A short history of music listening

Music is omnipresent in our daily lives, and it is hard to imagine that this has not always been the case. We rarely stop to wonder how listeners experienced music in past times and how technological innovation shaped our expectations and listening habits. In the 19th century, listening to (professionally performed) music required the listener to visit a dedicated venue such as a church or a concert hall at a specific time. Obviously, the event character implies that the listener had no influence on the program and the performing artists, the time of the concert, or its location. Furthermore, there was no alternative to sharing your listening experience with an audience and there existed no option of listening repeatedly to the same music performance. While nowadays we still enjoy concerts, the majority of our listening experience is unrelated to live performances.

The first notable change to our listening habits was initiated at the end of the 19th century with the introduction of technology to record and to reproduce a music performance. The gramophone (and its competitors, the graphophone and the phonograph) enabled listeners for the first time to listen to a music performance at home, at any time desired, and possibly alone. What previously was a unique, non-repeatable performance of pre-selected repertoire in a concert venue lost its temporal and spatial uniqueness. In addition to these contextual changes, listening to recorded music is different from a concert; on top of obvious technical deficiencies of the recording and reproduction system (limited bandwidth and dynamic range, added distortion and noise, missing ambient envelopment), there is no direct communication or interaction between the performers and the audience anymore. This has implications for both the recording and the listeners: in the recording studio is no audience, no applause, and no stage fright, and the reproduction misses the performers’ gestural and facial expressions and the interaction with other listeners. A recording also invites the listener to repeated listening, allowing a level of analytical listening unheard of before.

During the following decades, technological innovation focused on improving the quality of the listening experience: condenser microphones improved the recording quality, and the introduction of vinyl LPs improved reproduction quality significantly. At the same time, stereophony significantly enhanced the listening experience by creating an illusion of localization and spatial envelopment.

The compact cassette, introduced by Philips in the 1960s, was the first wide-spread medium that allowed consumers to copy LPs and later CDs. Although the quality of the copy could never match the quality of the original medium, steadily advancing magnetization techniques and noise reduction systems improved the cassette’s audio quality step by step. But the compact cassette had another advantage that made its usage so appealing: music could easily be recorded from a radio broadcast without the requirement of having the distributed medium available. And more importantly, users were not forced anymore to the selection and order of songs selected by musicians, labels, and DJs; everybody could create their own individual mix tape with their own playlist. While from today’s perspective this seems hardly noteworthy, at that time the easy creation of a personalized playlist gave consumers unprecedented freedom: they could select and combine individual songs, produce their own tapes for different occasions or friends and even create simple mashups of songs. Listeners were not forced anymore to accept the decisions of a DJ or to stick to a specific song order on a LP.

However, the impact of the compact cassette on our listening habits did not stop there. Since the medium was so compact and not prone to playback errors when in motion, it eventually enabled the usage of mobile listening devices with reasonable audio quality. Listeners could listen to their tapes anywhere with their Walkman, introduced in the 1980s. Music finally could be listened to through the whole day, regardless of the activity. Furthermore, the increased usage of headphones converted the act of listening to a personal and intimate experience not necessarily shared with others.

At about the same time, the digital age of consumer music started with the introduction of the Compact Disc (CD). The CD soon replaced other media in the living room as a robust, easy-to-handle medium with high quality at a reasonable price point. The release of the CD also marks the stagnation of the trend for ever-increasing audio quality in the consumer market; attempts by the industry to introduce more advanced high-resolution media such as the SACD (Super Audio CD) and the DVD-Audio to consumers failed.

At the dawn of the new millennium, two more or less simultaneous technological developments disrupted the market in a way that doomed many established business models of the music industry: perceptual audio coding (with its most prominent representative MP3) and growing internet communities and peer-to-peer networks (for example, Napster). MP3, or more precisely ISO MPEG-1 Layer 3, still remains one of the most popular approaches to audio coding. It allows the transmission and storage of audio files at a fraction of the uncompressed bit rate (about a tenth of the bit-rate of a CD) while maintaining the same or an only slightly reduced perceived audio quality. The format MP3 has become so popular that for many consumers there is no difference anymore between online music and “MP3”, regardless of what compression format the audio data has been encoded with.

Perceptual audio coding allowed users to upload and download audio files online at reasonable speeds even considering the slow dial-in internet connections at that time. Peer-to-peer networks such as Napster soon allowed to exchange vast amounts of music data. Suddenly the exchange of music was not limited anymore to a small circle of personal friends but expanded to include an international online community. Instant access to the music libraries of thousands of users led to additional ways of browsing and discovering music. The perception of music as something you buy on a physical medium such as a CD started to disappear; consumers started to see music more and more as data content available online instantly and free of charge. Nowadays, music streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify shift paradigms again as users do not understand music as something to be owned anymore (for example, in a vinyl collection or in a database of music files) but as something to be accessed and streamed whenever desired.
In addition to changing listening habits and changing access and concept of music, the listener’s expectation has significantly changed as well. This is particularly evident in recordings of traditional, ‘classical’ music. While historical recordings tend to contain at least minor playing errors and inaccuracies, the level of perfection increased with time. Modern recordings have reached a level of perfection of technical musicianship that is hard or even impossible to achieve in a live setting. The possibility of editing recordings by slicing the recordings from different sessions leads to hundreds of edit points on each record. The number of edit points has been increasing steadily for decades. The modern listener is so used to hearing perfect intonation and perfect timing that the expectations not only for recordings but also for live performances have risen accordingly.

All aspects of how we listen to music has changed over the last one or two centuries. We listen to music all the time (instead of only occasionally in a concert), we listen to it in the privacy provided by headphones (instead of in an audience), we listen to it everywhere (instead of at specific event locations), we expect technically perfect renditions (instead of allowing the occasional glitch), we have access to all music all the time and can adjust the playlist to our liking (instead of listening to something predetermined by a music director), and we tend to understand music recordings as something that is available free of charge (instead of something to be bought and owned). All these changes have been triggered or at least amplified by the introduction of new technology. It is a fair assumption that our listening habits will change further with the introduction of more sophisticated technology; for instance, just as the borders between professional producers and hobbyists began to blur with modern production technology becoming more affordable, the distinction between the producer and the listener who only consumes music might blur with technological options that allow the listener to interact with, mix, and modify the content on the fly. It will be fascinating to observe how technology will influence the way we listen to music in the future.


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