As one might expect, the coronavirus lockdown has had some profound effects on our media consumption. The abandonment of regular commuting habits has proven damaging for the leading steaming platforms, as commuters without a commute no longer need a soundtrack for their journey. Spotify streams tanked as social distancing and lockdown measures were introduced, with demand in Italy dropping by 23%.
The lockdown is changing the mindset with which people are consuming music. While Spotify is synonymous with music on the move, streaming platforms that are geared towards intentional deep listening are now seeing a boom.
A New Context
Thomas Steffens, the CEO of leading classical music platform Primephonic, explains the shift in listening habits. “While general music streaming is down by about 10% in the US, classical music listening is higher than ever. The classical music genre offers listeners hope and peace of mind, both of which are much needed in these times. At Primephonic, we have seen classical music streaming grow at double-digit rates over the last few weeks. It even appears that the more a country is affected by COVID-19 and its population forced into isolation, the more people listen to classical music. In France, for instance, we have seen classical music streaming surge by 47% on our platform”.
Data from Primephonic shows that listening habits are changing on a country by country basis as the lockdowns arrive, and listening habits are shifting in line with our new behaviors. Their “Keep Calm” playlist, curated by Maryna Boiko, is proving to be the most popular during these troubled times. Many of the 3.5 million tracks in their catalog are available in lossless 24bit FLAC format which is higher than CD quality, and their integration with SONOS, mobile devices, and regular web browsers makes Primephonic a popular choice.
The Art Of Listening
Many factors contribute to an excellent listening experience at home, starting with the recording itself. Seven-time Grammy award-winning producer and engineer Frank Filipetti has worked on many hundreds of recordings including Foreigner‘s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” The Bangles‘ “Eternal Flame” and live albums by Dolly Parton, Frank Zappa and Billy Joel. Filipetti defines the art of listening as an essential part of what it means to be human. “Informed listening is an activity that enhances your life and your well-being, and also your appreciation of all things artistic. There is something incredible to be gained by taking a few minutes out of the day, away from mobile phones and business and whatever, and really enjoying a piece of music. It could be five minutes, it could be 30 minutes, but taking the time to listen to music for its own sake is important, as human beings have done for thousands of years.”
With the infinite jukeboxes and digital content on our smartphones, Filipetti sees the danger of music being devalued by its ubiquity. “We’re exposed and hearing more music than ever before, but we’re not listening as much. Many times we are reacting unconsciously to some music but without really listening to the beauty or the emotional content of what it is. We’re in danger of turning it into just some background noise.”
Filipetti is no technophobe; he was an early advocate of digital recording technology and remains an evangelist. “In today’s world, there has never been a recording medium as true or as emotional as a well-done high-resolution digital recording. We have never been able to achieve the same kind of resolution under any analog system in the past.” For Filipetti, audio technology should be used to capture genuine human emotion, not replace it. “I think part of what we’re doing in music production today is we’re catering to a need for perfection. But a great recording is not about the instrumentalists playing perfectly; it’s about the emotion that they are creating.”
Filipetti adds that the subtle processing of the final recordings, or mastering, has been a casualty of our move from albums to algorithmically generated streaming playlists. “You are now mastering your songs not just for their position in your album, but you’re mastering them against every other song in the world. The only impulse is to keep making it louder, louder, louder until you lose all semblance of dynamic range. It’s like we’re in a mass-produced society that’s mass-producing these tiny little snippets of emotion. But we need to take a step back, often it’s those things that we invest a little bit more time in that are important. You know, nothing comes for free. If you invest your energy into listening to an entire work, be it a symphony or be it an album, it will reward you a dozen times over.”
The Science Of Listening
Definition is a critical factor in the art of deep listening, according to Dr. Hauke Egermann, assistant professor in music psychology at the University of York. “With a higher spectral resolution, I would be able to experience the expressiveness of the music better. And that’s one of the reasons why music is emotional to us, because it sounds like someone is expressing something; they use acoustic cues for that, timbre cues and spectral cues. The more detailed they are, the better we can pick up that signal and decode it. The more variety and variability we’ve got in these parameters, the more emotive music becomes to us. The better that spatial resolution works, the better we can separate the different elements of the music. The dynamic experience of music-the experience of tension-is associated with our ability to identify individual objects, streams, instruments and voices. The better that works, the deeper our experience becomes.”
