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Is Music Muted by Mobility?

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In his article, “The trouble with easy listening,” Steve Almond talks about how music, and true appreciation of it, has been devalued by the advent of iTunes, the iPod and an ever expanding access to every piece of music the heart desires, to be had whenever and wherever. He says, “The ease with which we can hear any song at any moment we want no matter where we are has diluted the very act of listening, rendering it just another channel on our ever-expanding dial of distractions.”

That’s a nice story, Grandpa.

Almond stops just short of outright blaming the very accessibility to music he bought and uses (as well as those associated with it and every customer of it) for what he perceives as his loss. The only thing that changed in Almond’s life relative to his appreciation of music was how he chose to enjoy it. The ways in which music delivery has grown has nothing to do with the choice one makes to listen to it from one’s couch or in one’s car.

On no level is music the same thing to every person, nor is any one way in which it is used better than another. The mobility of music Almond decries has been a lifesaver for a lot of people. For some it is an activity requiring solitude and without distraction, but for others it is absolutely a distraction – desperately sought and sorely needed. For still others, it is an integral part of physical therapy that rewires the brain. The how and where of it all is up to the person, and from there you get out of it what you put into it.

There are a lot of us, several years older than Almond, who have gladly taken advantage of and thoroughly enjoy all this access while maintaining our traditions of music appreciation. It hasn’t been a trade, as he’s described. It has been an addition. I didn’t forsake my music or my love for it when I upgraded from transistor radio to stereo to iPod. To hear my dad tell it, though, altering the circumstances under which you previously enjoyed music degrades the experience and the music itself. This is as inaccurate an assumption (about music and everyone else’s enjoyment of it) as someone saying music is “diluted” by mobility.

Good going, Almond. You sound like you were born in the late 30s.

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • Great article, Dianne.

    I used to despise computer speakers and whatever music was available on the net. But with the advent of iTunes and the like, and the recording software, most of my listening nowadays takes precisely that form, especially when I’m at the computer.

    Convienience and ease of access have nothing to do with the quality of one’s enjoyment.

  • Sorry, misspelled your name.

  • I’ve never been able to listen to music and “do anything else” (i.e. work on the computer, walk across the street) so in that sense my listening traditiona haven’t changed that much with ipods and the like. But I do think we have more sound distractions now and the “live concert” audiences are requiring more to listen- (videos, movement) so I have to wonder if this is due to all the constant music and other noise distractions everywhere that goes with us, whether intended or not.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Great Review…

    “nor is any one way in which it is used better than another”

    I can agree to an extent with the subjective factor involved in this statement but there are facts concerning the playback of audio sources where one experience would be better than another. But that would require further knowledge of audio equipment and source formats.

    Personally, I feel that the “lossy” formats(mp3,aac,vog) that are used today are fantastic for convenience sake but can also be a hindrance if one believes in the home marketing propaganda that is being peddled. Sure, anyone can be satisfied by listening to inferior audio quality if that is all they have or know but that doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways to experience music.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    But, that all depends on whether the listener actually loves music as a whole or just wants to alleviate some boring down time in their life.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “Convienience and ease of access have nothing to do with the quality of one’s enjoyment.”

    Again, I think it all has to do with one’s knowledge of the subject matter at hand. Though, I do agree with you that those limitations can be overcome if one realizes that his iPod is all he has with him and can’t listen to his killer stereo system until he gets home from the slave & grind.*smirk*

  • i actually agree with some of the points in almond’s essay (so call me grandpa!), though i do think that the quality (read: lack of) of the media doesn’t matter for much. people long ago chose convenience over quality.

    face it brian, those of us who own good equipment are in the tiny minority.

  • Of course, Brian. True listening is an act and you have to give it your undivided attention.

    I can’t compare the quality of sound I get with computer speakers as opposed to a full-fledged quadrophonic system; in fact, the latter is often preferable (as far as I’m concerned) to the ambiance one gets at a concert hall – if only because one could lose himself in the music.

  • one issue i thought of related to the almond article is sharing. this of course happens more often when new and old collide: i was listening to something at work (using a dinosaur-esque CD) and thought the guy next to me might like it…but he’s an ipod/itunes only kind of person.

    so it’s almost an imposition for me to hand him the disc….because he’d have to rip, update, etc.

    i don’t know, maybe this is an uncommon occurrence. i do know that the digital-only thing became something of a barrier.

