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Is there too much music?

Published: Thu April 09, 2009  News Feed

Neil McCormick of the Telegraph suggests that perhaps the answer is yes. Music is everywhere, in shops, cars, film soundtracks, personal stereos, computers. Are we in danger of being overwhelmed?

Drowned In Sound?

Have you ever wondered if there might be too much music? Think about the endless din of music we are subjected to: the boom of car stereos, shop Muzak, advertising jingles, computer games, TV and film soundtracks and the tinny racket bleeding from personal stereo headphones.

Shakespeare famously wrote, "If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it". We seem to be taking him literally. Music is everywhere. It is as if the more it becomes available, the more voracious we become in our consumption of it. For most of the history of mankind, to hear music you had to either participate in the making of it in a social setting, or perhaps listen to the performance of itinerant musicians. The first major concert halls were built in Europe about 500 years ago. Little over 100 years ago, the phonograph brought music into the living rooms of ordinary people. With each passing decade, technology appears to be increasing not only our access to music but the capacity for individuals to make and disseminate their own music. More than 10 million pieces of music have been recorded and most of it is available (legally or otherwise) on the internet.

Contemplating the vast array of music on sites such as YouTube, iTunes, MySpace and Spotify and the huge number of musicians competing for attention in live marketplaces such as SXSW, I wonder if the sheer amount of music being unleashed is beginning to overwhelm us.

Recent research has established some interesting facts about our relationship to music. The average American hears more than five hours of music per day, yet a new survey suggests that American teenagers actually consumed and shared 19 per cent less music in 2008 than they did a year ago. CD sales were down (28 per cent) but download sales also fell (13 per cent) and even illegal downloads declined (six per cent). More pertinently, borrowing and swapping music between friends was down 28 per cent. Thirty two per cent of teens expressed discontent with the music available for purchase, while 23 per cent said they already have a large enough collection of music. Is it possible we are reaching some kind of saturation point?

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin is sceptical about the notion that we are over-saturated with music. "It is true that our listening has become passive, and that's a big difference. Our ancestors, as far as we know, had far more music in their lives than we do. One needn't look any further than contemporary subsistence cultures, hunter-gatherers, and pre-industrial village-based living groups. Music is a continuous presence throughout their day. There are typically hours of singing at night around a camp fire, singing while performing daily activities, as part of ritual. The difference there is that everyone joined in the music-making, as opposed to what we do today, sitting quietly in passive listening mode. The average 14-year-old will hear more different music in a month than his great-grandfather might have heard in a lifetime, but probably not more minutes/hours of music than, say, someone 5,000 years ago."

Levitin also notes that the internet, part of the cause of people isolating themselves, might actually be helping to reduce this isolation.

"I lament the lack of social connection with solitary listening, but note the huge growth of so-called social networking sites that bring people together, often based on common listening and musical experience."

To read the original, full article by Neil McCormick, please click here.

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