Per­sonal sound­tracks are not new but, thanks to evolv­ing tech­nol­ogy, it’s eas­ier than ever to find the tunes to match our moods


Per­sonal sound­tracks are not new but, thanks to evolv­ing tech­nol­ogy, it’s eas­ier than ever to find the tunes to match our moods

Imag­ine telling a re­bel­lious young Mick Jag­ger that by the new mil­len­nium, his music would be a sooth­ing back­drop for gro­cery shop­pers rum­mag­ing through a pile of cu­cum­bers. Now, to be fair, it was “Angie” be­ing piped into Zehrs that day. “I Can’t Get No Sat­is­fac­tion” prob­a­bly wouldn’t make the grade.

Still, it’s just one in­trigu­ing ex­am­ple plucked from the music playlists that dance through our every­day lives, some care­fully cho­sen by us, some care­fully cho­sen by oth­ers.

Some­times the lat­ter playlists are ob­vi­ous, like the pound­ing dance vibes of a cool club or the mel­low melodies that coax restau­rant din­ers to un­wind and in­dulge.

Some­times the over­lay is so in­con­spic­u­ous it can be dif­fi­cult to spot. Take these ex­am­ples from one day’s lis­ten­ing this spring: early-morn­ing pa­trons into the day’s groove with the gen­tle rhythms of Rix­ton’s “Me and My Broken Heart” — played at low vol­ume. palat­able choice for younger shop­pers and baby boomers alike. Still, on this par­tic­u­lar morn­ing, the vol­ume was just enough to take the edge off the vast­ness of the store. There was no chance a shop­per would get caught up in the lyrics while com­par­ing brands of food pro­ces­sors.

Con­estoga Mall. At the Bay, the music was barely above a melodic hum. (Paul Si­mon’s “Di­a­monds on the Soles of Her Shoes” was a nice touch.) How­ever, at H&M, music ing browsers with songs such as Hec­tor Se­cret Pink em­braced younger women with Sab­rina Carpenter’s “Smoke and Fire.”

It’s all just a mat­ter of music ser­vices do­ing what they do well, in­fil­trat­ing our lives with tunes that put us at ease — or make us shop.

“In com­mer­cial sit­u­a­tions, the last thing they re­ally want you to do is to stop and ac­tu­ally lis­ten to the music be­cause then you are not shop­ping any­more,” says John Brownell, a mu­si­cian who also has a PhD in eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy.

Brownell, 63, ex­plores the psy­chol­ogy and cul­tural im­pact of music in his univer­sity lec­tures, in­clud­ing at Con­rad Grebel at the Sym­phony, the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany Orches­tra and the Na­tional Bal­let of Canada Orches­tra, among oth­ers.

Brownell says com­mer­cial playlists are not only tai­lored to the im­age the store wants to project, but also to the im­age shop­pers com­mer­cial music ser­vices pro­mote a “sunny oldies” to “chill elec­tropop.”

“The choices are very de­lib­er­ate even though they don’t sound de­lib­er­ate,” Brownell says.

He says our re­sponses can be stud­ied on many lev­els, in­clud­ing Wil­frid Lau­rier Univer­sity’s music ther­apy pro­gram and the in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary re­search at Hamil­ton’s McMaster In­sti­tute for Music and the Mind, which in­cludes neu­ral pro­cess­ing and per­cep­tion of music. Cul­tur­ally, music un­der­pins every­thing, from so­cial in­ter­ac­tions to rit­u­als.

“(Music) has a lot of func­tions that go way beyond sim­ple en­joy­ment,” he says. “Most peo­ple think of music — and all the arts in gen­eral — as an ex­tra, but it’s re­ally not when you start look­ing at it more closely.”

And what about the playlists we cre­ate for our own use? Well, let’s just say we’ve come a long way from the days of the gramo­phone. It’s never been eas­ier to in­dulge our per­sonal music tastes. We can even let a com­puter al­go­rithm de­fine our in­ter­ests for us or we can waltz into the past with a new­found pas­sion for vinyl records.

We tend to think of per­sonal playlists as a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non, but Brownell sug­gests the con­cept is ac­tu­ally rooted in the 1950s. That’s when a ba­sic record player be­came af­ford­able for a mid­dle-class fam­ily. Thanks to 45s — small vinyl records played at 45 rev­o­lu­tions per minute, each with a sin­gle song per side — teenagers could col­lect fab ra­dio tunes and play them with a per­sonal spin.

There was one big dif­fer­ence from today — a teen’s playlist was not pri­vate. At any mo­ment, mom could drop by: “Turn that Elvis racket down!”

As the tech­nol­ogy evolved, so did per­sonal playlists. Soon music buffs could com­pile their own mixed tapes and then CDs.