  • Almond comes off like an ageist luddite, presuming that the kids today can’t have the same solemn religious experiences with music he did back in his youth. Just music is more portable doesn’t change the relationship people are able to have with it.

    And if we used his logic, isn’t his experience of listening to music at home on LPs devaluing the true musical experience of hearing it performed live by musicians?

    Although he doesn’t mention it, I am guessing he also played in a vehicle. I know I have had many amazing moments with music traveling in a car. Some songs demand it.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus


    I can definitely see your point and I agree with you on all of it even the remark about audio equipment but I still feel it all boils down to a passion for music which leads to a thirst for knowledge & better experiences. Even if those “solemn religious experiences with music” happened on a mono phonograph.


    I know,huh? As much as we audiophiles try to achieve pure & precise audio heaven (what finances may allow), you’d think we would spend more time at concerts to hear the music at its best possible quality. Yet, like you, I think we strive to have a domicile experience because we can focus on the sounds instead of worrying about the others around us.


    As much as I like the digital revolution, I don’t believe in burning bridges. I’m sure Mark, as you know, an older pre-owned HiFi piece is most of times better than brand new inexpensive equipment. It’s not one’s choice of enjoyment that I’m against, it’s the mindset that convenience & space saving is somehow better than conventional methods. It is a shame that someone would turn down an actual CD because they totally rely on iTunes. Missing out on an experience is NOT what music is all about.

  • Tom Johnson

    El Bicho’s comment pretty much nails it. But I’ll add that the difference between kids today and us as kids “back then” is that they have a multitude of things pulling at their attention. Sure, they can opt to spend a bunch of time obsessing about music, or they do a bunch of different things. From what I’ve seen, they opt to do a bunch of different things – they *like* being busy, despite the convenient cliches of kids being lazy. And none of this is to blame on any devices. It’s the old “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument. Don’t blame the Ipod – it exists to fill a need.

    As for CDs and mp3s, most don’t care. They don’t hear a difference between the 256kbps files they buy from Itunes and the CDs they rip. If the price is the same, or cheaper, on Itunes, why not buy from Itunes? It’s one less physical thing to store and likely never look at again. Some people in these comments are assigning way too much spiritual value to the sound quality of music. If that was what it was about, music would have died when all we had were phonographs and, later, transistor radios. People care about the song and only the song.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “If that was what it was about, music would have died when all we had were phonographs and, later, transistor radios.”

    Yea…okay, if that was true then engineers wouldn’t have figured out that you can lose some information from a file while compressing it and still get a pretty good sounding format(mp3) that works great in a mobile environment. If this “spiritual value [about] the sound quality of music” didn’t matter then people like Les Paul wouldn’t have invented the things he did, nor would 3/4 of the musicians bother with quality equipment or producers when they make albums! Sure, music is about enjoyment but the reason why we progressed from the phonograph all the way to the CD was,impart, due to the quest for better sounding & more resilient forms of media.

    Just because a lot of people don’t care about it doesn’t take away from the importance!

  • I don’t see how anyone can dismiss the importance of the CD invention. It was and still is the music lover’s dream.

  • It was and still is the music lover’s dream.

    not this music lover.

  • Tom Johnson

    As usual, Brian is speaking purely from a musician’s perspective. Les Paul invented because he was a musician and wanted the tools to match his needs. I guarantee you the vast majority of listeners don’t care a bit about the quality of equipment that is used on the music that they listen to. The popularity of the Black Eyed Peas should prove that. All that quality bullshit they leave for the professionals to worry about – their concern is just enjoying the music, as it should be. Do diners need to know how to cook to enjoy eating? Do viewers need to know how to write and film to enjoy TV shows and movies? Get over this hurdle, Brian, and you will have a greater understanding of what drives people to what music. People listen to music because it’s fun, because it’s emotional, because it reflects their lives, or, yes, because it’s background noise. A tiny percentage, tiny-tiny, really cares about how high-quality sounding that music is. Why? Because, in general, most delivery formats we have today sound great. CDs and Itunes sound identical to the majority of people. (And I’m putting aside the mastering debacle, I’m just talking purely about the delivery system. Mastering has done more to destroy the legacy of the CD than anything else. Well-mastered CDs sound incredible and easily back up Roger’s claim. Unfortunately, they are rare these days.)

