Emma Gase | Medium Talk Co-Creator
Imagine if listening to music was inconvenient. No earbuds for your commute, no iPod in your pocket, no Spotify app, no iTunes, not even a CD for your Walkman. Would you still listen to music the same amount you do today?
Music hasn’t always been accessible--in fact, listening to your music of choice used to be fairly inconvenient. At risk of sounding like my father, before the Digital Age, listening to music was a deliberate, conscious decision that required certain, un-transportable equipment and patience. You needed a turntable, analogue speakers, a radio, a boombox. Now, all you need is Wi-Fi. Convenience is king.
Statistically, we probably spend more hours a day listening to music than any other generation in history. We have endless resources to curate specific playlists tailored to any kind of situation, activity, or event. But what we gain in musical ubiquity and convenience do we sacrifice in mindful appreciation of the very thing we’re listening to? Music is art, after all, but it doesn’t seem like it’s appreciated the same way these days.
Maybe it’s modern-day attention span problems, or maybe it’s inevitable technological overexposure. With so much musical data floating around at our fingertips, what’s so special about the actual activity of listening anymore? Lately I’ve been feeling like listening to music--as it’s own, purposeful activity--is in danger of being as forgotten as my old binder of CDs.
This change in musical accessibility can be traced to one all-encompassing, unavoidable listening habit that is now pervasive in its existence: Life Soundtracking.
Life Soundtracking is putting music on during every possible opportunity, using it as a crutch, distraction, or background noise to make the menial, repetitive, or unexciting travails of life seem a little smoother. I’m guilty of it, and so are you. Is Life Soundtracking a bad thing? Not necessarily, but there is no denying its influence on our modern-day relationship to music listening.
Below are just several of the activities that play into the Life Soundtracking epidemic that has struck the music-listening population. If you see your own habits reflected in this list, know you are not alone.
Frankly, the most important time during which to Life Soundtrack. Else how would any of us make it to the train or our cars before 8am? The promise of good, quality listening time, our same route Monday through Friday ennobled, expedited, and made bearable simply by the addition of our playlist of choice.
Cooking to a soundtrack can be lovely. Depending on the presence of others in the kitchen, this is an instance where music can be relegated as background noise, or as an opportunity for kitchen-dancing and sing-alongs.
This is a case where Life Soundtracking is high-stakes, as drinking to certain music can dictate the mood and direction of the night ahead. The assemblage of a Pre-game playlist is a delicate task requiring patience, creativity, and collaboration. Assuming one is not drinking alone (and if that is the case, a very different group of songs is in order), then the temperature of the group, the intended bar, and the season must be properly analyzed and taken into account. (My friends and I once had a party the night BEFORE our actual house party in order to “test” and refine the Pre-game playlist. It was a more contentious and stressful process than you’d think.)
I have utmost respect for those lucky few who can soundtrack their run with the dulcet tones of nature or city life. If I forget my headphones at the gym, that shit ain’t happening. It’s amazing what a decent beat can do to resuscitate and divert focus from the following during exercise: a) difficulty breathing b) boredom with aforementioned workout c) shooting shin splints d) total body fatigue.
This is where I’m most guilty of Life Soundtracking. It’s also the activity where such thing is most appropriate. Would anyone have been able to write the hundreds of papers assigned in college had they not listened compulsively to a Study Music Playlist? Working and studying requires lite instrumental, mellow music, which begets productivity: think Explosions in the Sky, The Social Network score, Sun Kil Moon. This may be the one arena in which concentration on the music itself should take a backseat.
Which leads us to...
The Main Event
As it’s own activity, listening to music is just as rewarding as reading a complex book or watching high-brow television, and can yield just as much enjoyment and satisfaction. But when was the last time you put on your best headphones or speakers, put your phone down, and actually concentrated on listening to a song? Even during concerts these days, most individuals are more concerned with capturing a shoddy video of the live performance happening in front of their faces than actually listening to the reason they purchased a ticket in the first place.
Maybe the listening model is broken. Maybe it’s evolving so quickly that we’re still reeling from the sheer accessibility of it all, so overwhelmed by the choices that we forget to appreciate the real reason the models are changing so rapidly. To be truly blown away by an actual song or album or piece of music--that still takes effort. But it’s the kind of effort we should all be excited to make. Choose a record, song, or artist, sit down, and listen to it at a volume that allows for no other concentration on anything other than the Main Event: the music. Don’t look at any screens, focus on no other tasks, allow for no thoughts in your head except for the melody. You might never go back.