But Brownell be­lieves it was the Sony Walk­man that re­ally opened the door to the fu­ture. In­tro­duced in 1979, this cas­set­te­tape player not only made music por­ta­ble but, thanks to head­phones, lis­ten­ers could tune into their favourite songs while tun­ing out the rest of the world.

“Every­thing since then is im­prov­ing and mak­ing it eas­ier and cheaper, and you can now have thou­sands of songs in­stead of just

one cas­sette worth,” Brownell notes. “But that is when music first be­came per­sonal, and you cre­ated your own world of music.”

Through an eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy lens, Brownell sees an­other side of that shift. In the past, music of­ten had a so­cial dy­namic, whether through a con­cert, a dance, a re­li­gious rit­ual or even the music shared in his univer­sity dorm in the 1970s. Head­phones and ear­buds changed col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ences into in­di­vid­ual ones.

“Per­son­ally, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be in the po­si­tion I am in today if it wasn’t for the ran­dom music lis­ten­ing that doesn’t hap­pen much any­more,” he says. He gave the ex­am­ple of a youth music camp that in­tro­duced him to clas­si­cal music.

And now lis­ten­ing habits have gone one step fur­ther. “If you al­low an al­go­rithm to choose (your music), it’s based on what you al­ready like.”

Still, Brownell is quick to dif­fuse any judg­ment.

“It’s easy to be the cranky old man and say, ‘Oh, it was bet­ter when I was younger.’ But I don’t nec­es­sar­ily think that’s true. It’s just dif­fer­ent.”

It was 6 a.m. and Tr­ish Benoit was head­ing out on a trail run. She was wear­ing Merino wool com­pres­sion socks, trail shoes, lined tights, a down-filled run­ning coat, a tuque and a head­lamp. Did I men­tion that it was -26 C? And that she was start­ing an 80-kilo­me­tre race? And that por­tions of the looped route had al­most a me­tre of snow?

Most of us would need more than music to dis­tract us from this Jan­uary ad­ven­ture, the Yan­kee Springs Win­ter Chal­lenge in Mid­dleville, Mich. But Benoit, 40, had her trusty iPhone — pro­tected in a plas­tic bag — tucked into a pocket in her run­ning bra. Her playlist had been care­fully cho­sen – “mid-cadence, punky rock music” fea­tur­ing artists such as the Foo Fight­ers, Green Day and Mar­i­anas Trench. She used just one ear­bud so she could stay alert to other run­ners on the rugged trail be­hind her.

Clearly there’s power in her music. With a time of 11 hours, nine min­utes and 35 sec­onds, this Water­loo res­i­dent placed first among fe­male rac­ers and sec­ond over­all.

Benoit, a so­cial worker who co-or­di­nates men­tal health and ad­dic­tion pro­grams for the Water­loo Welling­ton Lo­cal Health In­te­gra­tion Net­work, says music has al­ways been im­por­tant to her. “I’ve al­ways joked that I am the most mu­si­cal per­son who can­not play an in­stru­ment.”

And music has long fit neatly into her sports en­deav­ours, in­clud­ing com­pet­i­tive fig­ure skat­ing from age nine to 16. She met her hus­band, Jeff, when he in­structed her swing-danc­ing class when she was 28. But life hasn’t been without chal­lenges. In her late teens, for ex­am­ple, she aban­doned fig­ure skat­ing and an early in­ter­est in cross-coun­try run­ning for a “notso-good path with not-so-good peo­ple.” She even dropped out of school.

“When I was 23 or 24, I was like: What

do I re­ally want to do? Do I want to keep living this re­ally nega­tive life that I am living or do I want to be happy in life — do I want to feel good about my­self?”

Benoit chose the lat­ter. She fin­ished high school as a ma­ture stu­dent, an ac­com­plish­ment that even­tu­ally paved the way to a master’s in so­cial work.

She took up run­ning to help beat smok­ing, rea­son­ing that “if I ran, I wouldn’t smoke be­cause it would negate the run­ning I had just done.”

Bat­tling smok­ers’ lungs and 40 ex­tra pounds, she started slowly, only man­ag­ing about 500 me­tres on that first run. “It was a re­ally rude awak­en­ing to me be­cause I was a very good ath­lete when I was a teenager,” she says.

As her fit­ness im­proved, Benoit signed up for the 5K run in the Guelph Thanks­giv­ing Day Races. Pleased with her per­for­mance, she signed up for other 5K and 10K races.

Things were go­ing well un­til she blew out her il­i­otib­ial band, the lig­a­ment that runs down the out­side of the thigh. She stopped run­ning for two years, learn­ing a hard les­son about the im­por­tance of cross-train­ing to build mus­cle strength and pre­vent in­jury.

Af­ter Jan­uary’s en­durance race in Michi­gan, she hit the streets in April for the Bos­ton Marathon, star­ing down frigid tem­per­a­tures, heavy rain and high winds. The marathon (26.2 miles or about 42 kilo­me­tres) was on her bucket list de­spite her new in­ter­est in trail run­ning, so there was no hold­ing her back.

