Consequences of sound recording and production technologies on listeners’ emotional responses to music

From the first sound recordings, there has been impassioned speculation on the consequences of technological advances on how people listen and response to music. Drawing from technical and musicological research, this paper looks at five themes in these discussions and considers how ongoing changes in how music is recorded and presented might challenge listeners further still.

Musician-less music

Recording technology upended the way we listen to music, from the cultural and socioeconomic constrains of who hears what sounds to the practical mechanics of accessing music at any moment. The success of these technologies is undeniable as they spread into people’s homes and public spaces, but their impacts were controversial during this invasion and still are a topic of debate today.

Early recording devices such as Edison’s phonograph were initially received as a novelty (Chanan, 1995, p. 7); not everyone could immediately see past the odd source and accompanying aural reminders of artifice to revel in the music. One of the first challenges for a culture faced with this new source of sound was to determine how to interact with it. Some people chose to treat the machine and recordings like human musicians, a tradition which continues in certain circles to this day. In his entertaining discussion on the effect of recordings on music listening, Eric Clarke describes attending a modern listening society meeting in the early 2000’s. Members sat in rows like a concert hall, facing the sound system, attending to the absent performer with politeness and sincerity (2007). Others more readily accepted the removal of the human performer as they were practiced in ignoring them anyway. Music added ambience to brothels, for example, and in the prerecording era great lengths had to be taken to make sure the musicians’ presence did not disturb the patrons. Evan Eisenberg relates an anecdote of Jelly Roll Morton playing from behind a screen and finding ways to enjoy the action while at work (2005, p. 75). Such establishments were eager to benefit from the separation of musician and music for the enjoyment of private listening.

Mass production, enabled by improved reproduction technology, brought concert music to new places and new audiences (Millard, 2005, p. 49), but contemporaries of the early commercial distribution of recorded music did not expect much from these new listeners. As records came to cost little more than day-to-day consumables, they feared the “domestication of sound” (Debussy) which would allow us to listen lazily (Stravinsky) and loose “our powers of musical concentration” (Keller) in this “boundless surfeit of music” (Schoenberg) (Clarke, 2007) (Eisenberg, 2005, p. 45). The rise of electronic sound production has lead music to become a near constant companion in modern life, employed for more base enjoyment than was acceptable to these composers and critics. But it can be argued that such uses are much the same as they ever were. Music has a long history as a means of advertisement, enhancement of theater and ceremony, pleasant background sound filler, and home entertainment (Bonds, 2003). Sound production technology, radio and record, gave these purposes new (commercial) value and in the process challenged a naive legacy of the 19th C. Romanticism which placed music above all over art forms for its supposedly incorruptible aesthetic purity (Bergh and Denora, 2009). Belief in “absolute” music persist in music academia today, where analyses of performance and recordings are still secondary to score studies which easily overlook the humanity of composers, performers, and listeners. But while sacred esteem of 19th C western art music may have been an anomalous extreme rather than the new normal, it is fair to wonder whether saturating our lives with music might desensitize us to its influence.

Removing the musician(s) from performance also allowed their influence to travel more widely than ever before. Within some genres, such as classical concert music, this has been blamed for an apparent standardization of performance practice–access to another musician’s performance inhibiting the development independent interpretations (Clarke, 2007). But the same ease of distribution has exposed listeners to a greater diversity of music styles, across temporal, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural boundaries. The “boundless surfeit of music” which upset Schoenberg has ironically allowed early 20th C. art music to spread farther than the usual selective concert audiences, specifically through its use in film scores. These reproductions assure a longer life for certain musical works, but they come at a cost: placed with particular images and narratives, genres and pieces take on affective meaning which may be quite distinct from the composer’s and performer’s intention. Serial music may sound more familiar to modern ears, but our hearing of it is likely tainted by learned association with suspense, horror, or science fiction (Eisenberg, 2005, p. 87).

