When the digital music revolution began in the early 21st century, I had a front-row seat. As the architect of Pandora Radio’s Music Genome Project, it was my job to devise a system to analyze and categorize all styles of music so that a machine-learning algorithm could more successfully lead listeners to new music they would enjoy.
The goals of this project — which became the core of Pandora’s streaming service — were lofty. Pandora’s founders, and the music analysts who worked with me, wanted nothing less than to democratize music, to free it from the hegemony of record executives and DJs, and to better enable artists to connect directly with fans.
Yet, as with every revolution, there were unforeseen consequences.
Today Pandora, Spotify, Tidal,Apple Music, YouTube and other digital services give us instant access to virtually any song. But that has also invited fragmentation that affects the recording industry and how we experience music. As fewer people use the same platform, it’s hard for under-the-radar artists to find their fans or earn a living. In turn, fans will never find — or share — a potential new favorite song if it’s not available on their platform of choice. The collective listening of days-gone-by has been replaced by earbuds and a personal playlist.
Let’s take out the earbuds and turn up the speakers again — at least from time to time. Sing in a choir. Jam. Launch a fan club for your favorite band.
This no doubt reflects our larger zeitgeist of cultural fragmentation. No longer do we have — as Roger Waters sang on Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” — “13 channels” of garbage “on the TV to choose from”; today we seemingly have 13,000 options. There are musical moments that still unite us: the “Hamilton” cast album, maybe a Super Bowl halftime performance, or when we stop to mourn a musician such as Prince, collectively swaying to “Purple Rain.” But these now seem few and far between.
Is our musical isolation playing a contributing role in the broader fragmentation of our society? That would be terribly ironic — because music, as much as any other human invention, is an inherent unifier.
Starting in our youth, music helps us find and define our immediate social cliques and communities, becoming the soundtrack of our emerging identity: Are we mods or rockers, East Coasters or West Coasters, Swifties or KatyCats? On a deeper level, the music of our respective cultures binds us together via their underlying rhythms, harmonies and scales: the major / minor scales of the West, the pentatonic scales of China, the microtonal inflections of the Middle East, etc. We also share specific songs in our collective national memory: “Amazing Grace” at a church service or “Happy Birthday” at a dinner party.
But our connection to music goes even deeper, to our very core as human beings.
The physical properties of sound and our neurocognitive ability to process it mean we humans share many universal musical perceptions: the strength of octaves, fifths and fourths; a distinction of consonance from dissonance (with general preference for the former); a recognition of “happy” and “sad” songs across cultures; a love for major and minor triads, etc. Octaves, for example, are as structural in Beethoven and the Beatles as they are in Indian ragas or Balinese gamelan — and generally heard whenever men and women sing the same melody.
We also have a uniquely human ability to entrain, which means to physically lock into a steady beat. We take it for granted that we can entrain when we all clap or stomp or dance to the beat of the music — at a baseball game, a rally, a concert or a dance club. But no other animal can do this. Rhythm provides music with its emotional charge, its vitality and flow, and its unifying force. Entrainment gives rise to collaboration and cooperation. Indeed, this innate quality may have enabled our very capacity for culture in the first place.
Music, by its very nature, invites us to unify — with our fellow humans, our fellow Americans, and our fellow travelers in any circles we occupy. We should let it. More than that, we should empower it. Let’s take out the earbuds and turn up the speakers again — at least from time to time. Sing in a choir. Jam. Launch a fan club for your favorite band. Start a sing-along at your next dinner party.
Certainly, the digital music revolution offers many blessings to us as individuals. It enhances our taste and lets us discover things that bring us joy. But as we lament our too fragmented society, let us turn to music to bond with one another. It may not heal all the divisions we face, but it’s hard to feel disconnected when you’re sharing a song.
Nolan Gasser is the architect of Pandora’s Music Genome Project and its original chief musicologist. He is also author of “Why You Like It: The Science and Culture of Musical Taste.”