    Why do mp3s and the Itunes/Ipods/etc. they live in exist, besides being small? Because it’s more resilient than anything else. The only thing that can happen to those files is they get erased. Back ’em up and you’re fine. No other playback medium offers that. I’m not saying the system is perfect – I don’t like not having full artwork, credits, etc., but I vastly prefer carrying my Ipod with thousands and thousands of songs around with me than struggling to figure out how to carry a dozen CDs in their cases, or the daily dilemma of what to take with me to listen to, blah blah. Carrying a handful of discs, it’s likely I don’t have some off-the-wall, spur-of-the-moment desire that pops into my head, but it’s sitting in my collection at home. With the Ipod, if I want to hear something, most likely I have it with me. What could possibly be bad about that?

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    So, Tom, gaining knowledge & having meaningful experiences are a hurdle now?! HA! You make me laugh. Most of these people wouldn’t know how to use a freaking iPod if someone didn’t teach them how. With your mindset, most people shouldn’t have gotten past the technical aspects of using a PC! It actually took a lot for people to grasp the idea of “ripping” a CD so that you could put those songs on a media player. Sure, iTunes made things easier but you still have to be somewhat technical to use it. BOSE makes tons of money peddling what they consider to be great sounding to all the uneducated. If people didn’t care about sound quality then companies like BOSE would be out of business. All it takes is that initial introduction to the world of Hi-Fi and that crushes your theory. Sure, a very small percentage wants to spend the money on audiophile equipment but people still like to have a nice system at home. Again, I don’t believe that the reason is that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t know. Knowledge is power!

    As for the mastering subject, MFSL still does a fantastic job re-mastering and there are plenty of bands producing great sounding CDs. BUT, If you’re looking for them in the mainstream, then you are looking in the wrong place(see: Loudness Wars)

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    *BTW* I never said I was against portable media,in fact, because quite a few people care about sound quality, being able to import flac & wma 9.2 even .wav files have become a mainstay in compatibility features for most models(including the iPod)

  • Jordan Richardson

    Again, I don’t believe that the reason is that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t know. Knowledge is power!

    Or that they simply can’t afford it and don’t feel like wasting money on tech shit that’s just going to be “out of date” in 15 minutes.

  • “Well-mastered CDs sound incredible …”

    I would have thought they’re all well-mastered, but then again, I’m only showing my ignorance, I guess, My collection is mostly classical, and from such outfits as Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Philips or EMI.

    So perhaps the situation is somewhat different in the classical department.

  • “It actually took a lot for people to grasp the idea of “ripping” a CD so that you could put those songs on a media player.”

    cite one example because that sounds like unproven nonsense.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “on tech shit that’s just going to be “out of date” in 15 minutes.”

    I think you’re getting it confused with Computers. The CD player has been around for 25+ years. Only recently, have they (again) released 100% digital systems that would entail a loss of an older system. Still, speakers have had the same technology for a freakin long time. Of course, like any other product, you usually get what you pay for. And, unlike other areas of progression, you can still use(and it is sometimes better)”old” equipment. For a lot of audiophiles, Solid State isn’t present in their beloved systems.

    Roger – Those labels you mentioned have done some fine work in the engineering / mastering department but they usually do that with Jazz or Classical.

    @21, How would I cite one example?? If I have to teach you about Computers,Mp3s & Media Players from the late 90s then you should do some f*cking research and stop asking preposterous questions.

  • Jordan Richardson

    I think you’re getting it confused with Computers.

    I think I’m representing the point of view of many consumers, actually. A lot of people think that the tech world, whether computers or otherwise, moves too fast to dedicate considerable money to.

    Again, I stand by my point. Many people feel that they can’t afford it and that it’s not worth the investment.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “Again, I stand by my point.Many people feel that they can’t afford it and that it’s not worth the investment.”

    And I stand by my point,”Sure, anyone can be satisfied by listening to inferior audio quality if that is all they have or know but that doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways to experience music.”

