Why mood playlists will eventually numb your feelings

“Chill playlists are the purest distillation of Spotify’s ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper”, according to Liz Pelly in The Baffler. Lately there has been some critical writing about Spotify. About the stock music (or so called fake artists) on the platform, which dominate mood playlists, and the rising phenomenon of playlists itself. It turns out that a new type of listener is evolving: someone who is less interested in artists or albums, but simply wants to use music as a tool to accompany certain moods or activities. So complimentary to Adele and Pharrell we can now follow ‘Study Zone’, ‘Running Power’, ‘Dining Music’ and, of course, ‘Bedroom Jams’.

This has already given cause for discussions about the intrinsic value of music as art, as well as the growing problem for authentic and independent artist to build a sustainable career within this business model. So I’m not going to write about that. Rather, I’m curious about the popularity of mood playlists: why does ‘Piano in the Background’ have more than 700.000 followers? In 2003 I graduated from university with the thesis Changes in Music Perception. Fifteen years later, I find it interesting to make up the balance again. So first, I’d like to give you a short impression of music perception in the western world until right now.

Before the invention of recording and radio, music was something that always required a high level of concentration. You would either make the music yourself, or you would listen to a live performance by others. It was very likely that a live performance was your only chance ever to enjoy a particular piece of music. So you’d better get the best out of the moment by listening very carefully to this symphony, or dancing with complete surrender to that suite. Because of highly concentrated listening, music until the late 18th century could be somewhat adventurous and challenging for your ears, though as a rule is wasn’t too complicated.

This all changed when music became recordable and transmittable. Thanks to radio and records, music could leave the concert halls and enter our homes. We could listen to records again and again, whenever we wanted to. Around 1900, this gave rise to two different developments. At one side of the spectrum, highly concentrated listeners could handle more complex styles in composed music, which was given to them by Stravinky, Schönberg and the likes.

At the other side, when you repeatedly can play a record in your living room, concentration and silence are not required anymore. Moreover, you can simply not maintain the same brain activity for concentrated listening the whole time through. Consequently, if listening to music is not your main activity anymore, is could be something that happens on the side. Hence we have the birth of background music. And something that happens in the background shouldn’t be too intrusive, catch attention or contain surprises. Ideally, the musical structure is easy to understand and has lots of repetition. Let’s say that this is what pop music is about, in general.

Now fast forward to 2018. Music is not only recordable and transmittable, but due to streaming all music is available now at any time. Music is literally everywhere now, mostly as background. If you search for it though, there is a lot of complex music to find in all kinds of styles. But mainstream music has become highly predictable and more of the same. Unless you visit classical concert halls or theatres, it’s hard to find a place now where concentrated listening to music is the main activity. Pop concerts and dance nights merely seem to be more and more about drinking, socialising and maintaining presence on Instagram. This is at least the case in The Netherlands, where the ongoing chatter during concerts has been called ‘the Dutch disease’.

You can say that music is a huge part of our lives, but it’s not in the spotlight anymore. Now let’s take a look at how music actually works in people. There is basically no other activity that stimulates more brain activity than making music. Listening to music causes less, but also still a lot of brain activity. It affects us on all kinds of levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. I think a lot op people would agree with me on the allegation that music is the art form that touches us emotionally on the deepest level. Music has the ability to express feelings that rise above the conceptual, those we cannot give words to. It’s an incredible powerful means to experience and process emotions.

So how can it be that music, which plays a huge role in our emotional lives, is devaluated to wallpaper? Out of curiosity I listen to ‘Piano in the Background’. I mean I really listened to it, with all my attention. The piano pieces were light, pleasant, never intrusive, no unexpected surprises. Nevertheless, the music made me feel a bit sentimental or melancholy. And what struck me, was the actual quality of my emotions caused by the piano pieces. It felt somewhat superficial….even artificial. To me, it felt exactly like watching The Voice or some other emo-tv format exclusively designed to stir up basic emotion. On a mental level, I really don’t care whether this or that singer has not made it to the finals of the show. But due to the carefully directed camerawork combined with the right background music, I cannot help getting watery eyes without knowing exactly why.

It’s no secret that there are lots of tricks in music to manipulate primary emotions. The artists featured at ‘Piano in the Background’ perfectly know which chord progressions and modulations are able to do so. It’s just that, when music is solely made for this purpose, it feels a bit like someone is taking the piss out of me. I prefer to be touched by an artist who tells a story and shares a personal experience, who wants to genuinely communicate with people through music. If that music moves me, it often feels different because I connected with the particular story on a more complex and personal level.

You might say that this is just my personal taste in music. If others prefer to be moved by non-intrusive piano pieces, than that’s their choice. Why bother? Well, I’m not so sure about that. At this point I cannot help but think of the dystopian society Aldous Huxley described in A Brave New World, where the dominant control over people happens through entertainment, inflicting superficial pleasure and maintaining an almost infinite appetite for distractions. All this in order to avoid that people would become introspective, start thinking and feeling independently and therefore become less controllable.

For a great deal, we’re already there. Little red circles on our phone provide us with an ongoing stream of messages we compulsively react to (yay, someone wants my attention!). And if there are no alerts left to please the reward system in our brain, there is always a ‘feed’ to scroll. In this feed, we mostly encounter lightly entertaining content, not too long or too complicated. Cute animals or your friend’s newly born recall feelings of tenderness. The absurd actions of the American president or #metoo recall feelings of outrage, and by condemning them we can emphasize our own moral superiority. And all this information reaches us through our own social filter bubble: where we keep on seeing more of the same, where our own beliefs are constantly confirmed and hardly ever disturbed by controversial opinions.

Just like our favourite mood playlist, where we are sure to be hearing exactly what we signed up for. No unexpected surprises to challenge our musical taste here. Its music is carefully designed to give you a nice, but superficial and controlled experience. The background quality of mood music gently triggers your most basic emotions júst enough to make you feel alive, without stirring up your internal world too much. Excellent! So with a sense of complacency, you can just carry on studying or doing the dishes, without having to contemplate your own life or the state of world.

And this is where I see a problem: we do love to feel emotions to some extend because it makes us feel alive, but a great deal of the time we experience them through modern media it’s not about ourselves, not about our own lives. This is our comfort zone and I think we should get out of it. It’s like the nagging dread some long lasting couples are sugar-coating by binge watching series on Netflix to indulge in other people’s emotions, rather than experiencing their own emotions in a real life relationship.

In this time and age, it has never been easier to focus on what’s happening outside of ourselves, everybody does it. And it can be quite uncomfortable to turn your attention inward. To sit with yourself alone, just with your own thoughts and emotions. Who knows what will show up? Your deepest fears and desires might not be as convenient as your superficial and carefully controlled emotions, but they are the key to a fully engaged life where you will get to know yourself on a deeper level. Where you can experience pure joy or pure sadness, instead of mediocre moods.

Music is a great tool for connecting deeply with yourself and others. But therefore we have to pull it out of the background, to allow it to play a main role in our lives. So if you’re not used to listening to music as an activity on it’s own, I challenge you to do the following: Choose an album by your favourite composer, artists or a mix by your favourite deejay, and just listen. Listen the whole thing through with attention, without doing anything else on the side. Open your heart, engage with the story the music is telling you, also the parts that don’t appeal to you immediately. And see what happens.

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