There was a time when I knew what I wanted to listen to, when I was poor but bought CDs anyway. I had stacks of CDs, purchased with enthusiasm and knowledge shared among friends. Finances stopped counting, however, once I discovered Napster and CD-burning. When I started storing my music on my computer, saving songs was no longer a physical, deliberate effort; a mouse-click sufficed. And I kept on clicking.
I'm now closing in on 95 gigabytes — just over 22,000 songs — of music. Much of it I've never listened to, but there's little logic to be found once passion gets in the way. One might say that I have too much music readily available at my fingertips. In seven years, predicts Google VP Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, every song ever recorded in the world will fit in our pockets.
"The average 14-year-old can hear more music in a month than someone would have heard in an entire lifetime just 300 years ago," says psychologist Dan Levitin, who wrote This Is Your Brain on Music. Thanks to digital-music distributors like CD Baby, any independent musician's songs can now appear on iTunes. Heaps of old songs are finding new life in digital files too. According to Apple spokesperson Tom Neumayr, more than six million songs are now in the iTunes Store.
This means two things: 1) I have 5,978,000 songs to go, and 2) "It's too early to say how this will affect our relationship with music," says Levitin. "We might become more attached — because we have so much choice — or less, because the choice causes us not to bond or bind to a particular musical piece."
Why people desire what they do is intrinsically linked to imprinting, our state during early experiences, and reinforcement. And what gets hammered into our psyches is as influenced by the size of the hammer as it is by our psyches themselves. This is what allows intelligent people to enjoy the Spice Girls in the company of long-lost friends, tequila, and an impromptu "Wannabe" karaoke session — but not that genius John Cage piano concerto that their friends find annoying.
A glut of choice means we spend less time listening to the same music as others, reducing reinforcement. Music's increased portability leads to more personalization when we do listen to music, leading to "increasing dissatisfaction with radio, music CDs, and any other noncustomized form of music consumption," says Charles Areni, a professor at the University of Sydney. "Since consumers can now customize their music environments, any 'one size fits all' approach will not make anybody happy."
Social psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, identifies changes from our habit of listening to singles too: "Less album listening means that people aren't forced to listen to things that don't turn them on right away, and as a result, tastes change less." Yep — having six million songs at hand means that tastes actually change less. It's a common predicament for anyone wanting to expand tastes: knowing that there's no reason to listen to the end of a song, much less an entire album you don't "get" right away. Even though it ultimately will expand my palette, do I really have the patience to get into heavy metal, when I already know I love Spoon?
Faced with such an overwhelming amount of music, most people are fine with settling into choice-simplifying filters. The danger of such inundation is that we're unaware of how dependent on filters we are and how they filter in the first place.
We're forced to leave out a lot, possibly never even finding the song that will change our lives, and it's to our benefit to be OK with it. But how can I deny myself the potential to hit the jackpot, when pressing "shuffle" is as easy as pointing? I never had this problem in high school, listening to OK Computer on repeat. At the gym, my iPod is like a remote control or a slot machine, flicking through 500 songs, searching for another emotive spike. I now find myself getting bored even in the middle of songs, simply because I can.
The paradox of spending so much time changing songs, trying to find one that you like, is that you wind up attached to none of them. "Yes, there is too much music product, and most of it is terrible," says Peter Crabb, an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State University. "Kids can spend more time trying to figure out what to listen to and fiddling with their computers and MP3s than actually spending quality time listening to good music."
And there is good music out there. As Ravi Dhar, the director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management, says, "At some point, one has to stop looking for the best strawberries and start eating them."