Dr. Sean Olive is the former president of the Audio Engineering Society and a senior research fellow for HARMAN International, a major manufacturer of audio products for consumer, professional and automotive spaces. Dr. Olive has written over 50 research papers on the perception and measurement of audio, many of which have won prestigious industry awards. He observes that a high-quality listening experience depends not only on how recordings are engineered, produced and mastered, but also the equipment on which they are listened to. “You need to get yourself a really good pair of speakers, they are the most important element.” However, Dr. Olive warns that some speakers will degrade entire blocks of the audio frequency range. “In our test, we found that bass quantity alone accounts for 30% of the listener’s preference when they’re judging a speaker. Music consists of information from 20Hz to 20kHz, so if your speaker only goes down to 100Hz, you’re missing two octaves.”
When it comes to choosing headphones, Dr. Olive cautions that sometimes there can be very little relationship between price and quality. “In 2017 we did a survey of 200 headphones, and we found the correlation between the price and the sound quality was 0.22, almost zero. You can go out and spend a lot of money and get not a very good sound.”
Another vital factor for a high quality deep listening setup is the home environment, according to Geoff Martin, Bang & Olufsen‘s most senior tonmeister (sound engineer). “The biggest enemy is the room itself. You can fix your it, meaning put up some curtains and a couple of sweaters and a cozy couch to soak up the reverb, or you can get a system that has room compensation built-in.” Room compensation is a feature of a new generation of smart speakers, including many Bang & Olufsen models like the new Beosound Balance. A speaker with room compensation will digitally measure the dimensions of your room and adjust the sound to deliver the best possible listening experience. Martin is also an advocate of high-resolution digital audio-such as that provided via services like Qobuz, Primephonic and Tidal-but he recommends a joined-up approach when designing your setup. “People really should pay attention to what the weakest link is. If you’ve got 128k MP3s there is no point in spending a hundred thousand dollars on a pair of speakers. You really have to bring the whole system up together. You can’t blame one thing for quality, but you can blame one thing for lack of it.”
David Tovissi, the VP of luxury audio at HARMAN, reveals that as cocooned music lovers are evolving towards deep listening, the manufacturers of the best audio equipment are seeing an increased demand for their products. “We have noticed an uptick in the sales of our luxury audio products since the beginning of the year. In particular, we see increased demand for the most valuable items like the Mark Levinson 519 Digital Audio Player and the JBL Synthesis series of products. We attribute this to the natural comfort that music delivers along with enhanced online retail experiences. The click and deliver nature of ecommerce provides great value now that people are trying to avoid crowds. People naturally turn to music for comfort and familiarity, and luxury customers are always looking for optimal quality.”
The Heart Of Listening
The increased demand for deep listening during the COVID-19 crisis echoes research conducted by Dr. Egermann in 2017. He found that taking time off to listen to music has an essential function in managing to cope with the emotional challenges we experience. He is keen for more people to enjoy the benefits of deep listening, particularly during these stressful times. “People spend hours listening to music, but maybe sometimes in a more superficial way where it rises up somewhere in the background. It would be great if we could change that.”
Dr. Egermann believes that creating awareness about the importance of deep listening is vital. “We need to encourage people to engage with the music they like, and with the structural, compositional elements of music. To do this, just sit down with your favorite piece of music for a couple of minutes, listen to different parts and try to work out what comes when, and maybe write it down. Also engage with what is happening beyond the pure acoustical element-with the artist behind it-so that you can appreciate it as a piece of art.”
Composer Philip Glass once said, “The problem with listening, of course, is that we don’t. There’s too much noise going on in our heads so we never hear anything.” When the noise of our regular lives returns, I am hopeful that we will not forget the precious moments of solace and healing that music can bring. Amongst all of the turmoil and tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a valuable opportunity to rediscover the art of listening.