Arts

How to listen in an age of infinite music

In “Every Song Ever,” critic Ben Ratliff pens an ode to the musical qualities that transcend genre

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Since the invention of recording, music listeners have argued about the trade-offs between delivery and deliverance: Does more convenient access to music somehow make it less precious, more disposable?

Today, that question has taken a digital turn. Seemingly every song you’ve ever heard, and those you haven’t, are instantly available online. Streaming services and retailers rely more and more on algorithmic profiling to drive the music listeners are exposed to, letting computational analysis and past behavior replace curiosity and serendipity. Navigating this realm — a world in which Caruso, Coltrane, and Carly Rae Jepsen are all only a click away — can be an overwhelming proposition.

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In his new book, “Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty,” New York Times critic Ben Ratliff offers a fresh strategy for embracing this embarrassment of riches. He distills 20 musical qualities — speed, loudness, virtuosity, density, and so forth — that cut across genres and eras, letting each one trace a meaningful path through digital music’s omnipresent, pan-stylistic glory and glut. It’s a listener’s guide to the paradox of choice: “this insane abundance,” Ratliff says, “and what to do about it.” Last week he discussed the pitfalls and possibilities of such unprecedented musical profusion. A condensed and edited conversation follows.

Q. Right at the outset, you acknowledge that the title is a bit of a fiction — we don’t have access to every song ever, just those that happened to be performed with a microphone nearby. But the idea of the universal, universally available library is so seductive that we resist qualifying it like that.

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A. I totally mean it in the vernacular sense, or the conversational sense: how it seems, sometimes, as if every song ever is available. The history of music includes things that occurred far from microphones — and there’s lots of things that were recorded that you just can’t find. But it never ceases to amaze me how much is there.

Q. One thing that struck me was that, for every one of your 20 qualities, I could scan the musical landscape and find some musician taking that quality to some unprecedented extreme: music that is slower than you thought possible, or quieter than you thought possible, or louder than you thought possible. In general, do you think music, just to make itself heard among the abundance, is getting more extreme?

A. I’ve been feeling that way since the ’80s. [laughs] And I would imagine people were feeling this way before, that people were going further and further in certain directions. So I don’t know if it has so much to do with the present moment of Internet-driven abundance. I was amazed at hearing the punk group D.R.I., Dirty Rotten Imbeciles [in the 1980s]. I didn’t think music could be that fast; it just seemed that it was a hair’s-breadth away from being complete nonsense.

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Q. It’s usually on the experimental end, but I wonder how much of that is seeping back into the mainstream.

A. One other example comes to mind: that extremely slow version of a Justin Bieber song [“U Smile”] that went around online. It was a three-minute song, and it becomes 30 minutes long. It’s not that it became a hit or anything, but lots and lots of people listened to it, and were struck by it — partly because they know how it was done. It’s easy to do, and it’s just sort of a cool idea. Nobody’s thinking along the lines of “wow, what an avant-garde provocation.” It just seems sort of like something you can do. And maybe that has something to do with it: how the curtain has been pulled back a little bit with music-making.

Q. Anybody can take a piece of music now and manipulate it however they want. It’s almost like the listener is performing their experience of the music, or what they’re hearing in it.

A. It’s partly the nature of how we’re receiving it all online, so we can immediately interact with it at our keyboards. In a sense, listening to something on SoundCloud and inserting your comments is a kind of performance. Access is power: that’s an old idea, and I think it’s really true.

That’s the motivating spirit behind the book: the listener has power, much more power than the listener used to have — so what is the listener going to do with that power? Are we just going to let the streaming services dictate to us, for the rest of our lives, how we’re going to listen, and what we’re going to listen to? Or are we going to take control of the situation, and really insist that listening is a creative act?

Q. In the book, you write that the qualities you chose aren’t based around genre, “because genre is a construct for the purpose of commerce, not pleasure, and ultimately for the purpose of listening to less.”

A. I would add to that one more thought: genre is sometimes confused with tradition, but I think they have different values. I think tradition is practiced from the inside, by musicians and participants, and it helps build and preserve, and I think genre is practiced from the outside, by merchants and spectators, and it limits and excludes, for efficiency. When you’re selling something, you need shorthand, and genre is shorthand.

I wanted to try practicing a kind of non-robot recommendation-engine logic — gather pieces of music together in a way that makes you consider them one by one, and such that the group of them together isn’t really sellable, but is really based in the real-time experience of listening.

Q. It’s easy to think that this crazy abundance makes music cheap, because it’s so easy to get your hands on it that people don’t treasure it the way they used to. But it also means you don’t have to settle for what somebody else is telling you is great music.

A. That’s the flip side. I remember around the early 2000s, I would have conversations with a younger colleague at the Times, and I was just enough older than him to have a practiced line about how, in the old days, the work that it took to get a piece of music, to find a record and all that, sweetened everything, and made the whole experience more rich, as opposed to just getting something from iTunes. And his response was “So, does that mean you’d rather go drag water from the well instead of turn on the tap?” And, no, I would rather turn on the tap. But here’s where it gets really subjective: I think you could develop a more complex relationship with water if you had to drag it from the well.

But I also think that, basically, people are just learning differently now. If I had never heard of Motorhead before, and someone said “hey, you should check out this band Motorhead,” I could go to the computer and get everything they ever did in 30 seconds, and do that weird thing people do these days: listening to stuff really fast, in order to get the basic idea. And I think that it’s possible that I could have some sort of deep experience with it. I’m willing to believe that it’s possible.

Ben Ratliff will discuss “Every Song Ever” with the Globe’s Steve Smith at 7 p.m. on Feb. 16, at the Harvard Book Store. Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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