The Digital Revolution(?): Music, Musicology, and Social Networking.

By Kieran Fenby-Hulse

It is has become a commonplace to refer to the development of the internet and more recently Web 2.0 technologies as a digital revolution. But if revolution is defined as period that results in a sharp break with the old order, I’m not convinced this quite rings true, at least in the case of our relationship with music. In my opinion, whilst the development of digital technologies has provided us with new ways of listening to and engaging with music, I don’t think the nature of our relationship with music has undergone a radical change.

Recently, I’ve been exploring the impact the iPod and mobile music platforms have had on our relationship with music and would say that one of the most profound effects that the so-called digital revolution has had on this relationship is the increased ease with which we can listen to almost whatever music we want, when we want, no matter where we are. While listening to music on the move isn’t actually that new (after all, there were Walkmans in the 1980s, transistor radios in the 1950s, and music could be listened to in cars as early as the 1930s), the ability of accessing a huge library of music in a range of remote locations at the click of a button does mean music is now pretty much available on-demand. In short, digital media enables listeners to personalise and aestheticise almost any geographical location.

So what does this revolution mean for music listeners and musicologists? Well, firstly, I think it begs some interesting questions about the relationship between the music we listen to and our understanding of place. The ability for us to listen to music almost anywhere means that music can be heard in an endless array of different contexts, with each context potentially affecting the way in which the work is understood and perceived. For instance, what does it mean if we listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, a work intended for a concert hall, while sitting by a brook in the middle of the countryside? And, how does listening to a rural folk song while travelling on the London underground differ form listening to the track from the comfort of our home? These are interesting questions that ask us to think about music in terms of personal experience and place.

Secondly, I think the development of web 2.0 technologies provides scholars with a plethora of digital data for exploring music and understandings of music. The use of hashtags to describe activities on Twitter, for example, allows for searches to be conducted that explore what people are listening to at different moments in time, and whether musical listening is connected to time, events, and working schedules. (This search could then be refined by plotting user locations and identifying possible geographical trends).

The creation of user playlists on Spotify is another fantastic resource, and something I am particularly interested in at the moment. These homemade compilations provide a fascinating insight into how people are listening to and categorising music. Playlist titles (Music for the Gym, Wake-up Music, Sunday Morning Chillout) are particularly interesting to explore, as they often provide contextual information on how the musical tracks are grouped, thus providing the playlist with an overarching narrative and in some cases a specific function. Music, it seems, is being used increasingly to accompany specific daily routines, events, and tasks. The titles given to shared playlists also have the potential to affect how we hear and understand a track, the narrative of the playlist becoming entwined with the narrative of the musical track, allowing listeners to reimagine and rethink familiar songs in a new ways.

YouTube is also a fantastic place to explore how people are engaging with music. The comments provided by users on music videos can help us to understand people’s reactions to a particular track or piece and, perhaps, the role interaction and dialogue plays in people’s relationship to digital music and media. The homemade music videos and the various cover versions of songs hosted on YouTube can also help us to understand how people consume and experience music. The potential for future research is great.

To sum up, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that digital media has revolutionised our relationship with music, as many of the ways in which we listen to and engage with music still hold sway. Indeed, radio, television, records, gigs, stadium concerts, and amateur performances are remain important. I do think, though, that the developments in digital media have provided us with a new way to listen to music and some new tools with which we can explore music.

Kieran Fenby-Hulse works at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Brighton as a Research Officer. His principal research interest lies with understanding the relationship between music and narrative and he is currently exploring the impact digital media has had on how we listen to and understand music. To read more from Kieran, visit his blog here.