It’s no secret that our attention spans are getting shorter. While it used to be around twelve seconds, that has fallen to an average of just eight. We now have so many things to check on our phones - Instagram, Facebook, Messenger, emails, the Harbinger of Doom…sorry, I mean ‘The News App’.
We even have short attention spans when it comes to music. In general, today’s most popular songs are one minute and thirteen seconds shorter than they were twenty years ago. We’re also increasingly turning to playlists instead of albums. If you take a look at Apple Music’s ‘Browse’ section, the majority of your screen will be taken up by playlist recommendations, with a measly ‘New Releases’ section devoted to albums.
It links back to an article I wrote in Issue 3, about how music is becoming more and more personalised as a result of streaming, meaning we’re less likely to explore songs that are outside our sonic comfort zone. Why would we spend an hour listening to a whole album, where we might only recognise half the songs, when we could listen to a personally curated playlist full of songs that we know we like?
However, I’m here to argue that listening to an album all the way through offers a unique experience that is missing from a playlist, no matter how personalised it might be. There’s often an arc or an evolving story that runs throughout an album, and listening to each track in the right order brings out aspects of the songs that are missed when listening to them individually.
To use a familiar analogy, think about watching a series on Netflix. You wouldn’t just start on episode 7 of The Queen’s Gambit, and then watch episode 4, followed by episode 9. Okay, okay, I know that watching a TV show is in many ways a completely different kettle of fish to listening to an album.
But on the other hand, a collection of songs in an album will hang together and take you through a carefully orchestrated succession of emotional peaks and troughs, just as a TV series will take you on a journey in a similar way.
However, the rise of playlists isn’t the only thing that’s hindering our appreciation of albums.
I’m a huge CD and Vinyl obsessive - I love looking through the little booklets that come with each one, enjoying the artwork up close, and, call me old-fashioned, but there’s just something special about putting the disc into the CD player or dropping the needle on a "45" record, compared to just streaming a song on your phone.
I tend to put on a CD or Vinyl whenever I’m writing an essay, sorting through emails, taking a shower, or playing Xbox. I think we can all agree that whatever the task, however mundane it might be, listening to music makes it a little more enjoyable.
As usual, over the festive period, the constant feeling of needing to be productive had thankfully vanished. During a pleasant lull in a wintry afternoon, I thought I’d listen to a new Vinyl that I’d gotten for Christmas.
When I went to play it, I thought, ‘Oh, but what shall I do while I listen?’ It felt too curmudgeonly and too close to Christmas to start my coursework, and I didn’t really fancy playing FIFA at that moment in time. Hmm, what to do? Heaven forbid I simply listen to music on its own.
And that’s when it dawned on me that it had been ages since I simply sat down and enjoyed an album, cover to cover, without doing anything else while I listened. This reminded me of some reading I’d done for my dissertation topic, which is ‘Buddhist Mindfulness’. (You’ll have noticed by now that, as an Oxford Masters student, I like to pretentiously mention that I’m an Oxford Masters student as often as possible).
The whole idea of mindfulness is that we focus our mind on one thing, and try not to let our thoughts wander or stray too far from the object of our attention. The notion of multi-tasking is hugely anti-Buddhist, and the authors of Ikigai - a book all about the sense of flow we feel when we’re engrossed in our present activity - say that multi-tasking is actually a myth. In reality, we just switch between two activities really quickly, rather than doing both at the same time. This tires out our brains tremendously.
But this is exactly how I’d been listening to music, with my mind only ever half-focussed on it, with the other half centred on my writing, FIFA, and so on.
So instead of playing my new Vinyl as a soundtrack to another activity, I’ve started trying to let it take centre stage in the arena of my concentration. And I have to say, it’s so much more rewarding - you become engrossed in the atmosphere the artist has created, you notice subtleties in the music that you’d never heard before, and personally, I found it much more relaxing than playing FIFA at the same time (and that’s not just because I’m bad at FIFA…).
It sounds like such a cliché, but you really feel the music more. To balance out the obnoxiousness of mentioning my degree earlier, I’ll confess that I even danced around a bit in my room as the music played (imagine Hugh Grant’s dad-dancing in Love Actually, minus the coolness of Hugh Grant).
I know that we live in a time where everything moves at 100mph, and we rarely have an hour to spare to just sit down and listen to an album. But when you do have a moment, I’d urge you to try engrossing yourself in an album, and letting the music take you on a journey.
Or, to express it in another way - be Mindful of your Melodies. Hmm, I’m sure there’s a good name for a magazine in there somewhere…