On Saturday night, Jason and I opened a 30-day trial account on Tidal, a streaming music service. What makes Tidal different from other services, such as Spotify and iTunes radio is that the listener not only has the ability to control what pieces they hear, but the music is played in full resolution, so it sounds exactly like listening to a CD. Tidal currently has license to play 36 million tracks, so the possibilities are practically endless.
As soon as we opened the account, we listened to an album that we had both been anxious to hear, but we could never find on CD, The Seldom Seen Kid by Elbow. I’m sure if we had gone to Amazon we’d have found a copy to purchase, but hunting it down in used CD shops became a kind of adventure for us. I guess the nature of that game is going to change a lot with this new toy at our disposal.
The set-up of the service is pretty slick. You can search for songs, albums, or artists. Then you can simply play what you want or you can “Favorite” anything that you can to go back and hear later.
Our first step was to Favorite everything on our CD wish lists, then we just poked around for a bit. Two days later, we have almost 100 albums lined up, just waiting for us to devote the time to careful, critical listening. Something tells me that setting aside time for actually listening is going to prove to be the challenge in this enterprise.
Luckily, not everything I’ve set aside for later requires the environment for critical listening, and for those other types of albums, I can take advantage of other features of Tidal. For example, I can stream music on my phone, either in full resolution (which would be silly, given the lousy sound production capabilities of a phone) or in a compressed stream (thus, using less data). I can also download tracks or albums to my phone to play offline (this option is not yet available for PCs or Macs, just for phones and tablets). Somehow I doubt hearing a standup comedy album that’s been compressed will be any less funny that in full resolutions, so I’m going to enjoy some Mitch Hedberg during my morning commutes. BTW, once you cancel the service, all of the music that has been downloaded to your phone or tablet goes away, so be wary.
So, what all of this means is a big change to Breckling listening nights. It is our hope that we can continue to expand our music collection (albeit in a different way), take time to listen critically, and not become paralyzed by too many choices.
We’ve already set up some rules: if one of use saves a song or album that we want to share with the other, neither of us is allowed to cheat and listen in advance. Once we’ve both heard it, it is fair game, and we can follow our individual tastes to listen as much (or as little) as we want. That’s worked well with the two albums we’ve heard so far (we also listened to Kurt Vile on Saturday night), and I’ll be enjoying the new Duran Duran album on my own (no accounting for the taste of my husband).
Despite the incredible freedom involved in having these kinds of listening options, I still can’t help but wonder if something will prove to be missing. There is something really satisfying about holding a CD in your hand, looking at the cover art, reading the lyric sheets, etc. I also really enjoyed the process of going into a used CD shop, just to see what we’d stumble across. There was a pleasant serendipity in finding an album that I hadn’t thought about in years, bringing it home, and finding that I still remember all the words. I don’t know how that will work now. I guess we’ll see…
So, after a few days, my current relationship with Tidal would best be described as cautiously optimistic. I’ll keep you posted as things develop.
Not surprisingly, the first album I hear on Tidal is the first that I will recommend to you: The Seldom Seen Kid by Elbow. The band was recommended to us by our pastor back in North Carolina (a dude with surprisingly hip tastes, given his profession), and, like I said, we’d looked for it for quite a while without success.
I’ve only heard it twice so far, but it covers a pretty impressive range of styles and moods. It’s also beautifully recorded, making it a great option for trying out a higher resolution listening platform.
Let me know what you think!
This past weekend, I spent four days in Louisville, Kentucky, attending the annual conference of the American Musicological Society. It was an amazing conference, and I thought this might be an interesting forum for reporting some of the highlights.
Being only six-and-a-half hours from home, I decided I would drive to the conference. That would have been pretty much a miserable decision on my part; however, one of my colleagues at work decided she would like to attend, and so we rode up together. Trust me, this is the way to spend hours on end in a car. In relatively good time, we found ourselves in Kentucky on Wednesday. We had some dinner and settled in for a whirlwind weekend.
My first word of warning to my co-worker, who had never attended AMS before was, “Don’t plan to sit through entire sessions. Give yourself at least one paper’s worth of downtime for each three-hour slot.” So, how do you suppose I spent my first session? Elbow deep in papers, of course. Truthfully, I couldn’t help myself. I went to the first two in order to support friends, but the topics were endlessly fascinating, and I just couldn’t leave. By dinnertime on the first day I’d seen thrilling research on French and Italian opera, German Expressionism, and the environmental sounds of war. Nerdy, to be sure, but I was hooked.
