Feature: Music Without Edges – Thoughts On Digital Listening

If I leave the default settings on Spotify untouched, the music will play forever. Playlist endings become doorways into algorithmic autopilot, and I’m swept into a stream of recommended tracks. Activate the five-second crossfade and the silences disappear completely. Sound is ceaseless. Endings mingle with beginnings. Music loses its edges. The carefully curated shapes of albums are gone, and the boundaries of sound are defined by my willingness to listen. The desire for music overtakes the desire for silence and vice versa. Sound is on. Sound is off. Music becomes a utility like central heating, artificially tempered and dependable, ready to be activated or deactivated as required. There is already a well-worn debate about the quality of experience in the age of streaming services, and I share these concerns around the proliferation of low-bitrate mp3s and the overload of available content. What worries me more is the erosion of music’s edges: the increasingly arbitrary boundary between separate sonic experiences, and the casual transition between experience and non-experience.

These boundaries are crucial in protecting our zones of deep listening, and without cultivating a deliberate relationship with digital music, we risk losing the ability to hand ourselves over to sound. Deep listening arises when we allow sound to be our only focal point. We permit sound to make us uncomfortable or perplexed or homesick. We allow sound to set the duration of our listening practice. Such an investment requires patience and discipline, yet its rewards are plentiful – we are nourished by these experiences. If we accessorise the act of listening, we flip this dynamic on its head. Instead of submitting ourselves to sound, we instruct music to perform on cue; we have rigid expectations that we need this music to fulfil, and because the integrity of “the album” has already been obliterated by the proliferation of playlists and mixes, we have no qualms in stopping the music once it ceases to perform the function we require. Deep listening cannot exist when we, as listeners, enter the experience with rigid expectations.

I direct these concerns at digital music generally rather than streaming services specifically, as the former has cultivated the listening habits that have inevitably led to the latter. Of course, these developments have their conveniences. In the past 18 months I’ve moved house three times, which has led me to place greater value on the portability of digital music. I’ve taken to loading albums onto my iPhone instead, with the vast majority of my audio existing on an external hard drive. My physical music collection has shrunk to about a 20th of its former size, and I can’t remember the last time I placed a record on a turntable or felt the clunk of a cassette as it commences playback. I’ve felt the convenience from not having to haul several crates of CDs up the stairs each time I move to a new place, but the question that lingers with me is this: is it even possible to have truly high-quality listening experience with the digital format? Even if I stick exclusively to lossless WAV and FLAC files, does the culture of digital listening discourage a commitment to sound?

The first issue is that the digital album struggles to be whole. It’s a loose bundle of files. Due to the way in which digital data is stored, the fragments of these files are scattered all over my hard drive, intermingling with all of my Word documents and spreadsheets. Artistic vision may bind the music itself, but there is little that brings these digital tracks into unity. Most digital music stores allow tracks to be purchased separately, plucked effortlessly out of the illusory whole, and the subsequent process of dispersing these tracks into different playlists is easy. The album struggles to assert itself as a seamless experience, especially when the disobedience of this technology often scrambles the correct track ordering, or due to some pedantic digital tagging quibble, fails to import certain songs at all. As such, the cohesion of the album is too fallible to unequivocally invest in. As each track comes to a close, I can almost feel the jolt of computerised effort as one file is dropped and another is called from the queue. My concentration is quietly disrupted over and over again, and I’m denied that sensation of being 20 minutes and three tracks into a solitary, unbroken listening experience, sinking deeper and deeper all the while.

Compare this with a vinyl record or a cassette. The object and the album are one and the same. To subdivide the album is to break it, shattering it into unplayable fragments of wax or plastic. The album has tangible edges that separate it from other experiences. It demands to be treated as one, and in this knowledge, I am able to engage in an experience that commences with the first track and continues, without deviation, until the final track has come to a close. The progression from one piece to another should feel as inevitable as a chord change within an individual song, and interrupting this experience should feel somewhat clumsy: the elegant spin of the disc comes to a premature stop, and I fumble the record back into its packaging. Breaking continuity is an ugly thing, and rightly so.

Even when these albums are imported into a playback platform – say, the music app on my smartphone – it feels unstable on a device that is designed to offer numerous options in the name of convenience and idle whim. I normally have several albums on my phone at once, and knowing that it’s effortless to switch between albums means that I can feel potential experiences pressing at the periphery of my concentration. The effect is only amplified on streaming services, where the home screen prioritises new discoveries and handpicked recommendations. I can easily avoid the labour of deep listening in favour of the novelty of something different, and thus I feel a diminished incentive to give a difficult record another chance. Since I started listening to more digital music, I’ve felt a degradation in my intimacy with listening. Difficult or uncomfortable experiences become conflated with boring ones – slow-burners seldom get their opportunity to press themselves upon me, while the rewards uncovered over persistent listening stay buried and unheard forever. I succumb instead to the temptation of the new. Even just knowing that there’s another record waiting in the wings, two simple screen-taps away, is enough to dilute my focus. The boundary between experiences is eroded, and the gulf between listening experiences, between the present and the potential future, becomes smaller and smaller. The blurred edges of possible worlds start to seep into the corners.

Finally, convenience and portability has led me to listen at every opportunity. I pop in my headphones whenever I get a chance. I’ve come to neglect the importance of inhabiting silence; that zone in which former listening experiences are absorbed; albums are fondly recollected in the imagination, some misremembered as I strain to summon the intricacies of their rhythms and melodies, yearning to hearing them again. Theories are sketched out in my head, and the totality of underlying concepts are parsed and appreciated. When a record retreats into silence, my reactions sweep in to fill the vacated space. I ingest the experience in its totality, combing through the emotions and sensations amassed over the course of the past hour. This requires me to continue the intensity of concentration employed during deep listening experiences, turning my ear inward toward my own monologue of introspection. It also requires me to temporarily deprive myself of further music. Digital listening, however, encourages the consumer to be always on. If Spotify isn’t bulldozing this contemplative zone by eternally postponing the ends of playlists, my playback app is resetting to show an image of my music library, encouraging the selection of the “next thing”, shunning the labour and discomfort of silent consideration to usher me toward something new.

So how do I reap the convenience of digital music without degrading my relationship to listening? Here are a few thoughts on how I might achieve this:

  • Remove all music from my phone and purchase a dedicated music player. Separate the intensity and dedication of listening from a device designed around expediency and multitasking. Recover the physical edges that border the experience of listening, cultivating a distinct separation between listening and my other priorities.
  • Upload just one album to this music player at a time. Redefine the physical edges and internal unity of the album. Don’t force the record to jostle with the promise of other experiences. Nurture a love for repeat listening.
  • Listen less. Protect silence as a crucial component of the listening process. Occasionally treat the inclination to listen with long periods of silence instead, repurposing the power of deep listening for moments of quiet reflection and analysis.

I’m unsure as to whether these steps will have a positive impact, but I do know that I need to become more deliberate about my relationship with digital music. It’s troubling that we increasingly hear the word “consumption” used in the context of music, fortifying the idea that it diminishes as it is experienced. We devour a record and move on to the next. We should consume music no more than we consume an art gallery. Just as a vinyl record rests silently upon the turntable once playback has stopped, it is important to cultivate a sense of object permanence around listening – the music exists even outside the lights of our attention, waiting to be experienced anew. Perhaps I’ll update this article once I’ve put these steps into action.