For years now, there's been an abundance of discussion on how technology has changed music, with nearly all of it focusing on the economics of the music industry. Richard Randall and Richard Purcell, both faculty members at Carnegie Mellon University, have chosen to study a slightly more amorphous question: How do we, as consumers, listen to and interact with music, and how has that changed?
Purcell, an English professor, and Randall, from the music department, got together when both had applied for grants to study very similar topics. Randall's idea stemmed from the concept of the mixtape as a cultural artifact, while Purcell wanted to examine the uses of music and sound in contemporary society, including the use of the Long Range Acoustic Device, the sound-based weapon that made its debut in 2009 at the G-20 conference in Pittsburgh.
The two combined their projects into Listening Spaces, a three-year research project. The end result will be a book that documents what Randall and Purcell, and their colleagues, learn throughout the project.
In the short term, the project will involve a symposium and discussion this Fri., Oct. 19, with speakers from other cities taking part.
Participants include: Larissa Mann (a.k.a. DJ Ripley), from U.C. Berkeley School of Law, where she studies issues related to intellectual property; Jonathan Sterne, of McGill in Montreal, a former Pitt professor whose most recent book is MP3: The Meaning of a Format; Trebor Scholz, from The New School, who studies the intersection of labor and technology; and Graham Hubbs, who earned his Ph.D. at Pitt in 2008, and studies ethics.
In the long term, there will be other interactive aspects. "For example," explains Randall, "we'll set up kiosks at [CMU's] Carnival and do experiments: Give someone a set of songs, and say, ‘Put these songs in a falling-in-love order.'" The aim is to study how people interact with music when they're largely used to automated systems, such as Facebook apps, Spotify, Pandora and last.fm that harvest information on their tastes, then attempt to guide them in their choices.
"It's not about us trying to be nostalgic, though," Randall adds. "We just want to take a breath, look at all this: Is the technology improving things?"