Recordings fix performances as well as performance practice. To hear the same performance over and over for only the cost of time might be the most specific consequence of recording technology on how we hear music. The growth of notation practices and printing technologies had solidified the notion of a piece of music independent of the composer or performer. Musicians were (and are) judge by their interpretation of a piece and the capacity to perform it convincingly in the moment, when perturbations of all kinds might provoke a distinct and unique instantiation of the work. The removal of this chimerical potential for variation has been felt strongly by some music listeners. Music critic David Hamilton bemoaned the “loss of spontaneity” from repeated listening which can make music into a “security blanket”, while composer Roger Sessions told of once throwing a record of a favourite piece across a room because it was so infuriatingly known (Chanan, 1995). But repeated listenings also enable listeners to study pieces much like a performer might; beyond receiving when which notes are played, records gave listeners the luxury to consider how and why. Michael Chanan describes this kind of study a fetishization of specific performances, yielding obsession with fragments rather than insight into a complete work, but this view is at odds with the music academia’s programme of multi-faceted appreciation for musical masterpieces.

The particularities of repeated listening go beyond the possibility of knowing too much. Eisenberg decries the affective limits of recorded works, claiming: “Unlike singing or tickling the ivories, playing a record turns ‘our song’ into a rigid semantic unit whose statement cannot be modified to match new complexions of feeling. On record our song is framed, which means we are framed — framed as in an old photograph, the way we were or supposed to have been.” (Eisenberg, 2005) Eisenberg touches on recorded music’s documented ability to bring us back to earlier times and places like familiar smells, but his point about the inflexibility of recordings to give us new experiences is less well founded. Given the evidence that listeners can experience different emotions to the same work, I would consider the difference in live and recorded music to be a matter of degree, not of kind. And by putting record listening into its broader context of selective listening benefits arise from this reliability. According to Arild Bergh and Tia DeNora:

[The phonograph] thus allowed the listener to focus on music in separation from other activities and so readily lent itself to an ever-increasing devotion to music, whatever the genre. In this respect, and like the social distribution of mirrors in earlier times, the phonograph facilitated new ways of articulating self-identity, permitting listeners to reflect upon their own subjective responses as reliable (‘objective’) phenomena — the ability to watch oneself responding as a subject to a musical object. In this sense, the phonograph was an important medium for music’s role as a technology of the self.” (2009)

Rather than dull our interests and sensitivities, the capacity to listen to the same performance of a range of works grants new powers of introspect to modern listeners, previously only the privilege of artists. Cultural elites, like economic elites, may resent their advantages become common place, but that has not stopped the spread of these technologies.

Studio Perfection

Sound recording has yet to make a perfect archival copy of a musical performance. Advances in technology and recording strategies have striven to increase fidelity and/or improve the impression of fidelity to the attentive consumer. In the period of acoustic recording, when the sound inscribed on cylinder or disk was captured by a horn, the struggle for good balance and tone involved fitting reduced orchestras in small rooms, having singers roar directly into the recording devices, and trusting producers to chose carefully what sounds could be satisfactorily captured by the limited frequency range of these devices (Chanan, 1995, p. 57). Electric recording, including microphones, extended the frequency and loudness range of sounds recorded and added a new problem of recording in space: from whence should which sounds of a musical performance be captured?

The goal of realism was one answer to this question, pursued mainly for classical music recordings. Engineers and recording artists aimed to capture the concert experience, selling their best approximation to the “best seat in the house” without the annoyance of the candy wrappers and coughs of a real hall. Beside removing the audience and readjusting the balance to please the mics, recording the room’s acoustics became an important component of giving a live-like feeling to these records, and when those were not sufficient, artificial reverberation could be added.

