Format and Temporality – Some Musings


It’s been a while since I wrote anything on here, owing predominantly to the usual tirade of marking and assessment that comes over the winter months coupled with the imminent prospect of my transfer event looming large over the coming weeks. In the interim period I have become one of University of the West of Scotland‘s two representatives on the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities’ (SGSAH) Doctoral Researcher Committee, aiming to help develop cross institutional provision of post-graduate research and training in the arts and humanities. If interested, I urge you to visit their website and read about the work they do, funding opportunities, and so on. As a result of this new role, I spent a weekend in January attending the SGSAH’s residential event – a combination of training, workshops, presentations, and the first meeting of the new Doctoral Researcher Committee. While some of the workshops were more relevant and interesting than others, the real value for me came from the opportunity to meet and connect with so many diverse and interesting people, each with a unique and fascinating research topic. It also afforded me the opportunity to discuss my own research, to gain insights and suggestions, and to benefit from the expertise of a multitude of researchers, perspectives, and disciplines.

One topic that arose on more than one occasion was the question of music artefacts not only as being more or less physical, but also more or less temporal. When talking about recorded music formats as cultural artefacts, many of us (and I count myself firmly amongst this category) are guilty of over privileging record collecting, and other forms of acquisition, as the primary point of interest. It is certainly true that in many cases the act of acquisition (and perhaps the displaying of acquisitions) is an end in itself. This is not a new thing. Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay Unpacking My Library, talked with perhaps a combination of guilt and pride at the fact that many of the books in his collection were unread, citing writer Anatole France who, when challenged as to how many of the books in his library he had read, responded:

Not one tenth of them. I suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?’ (1968: 62)

This prioritisation of acquisition as a motive certainly bears out within my own research in a variety of different forms. One participant that I interviewed told me that he had “between ten and twelve thousand” vinyl records, tapes, and CDs. Many of these are in storage, sealed in boxes. Some are unplayed. Others, who favour digital media, told me that they had over 82GB of music. If we assume an average track length of four minutes, and sample rate of 128kbps, that equates to around 20,500 tracks, or 1367 hours of music. It should come as no surprise that a significant potion of these tracks remain un-listened.

But what of our uses and motivations beyond acquisition and consumption? For all that collections of records (and CDs, tapes, and arguably digital files) are often seen as symbolic, aesthetic, or documentary, they are also functional, pragmatic, things to be used. Above all, surely the main purpose of acquiring music (be it on vinyl, CD, or a digital file) is to listen to it? While the motivation (for some people at least) may shift from pragmatism to symbolism when it comes to acquiring / collecting music, the artefact itself that is being collected exists because of its capacity to store and reproduce music, and the experience of listening to music is, amongst many things, a temporal one. As Edwards A. Lippman (1984), a prominent American scholar on the philosophy and aesthetics of music observes:

‘The feeling that music is progressing or moving forward in time is doubtless one of the most fundamental characteristics of musical experience; yet it manifests such a remarkable range of variation in its prominence and its quality that at times it seems to be absent altogether’ (1984: 121)

Lippman’s account focuses on questions of temporality in relation to the way music is arranged, highlighting pieces such as Webern’s Symphony Opus 21 and Debussy’s Nuages that he describes as lacking or defying any conspicuous property of forward progress. He (quite rightly) argues that the sense of temporality and forward motion in time is not a fixed quality in music, but is created within the arrangement of instruments, timings, and timbre. I, however, am not looking (and certainly not qualified!) to interrogate the finer points of classical music composition and arrangement here. What I am interested in exploring is the question of temporality in music, not in relation to composition, but with regard to format and physicality.

Music Formats and Temporality – An Illustrative Observation

Yet the mediality of the medium lies not simply in the hardware, but in its articulation with particular practices, ways of doing things, institutions, and even in some cases belief systems” (Sterne, 2012)

I would like to try and explore the question of music formats as being temporal by means of a semi-anecdotal illustration of how different recorded music formats, used in the same setting, serve to punctuate time and illustrate social interaction in different ways. This will take the form of a comparison of digital music streaming services in opposition to the use of vinyl as the means of playing music during a private social gathering. By “private social gathering” I mean a social gathering of people in a non-public space, like a house party. Within this space and context, music is generally used as an accompaniment to wider social activities such as eating, drinking, and casual conversation (let’s say that it’s a fairly civilised house party…). In this situation, I will argue that the format through which the music is played has a demonstrable impact on the wider engagement with music as part of the social event.

