How to make sense of music in the age of streaming

Daunted by the sheer quantity of music at your fingertips? Ben Ratliff is here to help

It may be the most simple yet complex question you’ll be asked today: how do you listen to music? Beyond the basic decisions about headphones versus speakers, streaming versus CD, just how do you decide what to listen to?

You could follow the breadcrumb trail laid down by a streaming service’s playlist algorithms, or the recommendations of a friend or work colleague. You might, as old-fashioned as it sounds, go with something you heard on the radio, or listen to an artist’s album from start to finish. You might just press play and see where it leads you. In the age of Spotify and such services, there are myriad ways to jump into the endless, ceaseless pool of music available.

Ben Ratliff has been writing about music for the New York Times for the last 20 years and he has a well-tuned sense of how his own listening experience goes. You'll find a taste of that in Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now, his new book about how to access music now that all the potential barriers for listeners are gone.

In the book, Ratliff filters music using emotions and attributes rather than genres. For example, he uses the theme of sadness to link music by Mozart, Etta Jones, Nick Drake and Slayer, while speed brings together songs and music from Jerry Lee Lewis, Liszt, Bud Powell and OutKast. With other essays on repetition, loudness and stillness, Every Song Ever is an appreciation of deep listening, a sandbox for those with active minds who want to appreciate music with fresh ears.



There were two jumping-off points for Ratliff in deciding to write about this subject. “About five or six years ago I became really interested in the music appreciation movement of the early 20th century: lots of books saying to the average person, ‘So you want to know something about music? Okay, here’s what you need to know to be a relatively educated person about music.’

“These books are useless and outdated now, but I found them fascinating and started thinking what a book like that would look like if it was written now.”

The other development was Spotify. “I became amazed by the fact that so much was in our pockets. Everything was immediate and accessible. To stand here and say that now seems so stupid because we’re all so quick to adopt to new digital circumstances, but it struck me as a really profound change at the time.”

However, Ratliff noticed some people were expressing unease rather than joy at the prospect of millions of tracks at their beck and call. “Whenever people talked about the great abundance of music out there, they talked about it with a sense of anxiety. People described themselves as overwhelmed, as something negative.

“I don’t know if it is that bad and I think it’s actually really, really exciting. The task is not to bitch about how overwhelmed we all are, but to figure out what’s in there. I think of it as a physical library, and you have to figure out what’s in those stacks and invent reasons to explore further than we normally would.”

Unlike the books that originally piqued his interest, Ratliff is not advocating that his way is the only way. “The books were presenting a canon and saying ‘Look, these are the most important works and this is what you should know’. Readers had to take the writers’ word for it; there was no explaining how that canon of important works was arrived at. It talked about the works in terms of harmony and rhythm and blah blah blah from the point of view of the composer.

“I’m different. I don’t want to present a canon. I do really like the pieces of music I wrote about in my book, but I’m not making a claim that they are the most essential or the best. The difference is I’m doing it from the listener’s point of view, not the composer’s point of view.

“These are not the only ways to listen; these are 20 suggestions for a mode of listening where you’re connecting pieces of music that are from far-apart traditions but are connected by some aspect of the listening experience.”

Such new listening experiences make complete sense when you consider that streaming services can bring every single piece of music ever recorded to your phone. “It’s liberating to realise that any person can listen to anything. Just because of my age, my socioeconomic circumstances, my education, my neighbourhood and other defining factors, that doesn’t mean I am restricted to only listening to certain kinds of music.”

Bros and madrigals

You could even have bros listening to baroque madrigals instead of Skrillex. “One of the great things abut music is you can approach something you’ve never heard before, something where you’re not that schooled in the context because it’s from another century or continent or culture, and you can listen to it and say, ‘This is about me too’. When you do that, you can link what you’re hearing to other things that you know.

“I have this increasing understanding of the fact that the past is the present. Music is with us always. It doesn’t go away. Especially now – nothing goes away because it’s all available. You’re not restricted by what is in stock at your local record store or in rotation at your local radio station.

“It’s all there, and that’s relatively new. Our brains are adjusting to this and we’re beginning to understand that the past is always with us and the past merges with the present. Bros can be listening to madrigals or whatever. It doesn’t matter, we can find ways to connect with music which is not necessarily from our own time and culture.”

But with streaming services using algorithms to create playlists and suggest tracks for users, could we ever see much wildcard recommendations coming up on, say, Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist?

“When Discover Weekly first appeared, I was as astonished by it as everyone else, because some of the things it would suggest were almost embarrassingly on target for me,” says Ratliff. “I really felt ‘How did it know that about me?’

“However, half or more would be stuff I would loathe, and I felt insulted as if it were a human being who had fundamentally misread me. Maybe that’s what other people are feeling too. That one is created by an algorithm, and I’m told algorithms are getting smarter and smarter, which I am sure they are.

“But I don’t have a lot of faith that it’s possible for an algorithm to understand a person’s interests or possible interests in music. I also don’t think it’s desirable. All the streaming services love the word ‘discovery’ and it’s a really hot word in that world, but I’m sceptical about what they mean.

“My sense is that all the smart work going on by the programmers and coders is about reducing you. They want to keep surprising you by feeding you things that are slightly outside of the radius of what you’re familiar with, but it’s not going to get too far outside, or at least not yet, and I find that discouraging.”

  • Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now is published by Allen Lane

It's noticeable that the main streaming services are now using a very old-fashioned way to guide users through their online collections.

One of Apple Music’s big selling points has been its radio stations, such as Beats 1, featuring a galaxy of big name DJs from Elton John to St Vincent. Similarly, Spotify has got in on the act with a couple of radio shows of their own, namely AM/PM and Secret Genius.

Ben Ratliff sees why these guides are in play, but prefers a different approach. “It really depends on your personality. Some people only want guides. Whatever new area of knowledge they approach, the first thing they look for is a guide. More people are into trying out things for themselves and asking the questions.

“I’m more like the second kind. Both listening and the process of discovery make you grow as a human being. If you rely exclusively on a guide to tell you what you’re supposed to listen to, I think you may be missing something.”