“This is go­ing to be wet and this is go­ing to be cold,” she re­calls think­ing be­fore the run. “If there’s any day that I need this music, it’s go­ing to be this day.”

De­spite the con­di­tions, she fin­ished in three hours and 34 min­utes, shav­ing four min­utes off her per­sonal best for marathons.

How does music fit into all of this? Playlists have a strate­gic role in Benoit’s train­ing and rac­ing, with dif­fer­ent choices for dif­fer­ent needs.

“I know songs that get me revved up and in the right kind of place, and I know my cadence,” she says.

So, for 5K or 10K races, she chooses songs at about 180 beats per minute. For marathons, the playlist mixes some of the lat­ter with songs about 160 to 170 beats, en­cour­ag­ing a steady pace.

“I like rock more when I am on the trails, whereas I like elec­tronic dance music when I am do­ing quick runs be­cause it has that faster cadence.”

The song “Tur­bu­lence” by Steve Aoki and Laid­back Luke is a favourite for fast runs be­cause of the way it peaks, plateaus and builds. Her favourite marathon song is “Ti­ta­nium” by David Guetta.

Spe­cific playlists are re­served just for race day, with “shuf­fle” giv­ing her se­lec­tions an added el­e­ment of sur­prise and plea­sure.

Train­ing is dif­fer­ent. In fact, she some­times picks one band for a train­ing mix — the Foo Fight­ers, for ex­am­ple. If

she needs a steady, quick pace, she might just put Darude’s “Sand­storm” on re­peat — es­pe­cially for her in­fre­quent bouts on a tread­mill.

“I hate tread­mill run­ning, so when I am on a tread­mill, the music I lis­ten to is very es­sen­tial. . . . There is noth­ing else when you are on a tread­mill ex­cept the music you lis­ten to.”

Through every­thing, whether train­ing six days a week for a sin­gle race of 100 miles (160 kilo­me­tres) or for RunWater­loo’s En­durRun that cov­ers 160 kilo­me­tres over eight days in Au­gust, there will be music. “It’s very rare that you see a race pic­ture of me without head­phones in,” Benoit says.

When con­cert pre­sen­ter Is­abel Cis­terna Pino was a teenager, the wrong music playlist could get you ar­rested — or worse.

Such was life in Chile un­der the dic­ta­tor­ship of Gen. Au­gusto Pinochet. Cis­terna Pino says au­thor­i­ties were fine with west­ern music, as long as it was bub­bly pop. Chilean folk music was an­other mat­ter, reviled for its mes­sages of sol­i­dar­ity and jus­tice. Vic­tor Jara, a singer-song­writer and the­atre di­rec­tor, was among those bru­tally tor­tured and killed in the early days of Pinochet’s reign in 1979.

These days, you might hear “sub­ver­sive” music play­ing in Kul­trún Mar­ket, the artisan shop Cis­terna Pino, now 45, op­er­ates in Water­loo. Bands such as In­tiIl­li­mani and Quila­payún have also played lo­cally through Neruda Arts, the con­cert se­ries Cis­terna Pino launched in 2001. To west­ern ears, it’s hard to believe this heart­felt, in­fec­tious folk music could in­stil ha­tred in the mind of a dic­ta­tor.

Cis­terna Pino knows oth­er­wise. “I have a very vis­ceral as­so­ci­a­tion with that music — the ex­cite­ment, thrill and also fear,” she says.

She re­mem­bers sneak­ing off with her older brother in the 1980s to lis­ten to mixed tapes of for­bid­den music in their neigh­bour’s car. She re­mem­bers how the un­pre­dictabil­ity of every­day life height­ened her sense of be­ing alive.

“I lis­ten to it now with nos­tal­gia,” she says. “It’s not that I long for the hard days, but I long for the mean­ing of it. One of the things that be­comes harder and harder over the years is to feel that very strong con­nec­tion, where music can make you feel so passionate about some­thing.”

But that doesn’t mean she’s stopped search­ing — and au­di­ences at Neruda con­certs and her Kul­trún World Music Fes­ti­val in Kitch­ener’s Vic­to­ria Park can be grate­ful for that. These con­certs show­case music from many coun­tries or cul­tures, from Chile to Brazil and from Benin to In­done­sia.

“I like music that sparks some kind of emo­tion — happy, sad, nos­tal­gic,” she says. “It’s some­thing that trans­ports you. But I have no for­mula.”

But Cis­terna Pino does hope Neruda has ex­panded Cana­di­ans’ un­der­stand­ing of the world from when she ar­rived here at age 18.

“One of the things that both­ered me at the time was the in­fan­tiliza­tion and ex­o­ti­fi­ca­tion of music from around the world,” she says. “Peo­ple thought Mex­i­can music meant mari­achi. Peo­ple thought that I’m Latin there­fore I should dance salsa and love the tango or what­ever.

