The ways that we listen and engage with music have changed drastically over the past 150 years. Starting with the invention of the phonograph in the late 1800s, sound systems have evolved at lightning speed to match musician and consumer demands. That brings us to the central question recently posed by Berkeley Connect in Music mentor Peter Humphreys: “How does technology alter how we listen to music?”

Humphreys is a Ph.D. candidate in music with a focus on sound systems and technology, so this discussion topic was near and dear to his heart. He began by surveying the room full of Berkeley Connect students for examples of recording devices and listening formats. Examples given included streaming services, digital audio workspaces such as Garageband, and good old-fashioned cassette tapes. Shocking for 2019, one student commented that he had a collection of over 190 cassette tapes! The group then attempted to categorize the recording devices into classes such as digital or analog, a task that proved challenging due to the cross-over between certain types of recording technology, especially when factoring in items such as headphones and microphones that function as parts of both listening and recording systems.

Not surprisingly, all the students responded affirmatively when asked whether they listened to some or all their music through digital services such as iTunes or Spotify. The ease of access to music has made it enjoyable for people of all cultural backgrounds and the diversity of content available is a great innovation of modern technology.

One of the most interesting takeaways for someone unfamiliar with music history was the fact that music was never intended to be a recorded art form. Live concert hall performances of Mozart and Bach were considered the pinnacle of music and attempts to replicate such experiences with recording devices were thought to devalue music overall. In fact, the phonograph was originally created for the purpose of taking notes, not recording music at all! Nevertheless, once the option was on the table, the appeal of recording and listening devices could not be overlooked and consumers couldn’t get enough.

This topic segued nicely into the next part of the discussion: listening to some newer songs and evaluating how technology affected the recording and consuming of each one. One song that the students listened to was Childish Gambino’s 2016 song “Stand Tall,” an amalgamation of genres including R&B and funk.

In small groups, students talked animatedly about how the song made them feel and what they picked up on by focusing on the auditory effects and tools the song employed. Many of the students agreed that “Stand Tall” was an example of how much technology can alter the music in significant ways. Without modern mixing and recording devices, it’s unlikely Childish Gambino would have been able to achieve the same vibrant sounds and effects.

After a few minutes of small group discussion, the mentor brought the groups back together to analyze the song together. As students described what their groups had discussed, the mentor moved to specific parts of the song to help students demonstrate their points. One student remarked that technological innovations in listening and recording altered perceptions of fluid music that might have once been considered too strange for mainstream audiences.

One of the most striking things about observing how students listened to music was the almost tangible feeling of rhythm that exuded from each small group. Some students bobbed their heads while others tapped their fingers or feet in sync with the music. Everybody was relaxed while listening and it was easy to forget where you were as the speakers played loudly throughout the room. It was almost as if you were transferred to another dimension both by the songs themselves and by the passion of the students and the mentor.

The students left in good moods, some hanging back to talk about the topics in-depth with the mentor or to use the piano present in the room. Peter Humphreys obviously knew his stuff when it came to technology and engaged the students in active discussion, making sure everybody’s voice was heard. The perspectives that students expressed were informative and there was a ton of excellent peer learning and friendly discussion. Overall, I left feeling like both a better music scholar and a more educated music consumer and I can’t wait to hear more from the Berkeley Connect in Music program.

posted by Dylan McIlvenna-Davis, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant (Class of ’20)