Passive Listening: What is it? Do you do it? Should we be worried?

Dylan Sapienza
9 min readOct 3, 2018

Passive Listening: Surveying Causes and Effects on Music

When was the last time you sat down and listened to an album all the way through? When was the last time you just put on music and listened to it? Not studying, exercising, driving or even daydreaming. Chances are you can’t remember the last time you did. Maybe it hadn’t even dawned on you that this is something you don’t do anymore. The closest you probably came to this sort of experience was the last concert you went to. There you had virtually no option but to focus on the music. Have you ever realized after a concert how much you enjoyed the music, more so than just at home? It was almost like every song was so much more profound. You also found out that there are three or four songs you’ve never heard before the show, but now they might be your favorites. Many people come away from a concert experience like this often with a newfound appreciation of the artist and their album or whatever material they are touring with. Why is this? What if this sort of experience can be achieved without having to buy a ticket or even leaving your house? Chances are most of these newfound feelings towards the music came from actively listening to the music, through a context carefully decided by the artist. Today, this sort of task has become exceedingly rare. As music streaming and mobile technologies become dominant, the role of music is subjugated to a passive activity and there will be much lost in our appreciation of music as an art form and an outlet of expression.

To better understand this claim, a solid definition of active and passive listening are crucial. Active listening is the idea of directing your full attention on concentrating to the music being played. In turn, passive listening as any music that is listened to in the background with little attention on the elements of the music itself, often while multitasking. Next, it will be helpful to understand the state of music listening and the habits of the public in 2018.

Currently, streaming is far and away the most common way for people to access and listen to their music. As of 2018, it is estimated that there are over 180 million music streaming users worldwide. This dwarfs the 30 million users who utilized the services just five years ago. This makes it safe to assume that streaming platforms cast a large net over listeners and their influence is here to stay. With the growth in streaming and use of music through mobile devices, there has also been a shift in the way people listen to their music. Mainly that it finds its way to users as a form of multitasking. Only 13.39% of people listen to music as a sole activity. The rest of users listen to music while doing various activities such as studying, driving or exercising. All these trends push the concept of active listening to the wayside while reinforcing more and more passive listening.

New technologies have had a profound effect on our listening habits. Streaming services and the internet gave its tremendous user base a privilege no group of people before us have ever had, let alone could fathom. The ability to listen to nearly any recorded song ever at the click of a button. It was theorized that this freedom of choice and democratization of all music would make us more impassioned listeners, but this wasn’t the case. “Interestingly, the technological devices that early music appreciation enthusiasts thought would improve American musical tastes and upon which the movement was built, actually hindered individuals from listening artistically.” It wasn’t just an option paralysis that had caused us to listen without concentration. A loss of context and cohesion of the music brought this out as well. As we listen to music it is certainly more compelling to focus if the music serves a purpose or has a context to us, but in a world obsessed with multitasking and instant gratification, this sort of discipline has been hard to find. For example, listening to an album like The Wall by Pink Floyd, a concept album that explicitly tells its listeners a story across 26 songs, cultivates and draws listener’s attention on the songs and lyrics more so than a Spotify playlist with songs that you enjoy to listen to while you study, half of which you skip after the first hook. This inability to sit down and settle on one album or even listen to songs in full can be attributed to our passive listening habits. “Studies have indicated that media multitasking is associated with negative well-being as well as greater impulsivity and sensation seeking.” Additionally, the privilege of streaming services coupled with mobile devices, giving users the ability to listen to any music any time and anywhere, has in a way cheapened music because we have grown accustomed to it existing in the background and ignoring it. “Technology offers us a mixed blessing. As an example, the electronic sound media of our society provide us with music instantly and constantly. The city is alive with music in stores, in professional offices, even on the street. But, background music inhibits learning the art of listening because it is meant to be ignored rather than listened to. It actually trains us to be non-listeners.” Through this, it is plainly evident how both mobile and music streaming technologies enabled this sort of behavior.

