My old friend Erika once said to me, ‘If life had a soundtrack, what would be on it?’
Though my answer to her continually changes, responding to my mood and interests, I do have one thing figured out: It would be played on an iPod.
Steve Jobs let slip this week that Apple has sold 90 million iPods to date. That’s quite a lot, for a technology that wasn’t a functional pioneer in the field. We’ve had digital music for quite a while, and the iPod was far from the first portable player. I’ve grown up with Sony Walkmen, stereos, computers that play my CDs… Why the craze?
iPods are successful because they bring music into areas of life that would otherwise be without-soundtrack. My slim, elegant, convenient holds-all-my-music-and-then-some player adds a dimension to what might otherwise be boring chores. On the tube, when I’d otherwise be re-reading the ads for the hundredth time or trying not to make eye contact with fellow commuters… I now get to eye them with a sense of irony and the Bangles’ Manic Monday in my ears. Popping out to get lunch… I can clear my head of the morning’s meetings with a Sting tune. Breaking free of the office at the end of a Friday afternoon… I can kick-start my weekend with a little Jimmy Buffett. The music makes me feel good at times when otherwise, I’d be trudging along with the rest of London in February.
McGill University’s Daniel Levitin has an physiological explanation for this. Levitin heads McGill’s Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise, and his research demonstrates how music is hard-wired into the emotional areas of the brain.
In a recent New York Times article, he explains that first the brain analyses the structure and meaning of the music, then it releases dopamine, which produces a sense of pleasure and reward. At the same time, the cerebullum (which generally controls movement) reacts every time the song creates tension, by producing unresolved chords or changing tempo. (This appears to be, by the way, why we have to tap our toes or dance to a good song.)
When I was growing up, I had songs that were the soundtracks to high school and college. Now when I hear Breakfast at Tiffany’s (by Deep Blue Something), I’m transported back to learning how to drive. The old classic Oh What a Night takes me back to dancing around my dorm room at university. These sounds pull up the emotions, the thoughts and the context of those moments because they helped define them.
Now, as a professional in a public-transport city, I don’t have the luxury of long hours in a dorm full of friends or a car stereo. For this, I now have an iPod. I can’t tell you yet what will be on the 2007 soundtrack of my life, but I can tell you this: It will come out of the 1,334 songs in my pocket.