Surrealism was the other answer to how to record with mics. Sound production practices for the talkies demonstrated that listeners were not terribly disturbed by blatant spatial perspective violations (Chanan, 1995, p. 78). Recording techniques produced a new code for indicating proximity and acoustic environment which could be manufactured in a studio. In music recording, close mic’ing invented new timbres and gave rise to the crooners in the late 1920’s (Greig, 2009). A closely mic’d voice could be romantic and intimate in the hands of Bing Cosby, but this proximity would later be spit-in-your-face disturbing when employed by the likes of Frank Zappa (Clarke, 2007). Whatever the reason for listener’s facility to accept acoustically impossible mixtures of sound, the paradigm of hearing music through radio and records changed the standards of professional music-making from playing a good show to the creation of a good recording as an ends to itself, rather than capture the most realistic performance.

Glenn Gould was one of the most striking proponents of this new aesthetic of recording-as-art rather than -as-archive. By affording repeated listenings, records demanded better interpretations of music than could be performed by humans in any given take, better than Gould’s own exceptional skill (Greig, 2009). While many were using magnetic recording technology to edit out mistakes, Gould saw it as an opportunity to mix for the most faithful and richest representation of the music (Eisenberg, 2005, p. 132). It surprises me then that Gould’s recordings still include his humming along, as if it were no intrusion on the super-robust interpretations he worked to capture on tape. Those who accept these additions probably appreciate the reminder of Gould the person, the performer, beside the precise piano playing.

A common theme in the reported struggles to make good recordings is the effort to sound natural, to sound human, on tape. The recording studio can feel very different from the practice room or stage, inhibiting heartfelt performance. Editing and mixing for a good final product may be simpler when each line is recorded separately, but some ensembles prefer to risking minor flaws for the feel of recording “live”, i.e. all together, as was common practice in the famous studio Sound City (Grohl, 2013). Many bands also use the studio setting to create new pieces collaboratively, balancing feedback of their peers and producer in the moment with their impressions when playing back the take. Such collaborations, common nearly everywhere but the classical concert stage, are again tangible after the long western music history of single author compositions. The rise of digital production software and the home studio make it possible for musicians of all levels to record pieces alone but such practices may not be the most fulfilling way to make music (Tomaz de Carvalho, 2012). In the words of Mick Fleetwood:

I think the downside these days is thinking that I can do this all on my own. Yes you can do this on your own but you’ll be a much happier human being to do it with other human beings, and I can guarantee you that. (Grohl, 2013)

It is hard to tell how the changes in technology and strategies have changed the experience of music in contemporary audiences, but their propagation is tied to their usefulness to practicing musicians. Behind the myths and suspicions of expert recording artists are the practiced sensitivities defining the sound and construction of each release. While the buying public may not have the words to describe why they feel draw to specific pieces and artists, their consumption patterns are, at least in part, a sign of support for the recording methods employed.


Early recordings were sold with an anxiety that the trace of music on disk could not compare to a live performance. Advertisements regularly overstated the realism of the sounds by claiming their products were indistinguishable from the acoustic source (Millard, 2005). But as the quality of recordings and home listening environments improved, music did not disappear from the stage. Music consumers continued to want to experience the live performance of their favourite musicians, to be in the audience when the magic happened. Of course, the live music experience did not persist unchanged by the developments in music technology. Besides the challenges of balancing sound in concert when mics and amps joined acoustic sound sources on stage, recordings had solidified listeners expectations of how pieces were to be performed. Musicians with a following are now faced with the choice to either meet their audiences practiced expectations or break them and hope for the the best. For many bands today, studio equipment has migrated, piece by necessary piece, onto the stage; some obvious, like samplers and drum machines, other more subtle, such as click tracks (Knowles and Hewitt, 2012).

In the new era of audio editing, where practiced skill is no longer a necessity under the grace of autotune and protools, live performances serve as proof of musicians’ power and validate the admiration of their fans. Speaking of rock music, Julian Knowles and Donna Hewitt claim that in concert ”[this]combination of performative agency, proof of skill, and the capacity to reproduce sounds heard on recordings, subsequently leads to an authentication of the performance.” (2012) For some genres, however, playing concerts like recording sessions takes does not work as well. Famous for his many early orchestral recordings, Toscanini was criticized for applying the restrictions of recording sessions to his concert performances which resulted in disappointing balance between instruments and muddiness from clipped tempi in the concert hall (Chanan, 1995, p. 120).

