The Compression and Expansion of Musical Experience in the Digital Age


As the record industry’s fortunes decline, consumers experience increasing access to the world’s recorded music, legally and otherwise, through digital technologies. At the same time, recordings not only take up less physical space , they are compressed — not just as data, but in terms of dynamic range. While it allows for constant audibility in noisy environments like cars and offices, dynamic range compression has frustrated many listeners for limiting the impact of the music and causing “ear fatigue.” These listeners long for access to the purity of the original recording before it was “squashed,” but the problem is that the original recording does not, in a sense, exist. Producers and mastering engineers assemble the tracks recorded and create a particular sonic product that can later be revisited and “remastered.” Ostensibly this process is meant to get closer to the original sound, but in reality it simply comprises a different manner of interpreting the existing recording. Theodor Adorno had written of surprisingly similar phenomena more than half a century ago in essays like “The Radio Symphony” and the notes collected in Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction. Though infamous for his hostility toward popular music and its “infantile” listeners, Adorno’s writings on music contain much that is valuable for an understanding of how pop works in the digital age. Combined with a consideration of works on music and postmodernity by Fredric Jameson, Jacques Attali, François Lyotard and others, Adorno’s work helps one to consider how reification continues to work in an era where music is seemingly no longer a “thing.”



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On Popular Music.T. W. Adorno & George Simpson - 1941 - Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1):17-48.
The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.Jonathan Sterne - 2005 - Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63 (3):302-304.
The Aging of the New Music.T. W. Adorno - 1988 - Télos 1988 (77):95-116.
The Aging of the New Music.T. W. Adorno - 1988 - Telos: Critical Theory of the Contemporary 77:95.

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