To illustrate this I make reference to two separate hypothetical social gatherings of similar social groups – one where music playback achieved through vinyl records, the other through digital streaming service Spotify. In his book Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures, Roy Shuker notes that if we observe the chronology of music format development we will note that each new format has seen an increased ease of use (in both the users interaction with the technology required to play the format and the process of recording the music itself), but also greater potential for ‘user programming’ – “the ability of listeners to create their own musical experience” (2010: 58). This process has broadly involved a reduction in mass and physicality of formats, and thus their visual and tactile elements (McCourt, 2005), a process that can be clearly charted in the movement from vinyl to CD to MP3 to digital streaming. At the point that Shuker was writing, the MP3 and other digital formats were widely seen to be the end point of this process – a format with no obvious physical elements (at least, none that are distinct from the technology used to store and play them), and very limited tactility required in the user’s engagement with it. One need only click on a ready made play-list of digital music, stored on a computer or mobile device, to provide hours of music specifically selected for any given environment or event. However, it must be noted that this simply represents a reduction of tactility of the end-user-experience. Playlist generation of MP3s and other digital music is a time consuming process and maintains tactility insofar as it requires ongoing physical engagement with the user’s chosen hardware interface (a desktop PC running Windows Media Player perhaps, or an Apple iPad running iTunes) to create the playlist itself, not to mention other secondary tactile engagements with these interfaces in order to download the individual MP3s themselves that populate the playlist. In this way we can see the digital music format as being illustrative of the chronological process of format development described above (i.e. demonstrably less tactile that the technology that preceded it), but also retaining a less obvious, front loaded tactility that prerequisites its use.

The digital streaming format represents the next step in this chronological process of format development. It has reduced mass / physicality in that it does not need to occupy space on the hard drive of the user’s device, being cloud based (a small but clear shift from the downloaded digital format), but also a reduced need for tactility in the user’s engagement with it. We can access pre-made playlists of hundreds or even thousands of songs instantly on services like Spotify. We can use technology such as “Scrobbling” – used by streaming service, whereby data is gathered on the tracks played by the user into their profile. This data can be set to include tracks that the user listens to through other media such as Windows Media Player or iTunes. Users can highlight if they particularly like a track, or if they don’t want to hear a certain track again, via the service’s user interface. This meta-data relating to the user’s listening habits and preferences are collated and cross compared with those of other users, allowing the service to create a playlist based on tracks the user can be expected to like – a playlist without the need for active playlist generation.

These changes in the potential and ease of user-programming are best illustrated by comparing the application of two formats that posses different levels of mass / physicality and visual / tactile elements at relatively divergent ends of the spectrum – in this case the vinyl LP record and digital streaming. While both formats have a common primary purpose – the playback of recorded music – their differences in physicality and tactility have a marked impact on the way that they are used in a similar social setting / space. Let us first focus on the LP and record player as a means of providing music for the social situation described above. In this situation, the physicality and tactility of the format dictate its use. The set up is as follows:

scuffed record

A: ‘You want to put some music on?’

B: ‘Sure, help yourself.’

[The user selects a record from the available selection, places it on the deck, and drops the needle]

A: ‘Ah, good choice’

[At this point the conversation either progresses in relation to the album or artist in question, or moves on along other lines. Either way it is not directly linked or actively engaged with the music]

In this situation, the physicality and tactility of the format limit the potential for user-programming, and as a result the LP is allowed to play uninterrupted for twenty-to-twenty-five minutes (assuming there is no technical flaw that prevents it from doing so) until the end of that side of the LP. At this point in time the dialogue continues along these lines:

A: [Gets up] ‘You want the other side on?’

B: ‘Sure, go for it” OR “Nah, put something else on’

[The user selects a record from the available selection, places it on the deck, and drops the needle. The conversation again progresses in relation to the album or artist in question, then moves on along other lines.]

Throughout the duration of this social gathering, the music choice is decided in approximately defined twenty minute blocks. Between each block of time there is a discussion and a decision made relating to the choice of music, during which those present are actively engaged with the music selection. Once this decision is made, conversation returns to topics that (while potentially related) are not tied directly to the music being played. This creates a tension and resolution between active listening where the music is at the centre of each of the listeners attention (which in this situation is quite pronounced) followed by a return to passive listening as direct attention to the music dissipates and conversation resumes. This balance between tension and resolution can be seen to be broadly reinforcing the social use of music in this situation, punctuating and focusing conversations and social interactions without dominating them.

