If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On, Give Me Excess of It - Technology and Science Week


iPod Classic’s touch wheel courtesy of WikiCommons.

When the Spanish writer Cervantes published his masterpiece Don Quixote there was some raised concern by social theorists and philosophers at the time that with the invention of this new medium—the novel—human beings would lose their sense of imagination and communication. The freedom and desire to be lost in a book would mean a decrease in social interaction.

When the telephone was invented, the response by many, including the President, was fear that no longer would humans call on each other in person. With this new ability to reach out to someone over a wire and hear a voice, some felt our world would turn into a giant porous civilization with each person remaining in his/her individual pods only seeking contact through technology.

The internet has changed the way we listen to music. I don’t think anyone could justifiably argue differently. Further to that point, mobile devices and a ubiquitous access to online networks has led to some very innovative ways of consuming, experiencing and sharing sound. But how is all of this affecting the primitive bond between humans and music? Is one being too cynical if she thinks in like terms and fears as described above? Or has the transition from music only being experienced live and in groups (pre-recording technology) to an isolating experience only heard through one set of headphones (post-iPod boom) a cause for real concern?

I can remember it was about six years ago now when I first learned of the Pandora Music Genome Project. I had read a New Yorker profile on Tim Westergren and was both fascinated and perplexed by his descriptions and theories on music consumption and taste. Here is an excerpt from the Pandora vision:

We believe that each individual has a unique relationship with music – no one else has tastes exactly like yours. So delivering a great radio experience to each and every listener requires an incredibly broad and deep understanding of music. That’s why Pandora is based on the Music Genome Project… Each song in the Music Genome Project is analyzed using up to 400 distinct musical characteristics by a trained music analyst. These attributes capture not only the musical identity of a song, but also the many significant qualities that are relevant to understanding the musical preferences of listeners.

For a lot of great reasons, this is an excellent concept. The success of Pandora as both a listening service and business speaks for itself. But when peeling back the layers of its formula and trying to fully understand the factors that contribute to it, I wonder whether it was the ease of the service rather than its musicological science that has made it so great. From a business development point of view, Pandora nailed the sign-up process. Even if you were completely new to the service and unsure of what it did, you could be listening to great music you like within seconds of landing on their page or downloading their app. In today’s competitive tech world, that’s gold.

Where Pandora (and almost all the other music services out there) drastically misses though is its ability to capture and capitalize on our natural emotional response to the music we like. We’ve all been there: a great song comes on that you haven’t heard for a long time and you immediately want to share that moment with someone else. This relates way back in our gene pool and is linked to our ancestral instinct to summon Gods, celebrate and mourn through rhythm and beat. One thing in certain in this regard, when asking “Why do we like music?” The answer lies somewhere in the way it helps us communicate with, and express to, one another. For example, “It is widely touted that music binds groups of people together. The resulting solidarity, its supporters suggest, might have helped bands of early humans to thrive at the expense of those that were less musical.” You can see why Pandora’s model is problematic. In an audio world tailored just for you, you’re left completely isolated. (Why Music? The Economist, December 2008.)

Ultimately, music is just like food. We love to explore it, indulge with it, savor it, revisit old favorite restaurants and dishes, remake loved recipes and try new variations of the thousands of ingredient combinations to be had. But who loves eating alone? The first thing anyone does when they bite in to a delicious crème brulee is gasp at how good it is, and then in most cases offer their eating “companion” a bite. (I place “companion” in quotations because here is a little digression on its etymology: from Old French “com” meaning “with” and “pain” meaning “bread”. Companionship literally means to break bread with someone).

Now imagine a world where every restaurant and every meal was catered exactly for you, just for your tastes, built upon thousands of data points informing automatic chefs ways to combine the ingredients you already like to find new meals you may also like. Sounds good? The food, to you, probably would be. However, there is one catch: This restaurant is only for you—you forever eat alone. Maybe it’s now not so appealing.

Personalized-taste forming music services have their benefits. What worries me is the way that many listeners are currently consuming music. It’s become too easy; and it’s too isolating; and this is changing our relationship with it indefinitely. It has become background noise for a lot of young listeners, triggering very little emotional response like the drone of a ceiling fan or hum of refrigerator.

Hopefully the future of online listening will find some sort of way to uncover the need to get back to making music social again. Spotify’s “listen with friends” feature on Facebook, Turntable.fm, Tastebuds, Let’s Listen and bud2bud are all good examples of the effort to make music a social experience again. It is a needed transition. The more music we are able to consume and the more social our lives become online, the more we should be putting these two caveats together.