Through this growth in passive listening, music’s role in society and our lives is being reduced to only a backseat in our lives. Before the 1900s, music was forced to be an activity. Your only exposure to it would be through seeing a live performance at a concert hall. As technology continued its advancements, music had the ability to be everywhere with us at all times. Today nearly 80% of all digital audio consumed in the United States is on a mobile platform. This then should bring no surprise to us that music’s main purpose is to serve as some decorative wallpaper to some other task at hand. When we multitask our attention is divided across multiple subjects and activities. This sort of behavior leads to making the activities we are engaged with less meaningful to us and significantly reduces our focus on all of our activities. This makes active listening nearly impossible when multitasking. “[multitaskers] might have a greater tendency for bottom-up attentional control and focus their attention more broadly, at the expense of detail.” Additionally, multitasking alters the way we pick certain music and what we decide to listen through. In not fully focusing on the music we listen to, it leads us to seek out music that we can find either instantly gratifying or easily ignorable. Songs with catchy hooks, infectious melodies and rhythms are likely to appeal to multitaskers as well as instrumental pieces that don’t command our attention. This is because they give either a cheaper, easier and faster sense of satisfaction or they can serve as purely atmospheric wallpaper to fill silence. “Studies have indicated that media multitasking is associated with negative well-being as well as greater impulsivity and sensation seeking.” 9 One of the only ways music is still actively listened to today is through concerts. The negligence of our starvation from active listening could reasonably explain why concert revenues are on the rise among younger generations. “Live Nation Entertainment, the world’s biggest concert-organizing company, announced five consecutive years of record revenue when it released its 2015 results yesterday (Feb. 25). Live Nation’s $7.6 billion of revenue is up 11% from the previous year; its on-site advertising grew 17%; its concert and festival attendance saw a boost of 8%; Ticketmaster, the ticket-selling division it acquired six years ago, reported 12% growth in global gross transaction value.” Being at a concert venue encourages active listening because you listening to music is the main reason why you are there. “The concert hall is different. There we find the most effective situation for listening to music. Instead of being surrounded and lulled into inattention by constant and subdued Muzak, we go to the concert hall with the express purpose of listening to a particular program. All other distractions are minimized.” Now, while a concert hall may include fewer distractions than a music festival or rock concert, it still is often as close as we can get to an active listening experience.

So through the effects that technology has had on our music listening, and in turn the new role of music in our lives, what can we expect to see change and what will we lose? When creating music most artists don’t create with the intent of their art to be nothing more than background sounds to the life you live. “the great composers did not write music to serve as background for other activities. There is only one way to listen to their works and that is–to listen! When you listen to an important work, make sure that you are not doing anything else, such as talking or reading.” In this world where passive listening reigns supreme, artists and musicians are forced to react if they want to remain successful and retain their fans. Instead of releasing the traditional album after a hiatus of a year or two, artists are now pressured to release more music at more regular intervals. In an interview with Rolling Stone, a songwriter for musical group Fifth Harmony echoes her fears about releasing a full 12 song album against singles when she says, “people’s attention spans are the size of a period.” People now are unlikely to listen to your full album, and if they do it’s not more than once. In the attempt to hold relevance and keep people focused on each song, artists are beginning to release one song at a time and more music altogether. Does this pressure on artists to release more music, faster and in an increasingly fragmented form cheapen music as a form of artistic expression? It would seem likely that if artists have less time to make more music than ever before this must come at some sort of cost. Although, should it even matter if this sort of thing is what consumers are demanding? In this new world of passive listening, it seems like now more than ever, artists are forced into the dilemma of either creating something successful and profitable or an artwork that is true to themselves and a closer representation of their intentions. This is a very frightening for the future of the music industry shall this divide continue to spread.

Ultimately, it is undoubtedly evident that as a society, music listening habits have drastically shifted from what they once were. From a time where passive listening seldom ever existed, we now live in an opposite world where active listening is the rarity. The existence and prominence of music streaming and mobile technologies have enabled these sorts of behaviors. Through users being saturated in music, being offered alternatives to albums and with constant access, this should come as no surprise. Passive listening, and in turn multitasking, results in a limitation in how much we are able to focus on the music we listen to. This decrease in focus has left users with limited attention spans and a new drive to seek out music that instantly gratifies the listener. These new habits haven’t left artists or the industry as a whole unscathed. Artist’s music is often times no longer listened to in the context that they intended, stripping it of a perceived artistic value. They are now under the pressure to abandon many previous conventions that emphasized the expressive art side of music if they want to pursue success and a monetary reward. Worst of all many listeners have little idea that they are unknowingly passively listening, let alone incurring all these effects.


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