Compare this to the same situation with the same conditions applied (i.e. the same social circle, same non-public setting, same activities such as eating, drinking, and conversing), but where an online streaming service such as Spotify (used via a computer) is used for music playback. The decreased (to almost non-existent) physicality of this format leads to greatly increased potential for ease of user-programming, and the cloud-based nature of the music storage allows for a far greater level of musical choice in terms of albums, tracks, and playlists.

scuffed spotify

A: “You want to put some music on?”

B: “Sure, the laptop’s over there”

[The user moves opens Spotify and selects a track / playlist]

At this point, one of the following two scenarios is likely. In scenario A, a playlist is selected and allowed to play uninterrupted. The music retreats to a background role in the socialising and continues indefinitely. In this scenario, the temporal quality of the music is significantly reduced. Rather than imposing a tension and resolution between active and passive listening, this format strongly favours passive listening. The music playing no longer serves to punctuate time, rather, it diminishes our awareness of it. It becomes background and textural.

In scenario B (the far more likely scenario if your friends are anything like my friends…) the playlist is allowed to play for around a song or less, at which point the conversation evolves along the lines of:

A: “Have you heard the new track by…?”

B: “After this track we should totally listen to…!”

C: “Do you mind if I cue up a couple of tracks?”

In this scenario, the music remains, for some at least, the focal point of attention and conversation in the room. It is perhaps more temporal in nature than scenario A insofar as that those in the room are aware of the specific number of tracks that have played, or (perhaps more accurately) how many tracks they need to wait until the track that they selected is played. That said, for each person who is actively engaged in the music selection, there will be others for whom it bears no interest. To these people, the same suspension of temporality observed in scenario A occurs. For both, the sense of tension and resolution between active listening that was present in the first scenario of the vinyl record is no longer present here. Where the punctuation of time in 20min increments in the vinyl example will create pockets of quiet that will attract the attention of even the passive listeners in the room, both the other scenarios create a situation where the temporal qualities of the medium are suspended.

Format and Temporality – Some Observations

It could be argued that the above example might suggest a relationship between Shuker’s discussion of ‘user programming’ and our capacity to author individual musical experiences from bodies of recorded music, McCourt’s observations about the reduction in mass and physicality of formats and their visual and tactile elements, our sense of the temporal qualities of music, and the more or less active or passive music listening experiences (at least in the case of social listening environments) described above. The vinyl record’s inherent physicality limits the possibility for user programming, which in turn creates a more temporal listening experience that punctuates divisions of time in social spaces, resulting in a tension and resolution between active and passive listening. The significantly reduced physical presence in streaming services and the subsequent ease of user programming that this allows for, on the other hand, creates a listening experience where time is not so much punctuated as filled, reducing the sense of temporality to the listening experience, and in turn fostering a more passive listening experience (again, at least in the case of social listening environments). This would suggest that the greater the sense of materiality to the music format, the more pronounced the temporal qualities it creates (or possesses?), and the more it balances both active and passive listening experiences in social settings. Conversely, reduced physicality (coupled with increased ease of user programming) leads to a less temporal (and more passive) listening experience.

The idea that degrees of physicality and materiality relate exponentially to degrees of active / passive listening has interesting implications for questions of value in relation to recorded music artefacts. This line of argument is, of course, far from watertight, and requires considerably more development. It does, however, serve to take a step back from discussions of acquisition and consumption in relation to recorded music as a cultural artefact, and a tentative look towards other questions of physicality and materiality that I hope to explore in the coming weeks and months.

Benjamin, W. (1968) Illuminations. Schocken Books: New York

Lippman, E. A. (1984) Progressive Temporality in Music in The Journal of Musicology, Vol.3 No. 2. pp 121-141

McCourt, T. (2005) Collecting Music in the Digital Realm. Popular Music and Society. Vol 28(2) pp. 249-252

Shuker, R. (2010) Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures: Record Collecting as a Social Practice. Surrey: Ashgate

Sterne, J. (2012) MP3: The Meaning of a Format. London: Duke University Press


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