Chris Klein - Study

“Mobile Auditory Enhancement – How an Mp3 Player Can Change Your Life”

Music, as we think of it, is a relatively old device. In the western world, it dates back to the times of Constantine1 – and probably much further. While spreading a tale through mono-toned speech works quite well, applying a tune to it will make it all the more memorable. As a child, you were likely taught rhymes and songs to help build a foundation of knowledge. Some of us eventually pick up an instrument ourselves, whether it is our own vocal chords or a man-made instrument. Others find joy in merely listening to and analyzing music written by others. Common sayings such as “music to my ears” have been tossed around for hundreds of years, expressing the joy found in a simple tune. Music evokes emotions, just as words alone might, but music has the advantage of being much more dynamic. In an ensemble, hundreds of instruments might play to create a single song. Depending on the key, tempo, and sound that each instrument mimics, a more emotional story can be told2. However, access to good music was once a privilege, up until recently.

Enter the mp3 player. But wait, I’m forgetting other mobile platforms for music! Isn’t the invention of the record player or radio just as important? Of course, but the mp3 player differs in quite a substantial way. No longer are we limited to being fed music. If your friend who lives across the country wants you to hear his band, it’s extremely cheap to make low-quality recording and email the mp3 to you. The device and relevant technology allow almost instant access. In likeness, you are no longer regulated to carry a physical media platform with you either. I’m old enough to remember cassette tapes and the Walkman. No way in hell would I be dragging around the equivalent amount of cassettes it would take to make my current mp3 player’s collection. I have access to all the songs I want, at the tips of my fingers. With a small subscription fee, I can access virtually any label-signed band on my cell phone and have it playing within seconds3. At this point, it’s almost impossible to think about not having instant access to music. This past summer, I had a lengthy commute to work. I purchased a used car that was unequipped with the now standard “auxiliary input”. That meant my mp3 player was out of use until I installed one. I was left with a mere 6-CD changer – woe, is me. It became a bit of a struggle, searching through old CDs to find one that would match my mood that day. Then it hit me: why had this become such a problem?

Stage 1 – The Access

The answer revolves around a few variables. One is obviously the ease of use. If you’re used to instant access to something and it’s taken away, you’re invariably going to be a bit pissy. This is not unlike other technologies we’ve become accustomed to having nearly instantly – television, cell phones, the internet, and even on a basic level – food and water. We have become slaves to ease of access in many ways. Take any one of the great technologies in your life away and see what happens. Now I won’t go off rambling too far into dependence on technology, as this could fill libraries with pages. It is important, however, to analyze the ease of access to music and how it affects us. Over the last the month, I did just that.

I’ll be the first to admit that my mp3 player is like a bodily appendage. It goes with me to class, to work, to the store, to the gym – virtually everywhere. It seems that I’m as a good a test subject as any. To figure out why I really wanted my music with me everywhere, I needed to remember what it was like not having it. There started one of a few interesting weeks without my musical companion. At first, I didn’t notice any great emotional difference. Sitting on the quiet of the bus was quite boring, making it seem like a longer ride. Walking around campus was nearly the same experience, except I’d muse myself by overhearing conversations about this and that – nothing beyond the usual banter of college students who live to drink and copulate (or at least that’s what an outsider might surmise).

After a few days without great revelation, I decided it was time to start the music again. This is when it all hit me in the face. I step outside to the rainy Blacksburg weather and turn on some up-beat indie pop. Suddenly the rain becomes something more than a cold pitter-patter against my face. I can’t quite put a finger on it, but I’m no longer dreary. The auditory sensations of nature are drowned out and I’m able to make it my own. Next I try some death-metal, since I’m feeling a bit tired. My heartbeat quickens ever so slightly and I have the urge to be doing something high-impact, not sit on the bus. It then becomes very clear what having instant access to any type of music I wish means: I control my auditory input.

It’s very simple when you think about it. Why do we listen to sad music when we’re sad? To mope, I suppose. But why do we listen to happy music when we’re sad? Because it makes us forget we’re unhappy, even for the shortest of times. Having instant access to the musical genre of your choice, down to the very song, means that you have a very precise way to overload your emotions. It offers an escapism that doesn’t interfere with your physical abilities. We no longer have to be subjected to auditory stimulants that we don’t want.

Stage 2 – The Tool

Looking at an mp3 player with that in mind, it becomes clear that there is great power inherent in the properties of the device. It’s almost as if it’s a drug. The music offers an abstracted reality to your day. You become somewhat dependent on this, and then if taken away, you feel withdrawal. I’m not trying to say that it is a drug, just that our body and mind handle it and react in a similar fashion. More importantly, it offers what many drugs and surgeries cannot, with little drawback4.

Athletics are the first area of use that comes to mind when looking at the mp3 player as a tool. Let’s start off with a great example of what music can do. Everyone who goes to school at Virginia Tech is extremely familiar with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”. Rather than explain in words what happens when this song is played before athletic game openings, just watch this:

That is the effect that music can have on a crowd. The association of “It’s time to kick ass” is drawn in every patron’s head and then the bouncing starts. I’ve never been a big Metallica fan, but every time I hear this song, at a game or not, I get extremely pumped. While the crowd plays into the game just as much, the players know the tune just as well, and inevitably get pumped. This is on a large and open scale, but athletes now have access to music on the go.

In the Winter X-Games, the world’s largest winter alternative sports event, athletes commonly use their mp3 players while in competition, not just before. In fact, ESPN would broadcast the playlist each athlete used so others could add it to their devices. Many non-team sports are about timing and rhythm and music triggers timing mechanisms in the brain. Music will literally force the athlete into a tempo. Others use music to overcome fear while in competition6. There might not be any statistical evidence that points to positive gains in athletic performance because of personal music devices; it is evident through interviews that the athletes see it as an added bonus. What better way to clear your mind before a competitive event than to force it to focus on something more inspiring.

For the rest of us, music can be optionally used as a mood enhancer. Those long drives to see the relatives are definitively more enjoyable with music to solace the idle mind. A walk in a busy city park can become a symphonic excursion, the precise escape you need from the fast-paced living. That lame lecture doesn’t even have to be a class when you drown out the professor with an audio-book. The fact is, mp3 players give us instant access to whatever emotion we want to feel, within the comfort of our pocket. Sounds a little dangerous, doesn’t it?

Stage 3 – The Negligence

With any technology that has the power to change our chemical balance, there are bound to be drawbacks. If we were to reference Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together”, it would seem that drowning out our surroundings would be a negative thing7. As we begin to merge technology into our lives, we begin to forget what it is to be human. Why go through the trouble of reading a book when we can have someone else read it to us anywhere? Why listen to the world around us when there are much more pleasurable sounds that can be accessed from our pockets? All these are valid questions. The answers are much more complicated and vary from person to person. In its current state, the technology seems relatively harmless. Sure, an athlete might have that slight edge because he or she picked the right tunes to listen to before an event. A young professional might miss out on an opportunity to have an intriguing conversation with someone new during the morning metro commute. Music might even be changing the way our brain functions. We might become addicted to the feeling a certain song gives us. All of these are relatively minor quarrels though.

The real flaw is not what the instant access to music might be doing to us, but what we’re not doing with it. Music is still considered by many to be nothing more than art, rather than an essential. Doctors are quick to shell out medicine to sedate clinical depression. There are very few offices that exist who try musical treatment, but it has shown to have decent success8. While the studies conducted have not shown precise cause-effect data, they did find a positive correlation. More importantly, acceptance rates of individuals at all ages were much higher than other forms of treatment. It may come to a point when depression treatment is as easy as listening to the doctors prescribed playlist a few times a day. Medical treatment via music is in its infancy, even though it has been employed for thousands of years. Now that music can be accessed anywhere and cheaply, musical medicine has more potential.

La Coda

Music is one of the most notable aspects of our lives. A song from childhood can evoke a plethora of emotions that bring us back into the very moment we first heard it. We remember thousands of lyrics from various pop-hits, but not a single page of our favorite novel. It’s used to concentrate on studies or distract from traumatic events. It heals the emotionally wounded and encourages the emotionally strong. The technology that drives these devices is growing ever cheaper, more integrated, and progressively smaller. We carry in our pockets, a device that holds more potential than we could ever possibly grant it.

New forms of music are also being developed as digital music engineering becomes cheaper. Dub-step is now one of the fast growing forms of (what some would call) music. The heavy bass-lines and fast synth chords reflect the technology that binds it to our ears. Hopefully, the mp3 player will become just as much a tool as it is an entertainment device. In the future, it may very well be a crucial component to a healthy life. For now, we can appreciate access to music in a way never thought possible, and wait for the crescendo to rise and present what the future holds.

Works Referenced

1. "Music Timeline." Fact Monster: Online Almanac, Dictionary, Encyclopedia, and Homework Help — Fact Monster, 2007. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.
2. "Science of Music." Exploratorium. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.
3. "Rhapsody on Android." Welcome : Rhapsody. Rhapsody. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.
4. Brown, Eryn. "Music Is A Drug | Music Really Is like a Drug, Researchers Say - Los Angeles Times." Featured Articles From The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 09 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.
5. "Fans in Lane Stadium Go Crazy to Enter Sandman - End of Game: Miami vs. Virginia Tech - YouTube." YouTube - Broadcast Yourself. ABC, 8 Oct. 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.
6. Shapiro, Alex. "Shaun White Gets Pumped Up On Pennywise." MTV Newsroom. Viacom, 26 Jan. 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.
7. Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.
8. "Music Therapy May Offer Hope For People With Depression." Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology. Science Daily, 23 Jan. 2008. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.