Auditory Technologies and the Regression of Listening: The iPod and the Rhetoric of the Soundtrack

By George Steele.

Published by The Technology Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

To what extent does the iPod inform a certain kind of listening? What kind of listening practices result from new technologies enabling mobility of a listener’s whole musical library? New auditory technologies are bound up in industrial constructions of notions of listening, whereby listening practices are prescribed to suit new technologies. The history of invention of auditory technologies like the headphones and the stethoscope reveal auditory technologies as articulated by industry. To what extent is content, i.e. music, in the case of the iPod, secondary to newly articulated, technologically sophisticated listening practices? The history of film music exposes the consistent use of music as accompaniment, compliment, and supplement. As music has been predominantly subservient to image, traditions ensue whereby music becomes aural soporific: there, but not necessarily there to be listened to, “The soundtrack to your life” and other rhetorical nods in music advertising echo the notion that music can accompany “life.” And the iPod and iTunes as new technologies enable mobile bodies to apply customized playlists for different moments, events and activities (some “life” events even prescribed on iTunes under iTunes Essentials). This results in the backgrounding of music akin to film music traditions whereby regressive listening supplants concentrated listening. To what extent does the stockpiling of music, the fashion in accessorizing, and retrieval of digital material differ from previous vistas of auditory technologies? Moreover, to what extent is industry interested in constructing and maintaining listening practices they transform through new auditory technology? Certain junctures of the history of film music and the iPod reveal economic endeavors behind an evolution of administered listening practices, and reveal music’s role in its subservience as commodity to technologies through which it’s mediated. This paper will address Jonathan Sterne’s theories of auditory technologies, Michael Bull’s scholarship on mobile music culture, and Theodor Adorno’s notions of the culture industry.

Keywords: Culture Industry, iPod, iTunes, Soundtrack, Silent Film

The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp.211-218. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 539.355KB).

George Steele

PhD Candidate, English Department, The University of Rhode Island, Narragansett, Rhode Island, USA

George Steele’s interdisciplinary scholarship involves looking at the intersections of music with other media, with particular focus on film music, and music in modernist literature. He has particular interest in music/image relationships in film, and the economic industrial history pertaining to specific film music correspondences and affect. He has a background in the record industry; George worked in the music department at Creative Artist Agency, and then at Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records in the A&R department for several years. George draws upon this professional history in his critique of the music industry, music as commodity, and auditory technologies as they pertain to social theory. George teaches university courses in: U.S. Literature II: Sound, Music, Race; British Literature II: City, Sound, Music; Music in Literature and Film; and other courses with attention to literary acoustics and musicality. George’s dissertation investigates different industrial uses of music, their sought-after affective responses, and ensuing creation of listening practices.

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