Thursday night consisted of dinner with friends old and new in the hotel restaurant followed by cocktails at a bar that also serves as an aquarium. We were off to a rousing good start.
Friday morning was slated for business on my end. I had several meetings scheduled, so I didn’t make it to any papers. Nonetheless, I ran into people in the hallways that developed into numerous conversations that revved my creative engines and brought lots of excitement about my research and my teaching.
Then, I attended one of my favorite things of the weekend. The Committee on Career-Related Issues (not a very stream-lined name…) sponsored a panel discussion on careers in musicology outside of teaching. The panel included representatives from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a sound archive, an art museum, an editor, and a worship director at a Catholic university. The discussion involved not only career opportunities for musicologists who don’t want to (or cannot) teach, but strove to loosen the grip of the stigma attached to non-academic vocations in musicology. This was a re-affirming boost to the self-esteem of all of us who have struggled with the teaching market of the past decade. It was well worth cramming myself into an overheated, tiny, and awkwardly spaced room!
After breaking away from musicology for a much-needed and thoroughly enjoyable coffee break with my cousin, I returned just in time to catch a paper on 19th-century orchestral song – right up my alley! And suddenly, I was back in the groove…
Friday night was one where all of my arduous and innocent intentions were led merrily astray. I had planned to attend a pedagogical workshop and panel, but having encountered a large group of friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in years, I opted to take the night off for pizza and fun. And both were had in spades!
Saturday became a cram session with full panels on music in Disney film and a series of papers discussion “music and the nerves” in the nineteenth century. I also had another important meeting before rushing off to yet another session on using popular music as a teaching tool for ideas of rhythm. There was dancing and laughing and drumming – good times!
After the panel, I met up with a friend to relax and ended up having a fascinating conversation with someone else about a writing program instituted at his institution. I’m always delighted to hear about music programs that value a well-rounded approach in their students’ education. I spent the entire evening focusing on the aspect of musicology that means the most to me – teaching. It made my soul happy just to be there.
Sunday was the final day of the conference, and that morning was the session I had been the most excited about. It was all about Mahler –aaahhh! So good! I’ve been a regular fixture at Mahler sessions since my first AMS conference in 2005, but this year was the first time I truly felt like I belonged there. Several friends were in attendance, and for the first time (at a Mahler session anyway), I felt brave enough to ask a question!
It's funny how one questions their own authority as a scholar in an environment like an AMS conference. Everyone there is educated and knowledgeable about music, and as such, there is almost a caste system in place. Students seem to be at the bottom of the totem pole, followed by people who don’t teach, folks who teach part time, those working for smaller institutions, the faculty of larger school, and we are all seemingly led by a handful of “superstars.” I guess I made a step up the ladder this year, which is nice, but I can’t say the system makes me terribly comfortable. Nonetheless, even though one rarely hears it talked about, it is definitely there.
So, here’s the thing. I was so excited to put my thoughts into words when I got back from the conference, but the longer it went unfinished, the more I found myself thinking, “What am I actually trying to say?” Yes, it was great to be surrounded by like-minded people and to have a time to surround myself with musicology, but ultimately, I’m not sure what else there is to say.
I think it is safe to say that I make no secret of the fact that I believe musical taste forms a large portion of our personality. I also think that our musical preferences are a factor in how we are seen by other people. We make assumptions about others based on a number of external factors: appearance, clothing choices, speech patterns, and yes, musical taste. So, if our choices of listening material help to determine not only how we view ourselves, but how others see us, where does musical taste actually come from?
According to neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin, even infants are capable to demonstrating a preference for certain styles of music – often either pieces they were exposed to while still in the womb or pieces that are heavily consonant and simple – hence, the dominant stylistic similarities among lullabies and children’s songs.
As we age, our tastes mature, and according to research, people who enjoy music will begin to take a definite interest by their teen years. If asked, most people hold a certain fondness for songs that comprised their musical environment around the ages of 12-15. This is typically when young people begin to identify with styles that differ from those of their parents, lending that specific style a sense of independence. It as if we are saying, “I found this music all by myself, and it is mine.” This phenomenon helps to explain the popularity of “oldies” stations, especially during the 1980s and 90s, when the baby-boomer generation were beginning to lose touch with current trends and look longingly to the music of their youth.
