December 24, 2006

A Revolution

The thought of being without my digital music library induces a state of panic and displacement, and I'm sure this is a common reaction among music lovers. Part of our appreciation of music now involves having songs come up randomly on playlists or mp3 players for our instant enjoyment. This is different from the days when we primarily relied on CD players or even the old-school tape days. We had some freedom in skipping tracks then, but by and large we listened to albums straight through. Tracks that were different in positive or negative ways stood out, and we had a greater sense of the ordering of songs on an album.

With the advent of mp3s and file sharing programs, it’s much easier to remember an artist or album by a few select tracks and not by the whole package. For college students, downloading or buying a few songs from, say, The Open Door by Evanescence, is more economical than buying the album itself. In one sense, this is wonderful. If people who otherwise wouldn’t acquire music have a way of doing so, this lets the band reach more people and quickly broadens people's musical horizons. In another sense, however, not taking the step of buying the album can prevent listeners from grasping vital elements of its composition. When listening to the above-mentioned album in a small group, we pored over the lyric booklet and the way it was artfully put together. We talked about how the songs seemed to move in a thematic progression that resonated with Amy Lee‘s personal experience. If all a listener knows of an album is a few tracks that soon become shuffled into a rotating library, he or she misses the sensation of viewing it as a work of art that holds itself together. Albums like Tori Amos' Scarlet’s Walk that seem to be held together by a vague storyline, or Green Day’s American Idiot, which clearly is, can lose their continuity as some songs become more important than others or some parts of the story are even deleted.

Despite this risk, the mp3 is a dynamic invention that lets listeners have control over music. Arranging songs from multiple artists and albums on playlists or mixes is an example of active listening. The mp3 is democratic, as it lets music buffs take the same action that would be taken by band members or producers toward songs in manipulating song order for different effects.

When people of generations past say that artists don’t put enough thought into the creation of albums, they don’t always take into account that the way we think of music has drastically changed and that we assert almost as much authority over the material we hear as the artists who produce it. Music downloading programs should not be feared for a tendency to draw people away from the artists' work, but acknowledged for the shift in dynamic they cause. Although appreciation of music is changing, it's not diminishing. The die-hards will still by albums, listen to them from start to finish, and extend the power of the songs on said albums through the new tool found in mp3s.

On an unrelated note, Happy Holidays to all our faithful readers!

No comments: