Constant Revolutions: The ‘Plasticity’ of Music

The impact of technological changes on how music is created and consumed is a well covered subject.

Music history is full of dramatic changes: electric microphones, stereo LPs, transistor radios, multitrack studios, FM stations, arena-filling sound amplification, the walkman, digital synthesizers, samplers, CDs, MTV, SSL consoles, SoundScan, the iPod, Spotify, bluetooth earphones, voice-activated smart speakers, AirPods etc.

In important ways, they all changed everything: the type and variety of music being made, the type of musician, the age/socioeconomic profile of listeners, the amount and frequency of music consumed, the places where it was consumed. 

One particular detail that greatly amplifies the power of technological changes to alter how music is created and consumed has to with the plasticity of music itself.

‘Plasticity’ is the quality of ‘being easily shaped or molded’ and music listening has lots of it. People enjoy music in many, many different ways: How much they spent listening. How often. In how many different contexts. Alone or communally. The emotional responde to a particular genre can be particularly intense. The memories attached to a particular song can be overwhelming. Opinions about what is good or bad music are incredibly subjective. Opinions about what is good sounding music as well. People have different preferences in even in music volume! And so on. 

That means that music demand has tremendous flexibility. And that’s why technological innovations can have a very disproportionate and unpredictable impact.

In other words, one can almost say that the music landscape has lived in a constant flow of revolutions. Everything is going fine until a new element or gadget comes along and changes the way music is made/marketed/listened. And it is always unexpected. We never knew we needed Walkmans or iPods until we did. And then in hindsight they all look obvious and “inevitable”: of course the miniaturization of electronic components, together with digital compression algorithms and powerful song library management desktop software (offering also a fast and seamless synchronization feature) would naturally result in a stylish rounded metallic device holding a thousands songs that fits in your pocket!

But the obviousness only comes with hindsight. The actual revolutionary innovation had to bring something new. And “new” can take many forms in this music realm. Anything that explores, illuminates, tweaks or solves one or more of variable dimensions of music interaction can be a “killer app”. The new idea can change how often we listen or how long. How portable. How instantaneously. How cheaply. How easy it is to search a song. Or remember it. How easy it makes to hide our taste, or share it. How it increases the range of where to listen or with whom etc. etc.

And there is so much room for surprises because our connection with music is very deep, broad and variable. We have a strong emotional connection with music. In fact, music is more than entertainment, culture, distraction or escapism: it is an input that our minds absorb and use. Music is brain food. The plasticity of music is sourced on the complexity and neuroplasticity of the brain itself.

Like the brain, always rewiring itself as it grows and heals, our relationship with music is always rewiring itself. That’s why changes in technology, hardware, software or interface can have such profound consequences on how we consume music.

I can speculate – what is going to be the next revolution in music: maybe those bone conduction headphones? Or future iterations of those speaker-featuring glasses? 360 audio as Sony dearly hopes? Perhaps AirPods Pro Max Series 5 will work without a watch or phone nearby, and the transparency mode will be so good that you can wear them the whole day? (And Siri evolves in a functional digital companion?) Maybe the audio part will the killer app for AR glasses?

Or going into software, the future of music will be intrinsically linked with TikTok and Metaverses? Will AI evolve so far that it can accurately divine our taste? When you go to a party, will your Spotify account register all the songs that you listened (and take note of which made your heartbeat/blood pressure /etc. go up??) Maybe someday music streaming will be fully integrated with your social graph? (2030’s iTunes Ping will be awesome??)

Another interesting point is the suspicion that we may have crossed an important threshold in this technological evolution of the music-brain interface: music streaming platforms, with full catalogues served to a global audience, may look in the future like a primitive central nervous system, the ancestor of something much more impressive.

Because, unlike other art forms or fields of knowledge, music streaming services are more than databases that index and describe whatever exists in the real world: they are becoming de facto main music layer we interact with. And all future improvements can be built upon this digital base.

Nowadays, it is quite feasible to describe music streaming services as low-margin services with limited differentiation. Spotify still struggles to ensure long-term profitability and most of its competitors are tech giants whose music services represent a small fraction of their total revenues. There are several ongoing discussions about user-centric streams models, and how creators are paid, what role exactly each of several ‘stakeholders’ should have etc.

But that’s fine. The evolution of this early digital musical brain we have now is going to be full of surprises and turns. What is more certain is that technology has always powered music plasticity, and the current state of digitalization might very well be an inflection point from which the pace and range of innovation will be increasingly exciting.

And of course, once those new fantastic developments eventually arrive, we will later look back and think that they were all obvious and inevitable.

April 12 edit: Changed the structure of the first paragraphs for clarity.

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