Thursday, May 26, 2022

Is Technology Changing The Way We Consume Music?

People’s choice in songs are determined by an algorithm--that works online--which leads to a more homogenized taste in music across the world cutting across the barriers of geography, income levels and language.

Is Technology Changing The Way We Consume Music?

Culture changes from one generation to the other. It morphs and adapts with the choices that people make. Some of these choices are dependent on access. Which, in turn, is dependent upon education, income and also where one lives.

For example, if you are an Indian living in New Jersey in the US, you have access to the vibrant theatre culture of New York. If you earn enough, you can afford to spend $125 (Rs 9,000) for a single ticket of ‘War Horse’ at the John F Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

But, certain artistic tastes are developed by being consistently exposed to it. As the exposure increases, the more one finds the art pleasurable and soon the artform becomes a part of our habit. For example, a ballet performance can only be appreciated by you, if you have been exposed to it and you have learnt the art of appreciating it.

Similarly, though most people do not know, songs become hit due to a continuous exposure to their cadence, beat and lyrics.

The more a song is heard or played, the more strongly it gets registered into the neuron network of the brain. The ability of the brain to anticipate or rhyme with the beat and remember the lyrics of a song gives the brain a high. In a way, a perfect recollection of a song triggers other memories attached to it.

But most importantly music triggers the release of dopamine-the pleasure hormone- in the brain. This hormone, which is also released during sex, is the chemical which makes us feel happy.

The puzzle, however, is do you listen to a song more often because you like it or do you like a song because you have listened to it so often?

The multi-billion dollar music industry believes that higher the frequency of exposure to a song, more are the chances of it being a hit. A hit song, will be played more, which will thereby further increase its popularity-such is the virtual cycle.

 That is why old songs have a strong resonance as they have been heard so often. And new songs take time to establish the pattern as we age. 

This is why the Indian movie producers release the item songs or music tracks way before the release of the film, so that it gets into the heads of the people. By the time the movie is released, people are already tapping to the beat and have by-hearted the lyrics so that they can sing along while watching the film.

This, however, does not mean that just the playing frequency of a song will make it popular. For every song and a symphony there is a time which the scientists have referred to as the ‘anticipatory phase’.

This is the part where the pattern of the music breaks down and the sound becomes unpredictable. If the sound is too predictive, it becomes boring and the music does not stand up to repetitive hearings. The pattern or the tonic sound has to return in a manner to stimulate the brain every time its heard.

Composers play a lot of attention to this.

Technology, however,  has made this excercise easier. The mobile phone has become the device of choice for hearing music these days. The quality of headphones and headsets have improved dramatically. Even the speakers on the mobile phones are capable of delivering better sound quality. The auditory function in a phone has evolved very fast in the last ten years. The speakers are no longer used for just listening to a caller’s voice. The mobile phone combined with cheap data services has given access to a vast repertoire of music.

This easy access breaks the barriers of different geographical location or diverse income levels. It may also lead to a gradual homogenised musical taste. Global music or more specifically American music is easily accessible to anybody with a mobile phone and a data connection.

Moreover, in the earlier days, while one was limited by the need to know how to write and type to actually access the "web". Nowadays, one only needs to speak the word to get the "virtual search results".  For example, the Google assistant understands every Indian accent. So if one needs to search a song, one only needs to say it for it to be served on a platter by the the world wide web.

Even the discovery of new music is easier now as the algorithms is programmed to play the most popular song for you. The algorithm has access to unlimited selection of songs but it may be biased towards playing something which is currently trending. Hence you might discover more of trending music than older music that the brain is used to listening.  

Now, if the smart phone or the algorithm is deciding the music which you should hear, the songs you end up listening will not be the ones you are otherwise habituated to listening. But the more you hear of the "new trending" songs, the more you will like it, and if more and more people’s choice in songs are determined by the above said algorithm then the musical tastes will get more homogenised across the world crossing the barriers of geography, income levels and language barriers with ease.

Will this lead to homogenization of music or will it lead to Bollywood music becoming accepted globally? Earlier, the impact of English music was limited to cities and the English-speaking elites among the population. Global platforms like Spotify and Amazon Music have enormous capital resources. Will they take Indian music global or will they make Indian music sound more global?  Will diversity of music reduce or rise due to technology, smartphones, cheap data and global music platforms?

One of the few studies done on evolution of pop music using data from Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 2010, covering 17,094 songs, was done by Matthias Mauch of University of London. The study published in 2015 showed that pop music has evolved continuously. It had three stylistic ‘revolutions’ around 1964, 1983 and 1991. It had phases dominated by drums or percussion instruments, guitars and strong energetic vocals. The ‘reign of drums’ on pop music came from African or Caribbean music and lasted till the 1990’s. Indian Bollywood music has been continuously and strongly influenced by pop music like the Disco wave. While Korean Pop ( K-Pop) has influenced Rap, the impact of Indian music on Billboard Hot 100 is not justified by data.

Till now the study of music consumption was not supported by data. But global music platforms now have enormous data on consumption, actual consumption with demographics of the users. These platforms are also creating content that will cater to the largest global consumers. Will they use the same technology, data processing and artificial intelligence to synthesize music that appeals to the largest audience?


(The author is a policy analyst and senior journalist he tweets @yatishrajawat)