We live in the loudest of times. It all began about twenty years ago, when new digital technologies started to radically alter the way music was made, refined, and shared. It suddenly became fairly easy to endow songs with a more aggressive presence: with a click of the mouse, you just made it all—especially the quiet parts—louder. Since then, there’s been a debate over the effects of the “loudness wars” on our ability to appreciate nuance, particularly the dynamic range between loud and soft that, in the parlance of audiophiles, gives music the room to “breathe.”
But now that we listen to music everywhere—often in a semi-distracted state, across a range of devices and settings—it should come as no surprise that artists want their music to come pre-coated with a glossy immediacy. First impressions matter. Why not insure that you can’t be ignored?
Think of how many contemporary pop hits sound as if they were being belted from within a jet engine. The quiet parts of a Taylor Swift song buzz more boldly than the brashest moments of a heavy-metal album from the nineteen-eighties. The imperfections that resulted when artists pushed their recordings past peak levels have given way, in pop music, to new techniques, textures, and tastes. It’s just how music sounds now, from the noisy, self-conscious revolt of Kanye West’s “Yeezus” and the distorted crunch that occurs when a pop song hits the chorus to the way that MP3s gleam with a pre-formatted sizzle.
Decades ago Leonard B Meyer wrote that technology may have changed how we listen but that it wasn't the ease of access in itself that changed things. He proposed, in a lengthy essay in a reprint of Music, the Arts, and Ideas that what most changed in the late 20th century about our experience of music was not necessarily how much music we could hear or how we listened to it in itself but where we listened. In earlier eras we had to listen to music by going where the music was. Concerts, going to the musicians' homes, going to the objects that played music that were at our homes. The emergence of portable music players and headphones meant we could listen to music during an afternoon walk. An upshot of all of this, Meyer stated, was we began to become a culture that listened to music as a secondary activity to any and all of the other stuff we were doing. Music became the soundtrack of our lives, the background music to whatever we were doing.
Meyer proposed that what this did was divested the music listening experience from the prior relational contexts in which people would have heard music. But at a more practical level what Meyer suggested changed was that if you're listening to music while doing something else you're not giving it your full attention. Meyer has written a LOT on how successful musical styles can withstand intermittent or even inattentive listening: if you weren't listening closely there's enough informational and structural redundancy built into the music that if you stopped intently listening for seconds or even minutes you have time to refocus your listening and you'll still get the basic idea. Maybe not every last little syllable but basically you'll get the words.
Meyer used to write that the shortcoming of total serialist music was it had no redundancy in information or perceptual form. Meyer wrote that minimalism was an example of a musical style that could account for inattentive listening by having so much informational and stylistic redundancy.
But at the level of audio engineering the loudness in music may be explicable by the recognition of people who make music that we tend to listen to music while walking or jogging around; while we're in vehicles going from point A to point B. If you don't crank up the dynamic compression then a lot of music can't even be heard by the people who are listening to music as part of their lengthening urban commutes.
And that gets to another thing, what kind of music might you listen to if you're spending an hour or three on public transit? The gossimar lines of a string quartet by Gyorgy Kurtag? Choral music by Poulenc? Ha! Right, whatever. How about ... Stevie Wonder? Okay, yeah, that's entirely practical.