Music in piecesThe listening chronicle

Reviews 28.05.2021

Changes in media and technology have always shaped the way we listen to and create music. To what extent is the 'digital metamorphosis' of music and the advent of streaming and playlists compatible with creative music? Random snippets of thought.

It is well known that since recorded music has existed, the technological evolution of media and formats has determined not only the way in which music is listened to, but also how it is created. Thus, in the field of popular music, the album (Long Play or LP) became, during the second half of the 20th century, the equivalent of the opus for Western music in the written tradition: in the case of a pop or jazz musician, to create a work was to compose (and publish) an album (which could occasionally be doubled, or even, very exceptionally, tripled). 

Thus the advent of the CD, which made it possible to store up to 80 minutes of music (as opposed to about 40 minutes for the LP), led in the early days to an excessive increase in the length of said works: Many of the albums released directly on CD in the 1990s were really very, if not too, long, unnecessarily talkative, equivalent to a double vinyl album - effectively trivialising a format which, in the analogue era, remained an exception, which critics regarded with particular attention; to release a double album was then to have something especially important to say.
Then we returned to more usual proportions, and to CDs that could be as short as forty minutes (a record that is too long is always worse than one that is too short; frustration will always be preferable to weariness). For repertoire and experimental music, however, the CD represented a godsend, not only in terms of sound quality, but also because it made it possible to offer longer programmes, and above all to listen without interruption to pieces - I am thinking, for example, of some ofEliane Radigue 's compositions - which were much longer than one or even two sides of an LP.

It should be noted that, overall, this evolution of media has long gone in the direction of a constant improvement in sound quality, up to the CD, which in this respect can be considered an apogee. Since then, the hegemony of digital technology and the generalisation of dematerialised music, marked by the listening of increasingly compressed files (mp3s, often of mediocre quality) on devices that are less and less adapted (mobile phones or computers, poor quality headphones or Bluetooth speakers), has led to an undeniable decline in quality. 

The new criteria now seem to lie elsewhere: In addition to quantity (infinite or almost), what seems to matter today when considering music is its portability and its "instrumental" dimension, in the sense of "utilitarian" - what the American music sociologist Tia DeNora calls "scenic specificity"(1), i.e. the ability of a piece of music to accompany a particular mood (zen or edgy), a particular situation (a candlelit dinner, a festive evening) or a particular moment of the day (getting off the job, a journey on the road). In other words, the triumph of the playlist.
The playlist is certainly not a new phenomenon: as early as the last century, the appearance of the cassette allowed everyone to make their own playlists by copying and juxtaposing tracks from different records. These were called compilations, and they were not just the preserve of the 'expert listeners' of yesteryear, since they also existed in disc form. For want of finding traces on YouTube of the fabulous compilations of the English label E.G. I'm thinking, for example, of this one, published in 1986 by the Brussels label Les Disques du Crépuscule, which has little to envy them in terms of eclecticism, since it includes composers more or less affiliated with minimalism such as Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars or Harold Budd, as well as bands from the post-punk scene, such as The Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio..:

The album format has not waited for the hegemony of streaming and the playlist to be atomised, reduced to pieces - without losing its canonical dimension. The advent of digital technology would even have the advantage of increasing the range of possibilities in terms of formats: making it possible to offer very long albums for download, or including images, videos, etc. Nevertheless, in 2016, a study carried out by the company LOOP (Lots of Online People) among 3,014 American listeners on their music listening habits revealed that listening to playlists had now overtaken listening to albums - the former accounting for 31% of listening time, compared to 22% for the latter. 

Another 'ancestral' practice, at least pre-dating the digital age, is 'ambient' music. The 'scenic specificity' of music is not new, and many music lovers - including yours truly - did not wait for the triumph of transportable playlists to make intensive use of music as background music. In 2017, the "hipsters" had a lot of fun on social networks with an article published in Elle about the use of " slow listening " - in other words: listening to music or an album without doing anything else.
This "well-being" recycling of a practice that is widespread among many music lovers could certainly lead to a smile. The fact remains that, even if there are as many listening regimes as there are individuals, some music does not lend itself to distracted listening, and "creative" music, whether written or not, less so than other music. This is mainly due to their strong dynamic variations, which require constant correction of the sound level, in contrast to the uniformity in terms of sound of all mainstream music production. In addition, streaming platforms such as Spotify or Deezer are completely unsuitable for classical and contemporary music, which do not give any importance to the performers and doom any attempt to find a particular interpretation of a work.

Yet this did not prevent a study published last year by Chartmetric on musical practices during the health crisis, entitled COVID-19's Effect on the Global Music Business, Part 1: Genre, from concluding that three categories of music had gained in popularity during the containment period: children's music, classical music (including contemporary music and opera) and what it refers to as ambient, relaxation and experimental music. This result should certainly be tempered by remembering that composers of piano music by the mile, such as the Italian Ludovico Einaudi ('the man with two billion listens') or the American Max Richter, are considered 'contemporary composers'. But that's another subject, and the subject, perhaps, for another column.

In many respects, what Fabien Granjon and Clément Combes have called the "digital transformation" of music(2) has radically changed listening habits, especially among the generation of digiborigines (or digital natives). The dematerialisation of formats has been joined by the rise in power of algorithms, which now order and guide the listening habits of the vast majority of listeners. What is their impact on creative music? To what extent do they leave room for the unexpected, the unheard? More in the next issue.

David Sanson

1. Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 111, quoted by Nancy Weiss Hanrahan, "Musical discovery in the digital regime. Personnalisation, popularité et possibilité esthétique", in Philippe Le Guern, Where is the music going? Digital transformation and new listening experiences?Paris, Presses des Mines, Libres opinions, 2016.

2. Fabien Granjon, Clément Combes, " La numérimorphose des pratiques de consommation musicale. Le cas de jeunes amateurs ", Réseaux, 2007/6-7 (n° 145-146), p. 291-334. URL :


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