagogical tool is more than digesting music casually though, as NY pianist Fred Hersch points out in a recent master-class where he discussed the necessity of ‘dedicated listening.’ (Sun, 2013) An idea conferred in both Baker and Aebersold’s textbooks, Hersch elaborated on the idea of ‘dedicated listening’, an act of what is known in the world of audiology as ‘active’ listening [compared to that of ‘passive’ listening]. He gave the example of listening closely and with your full attention to a single track for each instrument in the ensemble, so a track featuring a quartet would be listened to actively at least four times. Hersch said he prescribes one to two hours of dedicated listening a day for his students.

We also know that the greats of the past, far more limited in resources than the privileged listeners of today, would listen to a single album on repeat. I hypothesis not only were they not gifted with the phenomenon of instant gratification but there were less records bidding for not just their attentions, but wallets- a commitment to music that we are now far too often able to circumvent- shifting the value of music.

So, in short the anxiety of listening in the age of new media is such: not only are we faced with an obtusely large, every-growing, library of music as well as constantly berated with what’s ‘new’ and ‘fresh’, but research in neuro-plasticity is confirming that our attention spans are shrinking as our brains adapt to the lighting-fast speed of the internet- ever-perceptive of new information, making it more and more difficult to digest media thoroughly.

This isn’t to say the art of dedicated listening is dead, but it very much contests the growing trend of ‘short and fast’. I have witnessed first hand music saturation leading to a listening burn out. I fear the internet and the current thought trends surrounding music dissemination in the new media age will establish a paradox where more music means less listening out of data overload and saturation; without listening we are stunting our development as musicians and inturn diminishing the power and prevalence of one humanity’s most sacrosanct tools.


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