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Downloads, iPods make music more 'disposable'

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A University of Leicester psychologist has concluded that modern listeners don't value music as much as their 19th-century counterparts did - and he blames the iPod and music downloading.

A team of researchers from Leicester, Surrey and York universities, led by Leicester School of Psychology's Dr Adrian North, questioned 346 mobile-phone users by text message. Over a 14-day period, they were daily asked to report back on music they had heard in the previous 24 hours.

The goal of the study was to determine "people's experiences of music in naturalistic, everyday circumstances", said Dr North.

The results: participants are highly exposed to music; they listen to more pop than classical, jazz or other forms; they tend to listen when they're on their own; they tend to hear more music at home than in public; music was usually experienced during the course of some activity other than deliberate music listening, and - guess what - "liking for the music varied depending on who the participant was with, where they were, and whether they had chosen to be able to hear music".

All of which, we're sure, anyone could have told the researchers. Still, it's good to have it down in black and white, all statistically verified and everything. And it keeps academics off the streets.

In conclusion, Dr North notes: "In the 19th century, music was seen as a highly valued treasure with fundamental and near-mystical powers of human communication... Because so much music of different styles and genres is now so widely available via portable MP3 players and the internet, it is arguable that people now actively use music in everyday listening contexts to a much greater extent than hitherto.

"However, the degree of accessibility and choice has arguably led to a rather passive attitude towards music heard in everyday life: the present results indicate that music was rarely the focus of participants' concerns and was, instead, something that seemed to be taken rather for granted, a product that was to be consumed during the achievement of other goals."

All this is true, but has arguably been the case for the past 40 years, if not longer. Pop music is more accessible and more widely broadcast than other genres, so it's no wonder it's more widely heard and even, occasionally, listened to.

"Our relationship to music in everyday life may well be complex and sophisticated, but it is not necessarily characterised by deep emotional investment," says Dr North. But then, for good or ill, almost all modern music, even the good stuff, doesn't require emotional investment. Is that the listeners' fault, or the musicians?

Music is such a subjective experience that it's not a particularly social activity, even when done in the company of others. That's why personal audio products, stretching right back to the Walkman and beyond to transistor radios, have proved so popular. These are merely trends the iPod and other MP3 players tap into, rather than engender.

One trend has emerged in the download era: a greater degree of hoarding musical works, often beyond the capacity of the downloader to find the time to listen to them all. P2P file-sharing has made it possible for consumers to collect music to an extent never possible before, to the point where the collecting even seems to become more important than what's collected. ®

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