Amplification has also made it possible for music to be shared, or at least to be heard, by much larger groups than previously convenient. Free of the resonance limits of instruments and architecture, venues face the decision of how loud is just right for giving the audience the best experience. Acoustic consultant Ken Dibble tells of a time when music venues and clubs were limited in loudness by city council decree in Leeds in 1973. Concern for music induced hearing loss inspired local politicians to limit the sound levels with a max of 96 dB (A-weighted) and “predictably, popular music died on its feet”. After two years of public outcry, but restriction was loosen and the local music scene came back to life (Dibble, 1995). Dibble tells this to demonstrate the necessity of high energy sound for the success of some genres. While the inference is a little shaky, it is a common claim that increases of sound pressure level often make music sound “better” (Wuttke, 1999), and inversely a loss of overall sound level will make the music sound worse. This issue of level and quality is a concern for music production tech from headphones (Rumsey, 2011) to outdoor venues. A study looking at subjective ratings of sound qualities across many seats in a stadium show that a decrease of 3dB resulted in the impression of reduced audio quality rather than loudness (Cabrera and Willsallen, 2004). Thankfully a corresponding increase of 3dB did not have the same (opposite) effect, suggesting a healthy plateau of such benefits.

Private experience

Besides amping up public presentations of music, sound production technology allowed a new range of listeners to engage in private music listening. Like the historical reports of musicians and of those who had the means to employ musicians, private listening in the day-to-day is often employed for mood regulation. Many of today’s listeners report selecting music strategically, some to time to change their mood, and other times to explore and resolve feelings (Juslin and Laukka, 2004). Eisenberg describes this self therapy poetically:

. . . the use of records for catharsis seems especially apt. Your nameless, restless mood evokes a certain record. As the record revolves it seems to reel the mood out of you like a fish. It reels it in, draws it into itself. The mood and the record are one, and when the record is over, so is the mood. (2005, p. 164)

Particularly when listening alone, without the buffer and distractions of fellow audience members or the lives of the performers before us, we are vulnerable to the affective power of the music. Eisenberg also acknowledges this emotive weight may at times be a burden, admitting to being afraid of listening to great music alone (2005, p. 167).

Since music can exert such specific consequences on listeners’ moods, the success of ‘shuffle’ functions on digital playback systems is curious. In an article comparing the experience of hearing albums on vinyl, CD, and MP3, Rolling Stone contributor Joe Levy provides an telling example of this popular function: “Now I was just jumpy and eager for the sound to change. So I pushed ‘shuffle’. And suddenly everything was fine.” (Gerber, 2011) Shuffle is like leaving the radio on: we are not obliged to listen wholeheartedly, to be vulnerable and responsive, because we have relinquished responsibility for what is playing. Light modes of listening are also supported by the repeatability of recorded music in our collection, a fact which affords interruptibility, whether of our attention or the sound itself (Clarke, 2007).

Besides providing this important “shuffle” function, portable music players appear to have had considerable impact on how music is used in public spaces. If “radio units” and “records fracture”, according to Eisenberg in 1987, then portable music players encase the fragments so they need never touch again. In recent comparison of different earphone types, commuters strongly prioritized isolating properties (Lim and Lindborg, 2013). Headphone wearers in public spaces are excused from hearing and thus excused from acknowledging the lives around them (Gerber, 2011). Of course, this does not mean that they are divorced from their environment; listeners have the freedom to choose music congruent or contrasting with their immediate context. While some juxtapositions of music and space may surprise mp3 player users, the popularity of these devices suggests that any such conflicts are not a serious impediment to the satisfaction of listening to whatever we want, where ever we want.