“There are so many more lay­ers to what peo­ple thought.”

Some of those lay­ers lie within Canada where cul­tures col­lide and fuse — Sonido Pe­sao, a “Latin ur­ban/ Latin rap band” from Mon­treal; Sina Bathaie of Toronto, who com­bines Per­sian melodies with west­ern in­stru­men­ta­tion; or Elsa Jayne, a First Na­tions singer-song­writer from Kitch­ener.

Given Cis­terna Pino’s back­ground, it’s prob­a­bly no sur­prise that some of the con­certs come with a cause. This July’s Kul­trún fes­ti­val marks the #Me­Too move­ment with a strong fe­male pres­ence. Morena Son, fea­tur­ing seven fe­male singers from San­ti­ago de Cuba, will pump up the open­ing gala. The free stages will in­clude Eliana Cuevas, an award-win­ning per­former from Toronto, whose lat­est al­bum show­cases Afro-Venezue­lan rhythms.

It’s all part of what Cis­terna Pino sees as a con­tin­u­ing role for world music in pro­mot­ing so­cial change while also lur­ing peo­ple out of their taste com­part­ments to min­gle and en­gage — and ex­pand their music playlists.

Sam Legge can’t imag­ine a day without music. “Most peo­ple I know would never leave their home for work, never mind go on a trip, without hav­ing their head­phones with them to lis­ten to music,” says Legge, 29.

A deep bond with music might seem counter to his pro­fes­sional life. Legge, who has a de­gree in nan­otech­nol­ogy from the Univer­sity of Water­loo, is prod­uct man­ager for Thalmic Labs, a Kitch­ener com­pany mak­ing waves in the wear­able tech­nol­ogy world. But when he is at his desk, the head­phones are on, and mu­si­cians such as Ex­plo­sions in the Sky and Ty­cho help get him in the zone.

Music-stream­ing ser­vices from places such as Spo­tify, Ap­ple and Ama­zon make it easy. As part of a gen­er­a­tion that has been tech­friendly since child­hood, Legge’s leap from gad­gets such as iPods to apps was a given.

“I can have a li­brary of any­thing and every­thing avail­able to me at all times, like never be­fore,” Legge notes. “What that drives is just peo­ple lis­ten­ing to more music be­cause it is eas­ier to do it.”

Legge points out that “vir­tual as­sis­tants,” such as Ama­zon’s Alexa, also help push music to the fore­front — a home cook can choose a playlist without leav­ing the stove. Music will also be part of the tech world’s de­vel­op­ment of “hear­ables” — elec­tronic in-ear de­vices.

But Legge says it’s not just the tech­nol­ogy that has changed, but the ap­proach to music it­self. In the past, a lis­tener would re­late to an artist, an al­bum or a genre.

“Now the ma­jor way peo­ple con­sume

music, from my per­spec­tive, is: What mood am I in? Am I study­ing? Am I work­ing? Am I go­ing to the gym? Am I in a quiet mode?”

The in­di­vid­ual — and cer­tainly the music-stream­ing ser­vices — will have a playlist of songs to fit the mood of the mo­ment.

For Legge, this trend feeds into his side­line as a DJ, cu­rat­ing theme-based playlists for friends’ wed­dings or for events at places such as Com­mu­nitech. It helps that he en­joys all sorts of music, but he be­lieves stream­ing ser­vices’ end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties and sug­gested playlists help push mu­si­cal bound­aries for oth­ers as well.

“Peo­ple are not stuck to a genre,” Legge notes. “You don’t have punk peo­ple any more, you don’t have rock ’n’ roll peo­ple any more. You have peo­ple who have a very broad spec­trum of in­ter­ests be­cause of Spo­tify and how it works.”

Still, this abun­dance of choice can lead to missed op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“I get up­set with peo­ple who lis­ten to a lot of music but don’t spend the time to dig through and find the stuff that is re­ally spe­cial to them,” Legge says. “It is such an art form that re­quires some at­ten­tion ... to re­ally find what re­ally makes you feel some­thing ver­sus what’s fun to sing along to.” And what does music mean to him? “I think there is def­i­nitely some sense of com­fort with it just be­cause I have grown up with so much music around me at all times,” he says.

It’s part of what still lures him and his friends to con­certs on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

“When I re­ally lis­ten to some­thing that is (spe­cial) to me there’s def­i­nitely a lot of mean­ing tied to it, whether it was the time I saw that per­son play, or it’s the sto­ries that go along with that music, or it’s when that playlist was played and we had a lot of fun with it.

“Ob­vi­ously not all music means some­thing deep to me, but there’s def­i­nitely a select group of things that when I lis­ten to it, it def­i­nitely evokes a cer­tain some­thing in me.”

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