Levitin goes on to explain that people are capable of acquiring new tastes at any time in their lives, but typically we stop adding drastically new styles to our preferred lists around the age of 20. That doesn’t mean that we never listen to any music recorded after we hit the ripe old age of 20, it simply means that what we gravitate towards will remain more or less consistent. Why?
Well, for one thing, music becomes increasingly tangential in most people’s lives as they enter adulthood. Our focus shifts to career, family, home, etc., and taking the time and energy to stop and appreciate something entirely new doesn’t often fit into our increasingly busy schedules. It is far easier to simply write off a new style as “weird” or “just noise” than to take the time to figure out what makes it tick.
Learning new musical styles is much like learning anything else – a foreign language, how to work a computer, complex mathematic problems – it comes more easily to young flexible minds than to adults. The structures of our brains actually changes as we age, and the connections that allow us to learn new information give way to the parts if the brain that help us to remember things we already know.
That doesn’t mean we will never be able to appreciate new music once we grow up; it just means that it takes more time and energy. For example, I have never been very fond of jazz music. What I knew of it struck me as pompous, overblown, and so focused on showing off that it lacked cohesive organization. Then, about a year ago, I was assigned a jazz class to teach. Honestly, I was terrified. Jazz fans, in as much as I knew them, tended to be people who obsessively collected music and learned about artists and styles. I envisioned countless situations where my lack of deep knowledge of the style would be glaringly obvious to my classes.
Not only was I forced to learn an entirely new history of music, I needed to listen. Carefully. I needed to pick this music apart, learn what makes it tick, and figure out what musical characteristics made up the various sub-styles. Of course, the textbook would help direct my listening, but it was still crucial for me to be able to hear what I was teaching. I spoke to colleagues, spent countless office hours surrounding my brain and ears with this seemingly alien language, and gradually, bit-by-bit, the mysteries of jazz began to reveal themselves to me. Not only that, but I started to find myself gravitating toward certain styles over others. I formed a new set of tastes.
Of course, not everyone needs to become enough of an expert to teach a class in order to begin to appreciate a new style of music. That just happens to be a fringe benefit of my job. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for jumping in feet first and immersing yourself in an entirely new musical language. I can say that for me it was strange – like visiting a country where you don’t speak the language. I often had to rely on my skills as a listener and compare what I was hearing to various other styles that I knew to make sense of things. But, with time, patience, and effort, I can now say that there are certain styles of jazz that I enjoy quite a bit. Others, not so much, but I think that can be said for any kind of music.
So, what do you think? Where have your musical tastes gotten stuck? Are there connections between what you listen to now and the music of your youth? Have you ever considered branching out? I say, go for it!
The style of music, broadly speaking, that I appreciated most as a kid was peculiar. There weren’t a lot of options for discovering new sounds while growing up in Northeastern Wisconsin. We basically had four primary radio stations that I was familiar with: two played top forty hits, one played classic and hard rock, and one played oldies. Between that and MTV, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to discover much off the beaten path. As a result, my mode of self expression largely came from exploring the past.
One of my first favorite bands was the Beatles. I know that sounds like a cliché, but in the mid-1980s, it really was more of an anomaly. I sweet-talked my parents into giving me all of their Beatles vinyl, I recorded the records onto cheap cassette tapes, so I could listen with my Walkman and my boom box, and I dove head-first into a largely fictional reverie of life in a past from before I was even born. Even my parents thought I was obsessed, and they had lived through Beatlemania. That said, this strange approach to musical independence provided not only a point of differentiation from my peers but a point of contact with my parents, aunts and uncles, and other elders. Pretty soon, people from all over my family were giving me their old records and music memorabilia. Truth be told, it was pretty cool, and I still have a lot of it.
With that in mind, my musical stagnation lies largely in an era from before my own birth. Weird, but true…
So, how does that impact my taste today? I am still a fan of 1960s popular music, as well as that from the 1970s and 80s. I kind of missed the 1990s, but I came back to the fold of hearing new things by the new millennium.
So with that in mind, probably one of the bands of recent years that strays from my expected music tastes in the most satisfying way is a group called Kassidy. I particularly like their 2011 debut album Hope St.
Kassidy describes their sound as simply alternative rock, but they feature an interesting blend of foot-stomping rock and roll with complex electronic techniques and intricate vocal harmonies. They demonstrate surface characteristics of many different styles but combine them in a way quite unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.
Give it a listen, and tell me what you think!
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.