To our ears

In recordings we hear captured sound, a signal carrying the characteristics of both the sound and the capturing. Because of this, Chanan claims: ”Above all, the techniques of reproduction mechanical, electrical, or electronic–creates distance, both physical and psychic–between performer and audience that simply never existed before, which produces new ways for music to be heard and allows the listeners totally new ways of using it.” (1995, p. 8) While the new ways of hearing and using are undeniable, one of the ongoing missions of audio research is to reduce that distance between performance and reproduction via improved fidelity. Changes from mono-miking to spot mics with live mixing, better engraving technologies, and mixing for stereo each brought new levels of clarity to the sounds people could hear at home, sometimes superseding what was normally audible during a live performance (Millard, 2005). These advances gave listeners more choice of what to attend to in a complex soundscape. Meanwhile, the characteristic timbres and sounds of earlier recordings are used referentially, surviving in a high quality audio world because of the times and values they evoke.

The flexibility of digital recordings made it easy for surround sound to move from the theatre to the home (Soulodre et al., 2003). Besides the occasional gimmick, music rarely involves sound sources behind the audience, however the sound of reflections from all sides are normally part of listeners experience of music in performance spaces. The characteristics of late reflections effect the sensation of envelopment (Soulodre et al., 2003), an characteristic of recorded sound correlated with ratings of liking and presence (Berg and Rumsey, 2003). Though influenced by other components of recording sound (such as reverberation and over playback level), envelopment has been related to listeners emotional arousal, according to self reported if not physiological measures (Fletcher, 2011). Higher spatial accuracy, whether reproduced through speaker arrays or binaurally, is currently a fast moving area of research, and the outcomes are perceptually striking to expert listeners (Romblom et al., 2012)(Rumsey, 2011).

While it is possible to have incredibly accurate recordings presented for optimal clarity and richness, the consequences of these technologies are not, to date, revolutionary. Huge portions of the music-consuming public are willingly listen in ways that heavily compromise the audio signal such as playing music from youtube over mobile phone speakers, or on car sound systems while driving on the highway. The wild proliferation of MP3s during the 2000’s suggests that consumers prioritize content over quality when looking for an immediate music fix (Millard, 2005). While some audiophiles will put the energy and money into the best, a lot of listeners are happy to use whatever is on hand (like the cheap headphones packaged with mp3 players) so long as the music is accessible (Lim and Lindborg, 2013).

The power of accurate spatialization is more obvious for the gaming industry: sufficiently precise and responsive sound fields are essential for convincing virtual and augmented reality games (Faria and Zuffo, 2006) (Conway and Paterson, 2010). How could such technology revolutionize our experience of music? Once virtual acoustic manipulation has reached a sufficient level of both accuracy and efficiency, personalization and listener choice may very well make these technologies relevant to music consumers.Packaged sound equalization settings on stereo systems have not been all that impactful, but the possibility of hearing a symphony from the conductor’s platform or a band from the drummer’s elbow would bring a new level of musical appreciation to the curious (and obsessed).

When deeply absorbed in recorded music, we can forget its frame of fiction, at least until a clue intrudes on our experience such as having to change records. Higher fidelity should lessen the gap which Chanan claimed was uncrossable in 1995. Hypothetically, we should be able to experience all the benefits of live music like the convincing presence of performers, without the distractions of live performance includes. In the closing chapter of the latest edition of Recording Angel, Eisenberg ventures into science fiction, trying to answer this question of where recorded music might go next. One of his vignettes describes listening turned into a virtual reality game, wherein the listener/player experiences the sight, sounds, and smells of live performance from the stage, experiencing the thrill of performance by playing as famous musicians, complete with their technical skills (2005, p. 218). This may be a perversion of music, the evolutionary cheesecake end of a powerful social activity, but consumers would likely be eager to pay for such a privilege. In a deeply immersive reproduction of music, would we forget our power of choice or its interruptibility? For the sake of new music and humanity (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999), I hope not.


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This essay was composed as a componenet of my Candidacy Exams in Music Technology at NYU, Steinhardt.
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Consequences of sound recording and production technologies on listeners’ emotional responses to music by Finn Upham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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