I recently started listening to vinyl and I think I’ve discovered something interesting.
What I discovered isn’t about sound quality, music snobbery, or a compulsion to scavenge through record store bargain bins. I’ve experienced all of those things, but there’s something else….
And it has to do with attention.
Like many people, I spent the last decade or so collecting a ridiculous amount of music in mp3 format. I loved having access to a ton of music – tagged, catalogued, searchable, and available at my fingertips. Playlists allowed me to customize my listening experience in new ways and take that experience with me everywhere. There were many opportunities to interact and engage with my music collection.
Then, an interesting shift took place.
iTunes started creating playlists for me via Genius. Pandora started predicting the music I would like. Shuffle mode became popular. My listening experience became increasingly more random and less deliberate.
Sure, Shuffle is still a great way to re-discover lost gems in a music collection. Yet it’s a passive listening experience. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’ll throw it out there… I’m less engaged and less happy listening to music in Shuffle.
Think about it. How many times do you hit the Next button when you’re in Shuffle? I see this every day on the subway in NYC. I saw a girl skip through at least 12 songs before she landed on the one she wanted to hear. Isn’t that fairly common for today’s listener?
I spent a little more time thinking about this and it made me wonder… Even though we can listen to more music more often with more variety than ever before, are we actually less engaged?
Are we actually devoting less attention to the act of listening?
I recently started listening to vinyl at my apartment. What struck me most was not the sound quality… though I do notice I can play it louder without an overbearing high end. It’s a nice benefit, but isn’t the biggest benefit.
The biggest benefit is that I’m forced to pay attention to the experience of listening to music.
I need to take at least 30 seconds to look at my records physically in front of me and choose the record I want to hear. Take it out of the sleeve. Look at the artwork. Make a conscious decision to listen to it as a work of art. No shuffle. No happy accidents. It is a conscious choice to listen to a particular record.
I think these tiny actions actually make me a happier listener. They allow me to be fully engaged with the music I own. The artwork consumes most of my field of vision so that I’m immersed. And as I’m listening, I find I’m devoting my attention to the music. There’s even a welcome intermission when it’s time to turn the record over.
Even the act of purchasing vinyl takes time and attention. It’s not an instantaneous download. There is thought behind whether or not this record should consume physical shelf space. And there is anticipation leading up to the listening experience – from purchase to first listen.
Listening to vinyl has brought me back to a slower, more deliberate and attention-focused listening experience. At the risk of sounding too zen, it’s helped me become a more mindful listener.
Yes, I still own digital music. I still love the convenience of having it with me everywhere I go. But when I’m at home, no other form of listening is more enjoyable for me at this moment than vinyl.