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A note on the issue: Engineering easy listening

Popular artists have always tried to write music with a hook and a catchy chorus, but now it's algorithms that influence our listening habits

Short-video apps like Instagram and TikTok have transformed music discovery

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More than half a century ago, the American composer Aaron Copland wrote about the “gifted listener”, a figure as key to the musical universe as the musician, creator or performer. The listener was the one who really reflected on and interpreted a piece of music, he had observed. 

This was just a few years after the first piece of digital music was recorded in Alan Turing’s lab—he not only set out the foundations of computing but also wrote the first program to play musical notes. You can find the recording online; it’s a somewhat disappointing series of mournful hoots that sounds nothing like the 1940s jazz hit In The Mood, but the thrilled laughter of the listeners, waiting to hear the next note despite the glitches and breaks, is a true delight. It bears out Copland’s thoughts about the listener really bringing music, however dissonant it may seem, to life.

Also read: Music in the age of algorithm

Over 70 years after Turing made his recording, creating music isn’t as complicated but the listener’s attention span has shrunk to just 15 seconds as short-video apps like Instagram and TikTok transform music discovery. It’s on these apps that hits are made, before people even consider going to Spotify or Amazon Music to stream the entire song. 

Popular artists have always tried to write music with a hook, a chorus that will catapult them to the top of the charts and have everyone singing along, but now it is algorithms that influence our listening habits, and the memories tied to music. So algorithms are influencing the creation of music as songwriters work to a template to get attention faster. Will the nascent trend of NFTs in music have an impact on creation and appreciation? Our stories look at all these ideas.

The idea of musicality and memory runs through quite a few stories. An artist tries to revive the lost art of shooting with Kerala’a unique Vageeswari camera from the 20th century. The last of the stories from our fiction special, by Krupa Ge, returns to the uncertain memories of college friendships, and French director Julia Ducournau talks about what shaped her Palme d’Or winning film Titane.

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