    AND,How much does an iPod and a computer run you nowadays?(never mind in the late 90s) So, you think $500+ is a affordable investment if you are just going to use it for Email,Internet & ripping tunes to your iPod(which is another $200). I think people consider it “affordable” when they see a trend. I think uninformed people make misinformed purchases all the time.

    Ya know it is funny how I have to cite factual information when I express my opinions,but, others can use terms like “many people” without pointing to surveys or polls and people are satisfied.

    Anyways, all this stuff is way off point to the article at hand. I believe some of what Steve Almond talks about is pretty accurate.
    I put it in the perspective that if you listen to the same album over & over again that it gets stale(for lack of better words).

  • Jordan Richardson

    Why do I have to point to a survey to back my fairly basic assertion that some people shy away from decking themselves with tech gear because they don’t understand its value or want to part with money in that fashion?

    Do you doubt that some people feel that way? What exactly needs to be backed up?

    Your basic point, that it isn’t that people “don’t care,” wasn’t backed up “factually” with polls either. In fact, I’m struggling to see where you cited one such poll or survey to back up any of your opinions.

    You’re trying to reduce an opinionated discussion to facts and figures when it’s not possible to do so.

    I think uninformed people make misinformed purchases all the time.

    Absolutely, but can you back this up factually with a poll or survey?

  • i don’t think people are uninformed about this in the least. again, most people just don’t care. sit them down in front of a fantatic-sounding system, even a relatively low-cost one, and they’ll think “wow, that’s nice”….but they’re not going to give that up for the convenience of the ipod. they’re just not.

  • Just a glimpse at the technical aspect of the multimedia container format, MPEG-4, and this barely scratches the surface.

    There is, however, something to be said for “live-stream.” With the advent of music/video recorders – I’m very happy with the package offered by Applian Technologies, I can record live performances from the Met, for example.

    I realize the quality isn’t the same as one I could get from getting a CD, but I am still catching “the moment,” and this adds to the thrill. It’s second best to being there.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I don’t doubt that some people feel this way. I don’t fully believe that the majority feels this way and just because I am the minority in this manner of thinking, the few people that chime in here actually think that it is reality.

    But, I tried to digress, after my apparent mis-communication, to the point of the article and thread. Though, I don’t agree with trying to control how one enjoys music, it is a fact that there are better ways to enhance that enjoyment.

  • but you’ve really got to define “better” brian. look, i’m not trying to split hairs or anything (and you know that i know about sound quality)…it’s just that for most people it’s about access, convenience, and portability, not sound quality.

    it’s sort of too bad really, but there’s not much to be done about it.

  • Which is to say that for most people music is rather peripheral and not an essential part of their lives. Speaking for myself, I can’t imagine living without music (but most people do). Facts of life.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I hear ya Mark…

    To define better, we would have to explore the different scenarios in which one would partake in musical enjoyment. To make my definition as quick as possible, I will examine the portable arena. The advancements in format compression are nothing new but are still very important to discuss because they are available on most media players(I believe it might be all by now). Mp3(actually AAC, if iTunes is the prevalent source)is the supposed standard which entails a lossy compression(highest bitrate compatibility wise = 320Kbps) based on an algorithm…blah,blah,blah. Basically, that means you lose not so crucial information(questionable) when the ones & zeros get compressed. FLAC is what would be “better” because it is a lossless compression kind of like a RAR file for music, thus, still saving an amazing amount of space per file but not losing any information at all during compression(Highest bitrate compatibility wise = 1087Kbps[as I have experienced via WMA9.2]). The listener would still have his/her access & convenience but the quality would be 3x better and those files when converted back to .wav are still PCM 16bit/44KHz.

    @30, Roger, I believe you are correct.

  • “How would I cite one example??”

    That’s on you. You made the claim yet now can’t back it up when called out about it

  • Bluesache

    You make a very good point.
    A friend of mine (we’re both just over 50) told me that who’d have thought 30 years ago that ‘portability’ would be more valued than ‘high fidelity.’

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus


    Ok… How about cdda2wav? Did you ever do command line ripping? Most people back in the late 90s were still “recording” CDs from a CD-ROM to a burner(if you had the money for the drives, a sound card and the blank media).

    Are these good examples good enough?