How Has Technology Changed Music?

We’ve all been there…dorm rooms wide open and music blasting.  Neighbors having a loud backyard barbecue.  Construction sending a visceral sound wave through the office building.

The digital age has brought an added component – the ability to shut ourselves off from our surroundings.  Earbuds are cheap and ubiquitous.  At work, in the car, on bikes, walking paths, in the gym…they are everywhere.

“We are not only able to break down the components of what makes a noise noisy; we’re also able to control sonic inputs at the level of the individual human. We’re able to customize our lives with music and podcasts and videos that stream to our ears alone.”

What price to we pay for this digital isolation?  On the one hand, we can instantly share anything with anyone.  On the other hand, we effectively shut ourselves off from everyone.  Another cost is a very personal one.  The ability to hear the world around us.  The music world recently lost one of it’s greatest ambassadors with the death of Mark Flugge.

His long struggle with hearing loss and tinnitus robbed him of the ability to enjoy that for which he was best-known…music.  I do not know what caused the problems, but it is one with which many struggle in varying ways.  Composers and musicians have written over the centuries of constant ringing, swooshing noises, voices being rendered an irritant, sleep being difficult to come by.  I have first-hand experience with this issue…I have been dealing with tinnitus since I was in my twenties.

Most likely, it was brought about by music which was too loud and headphones in the studio turned up too much.  Fortunately, it has not rendered the music and voices I want to hear painful or annoying, but it does mean birds are sometimes not audible, soft musical passages require greater concentration, and I ask people to repeat things more than I used to.  (Just ask my wife!)  So before I go any further, take care of your hearing.  As the song says, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Some of this came up in a recent discussion with musicians about the difference between recorded music and live performance.  While it is amazing to be able to hear musicians from all over the world on demand, how much more exciting and satisfying it is to SEE them making the music?  To experience the joy that comes in a performance of a Beethoven symphony, or watching the silent communication during a Haydn string quartet?

Megan Garber analyzed how we manipulate our sound in Sonic Boom: How Digital Technology is Transforming Our Relationship with Sound.  She said, “As Trevor Pinch, a professor of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell, put it to me: “Sound has become more thing-like—it’s become more mediated by technology.” We may not have earlids; earbuds, however, get us pretty close.”

I spend much of my day wearing headphones as part of my work, but it is both a blessing and a curse. It is how I do much of my job, but it also means I spend much of the day in isolation. Fortunately, my job also brings me into regular contact with amazing musicians who spend their lives bringing music off the page and into our lives. Radio and recordings allow you to experience the joy of music every day, but make sure you give your ears a break and a treat. Listen to the world around you – and head to the concert hall to get the full experience.

Read Even Beautiful Music May Pose Hearing Loss Risk to Pros  (Reuters)

Read Sonic Boom: How Digital Technology is Transforming Our Relationship with Sound. (The Atlantic)

  • Eric Jelle

    Thank you for remembering Mark in this practically unknown realm of medical solutions for more rare ailments in this category of struggle for musicians.

    • Boyce Lancaster

      It is my pleasure. It was my privilege to hear him play many times. Mark was always a fabulous ambassador for music. He is missed.

      Boyce Lancaster