When every song ever recorded fits on your MP3 player, will you listen to any of them?

There was a time when I knew what I wanted to listen to. I was poor, but I bought CDs anyway, and I had stacks of them, purchased with enthusiasm and knowledge shared among friends. A pricey endeavor, sure. But once I discovered Napster and CD-burning, finances stopped counting. I started storing my music on my computer, and saving songs was no longer a physical, deliberate effort; a mouse-click sufficed. And I kept on clicking.

I'm now closing in on 95 gigabytes of music — just over 22,000 songs. Much of it I've never listened to, but there's no logic when passion gets in the way. You might say I have too much music at my fingertips.

Google vice president Sukhinder Singh Cassidy predicts that in seven years, every song ever recorded in the world will fit into our pockets.

One day, every song ever recorded will fit into our pockets. But what will we listen to?
One day, every song ever recorded will fit into our pockets. But what will we listen to?

"The average 14-year-old can hear more music in a month than someone would have heard in an entire lifetime just 300 years ago," says psychologist Dan Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music. Thanks to digital music distributors like CD Baby, any independent musician's songs can now appear on iTunes. Heaps of old songs are finding new life in digital files, too.

According to Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr, more than 6 million songs are now in the iTunes store. That means I have about 5,978,000 songs to go. But does it mean I'll be more passionately involved with my music?

"It's too early to say how this will affect our relationship with music," Levitin says. "We might become more attached — because we have so much choice — or less, because the choice causes us not to bond or bind to a particular musical piece."

Why people desire what they do is intrinsically linked to imprinting, our states of mind during early experiences, and reinforcement. And what gets hammered into our psyches is influenced as much by the size of the hammer as by our psyches themselves. That's what allows intelligent people to enjoy the Spice Girls in the company of long-lost friends, tequila, and an impromptu "Wannabe" karaoke session — and why a John Cage piano concerto annoys those same friends.

A glut of choices means we spend less time listening to the same music as other people do, so we don't get as much reinforcement. Music is more portable and thus more personalized. Charles Areni, a former professor at the University of Central Florida and current professor of economics and business at the University of Sydney, speculates that our individual music libraries lead to "increasing dissatisfaction with radio, music CDs, and any other non-customized form of music consumption. Since consumers can now customize their music environments, any 'one size fits all' approach will not make anybody happy."

Social psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, identifies changes from our habit of listening to singles, too: "Less album listening means that people aren't forced to listen to things that don't turn them on right away, and as a result, tastes change less."

Yep, having 6 million songs on hand means that tastes actually change less. It's a common predicament for anyone wanting to expand tastes: knowing that there's no reason to listen to the end of a song, much less an entire album you don't "get" right away. Even though it ultimately will expand my palette, do I really have the patience to get into heavy metal, when I already know I love Spoon?

Faced with such overwhelming choice, most people are fine with using filters to narrow the field, such as self-styled experts from music magazines and popular Web sites. These "experts" define what's hip and cool. The danger is that we're unaware of how dependent on filters we are, and how they filter in the first place.

We're forced to leave out a lot, and possibly we'll never find the song that will change our lives. Are we okay with that? Pressing "shuffle" has replaced driving down to the local mom-and-pop record store on Tuesday and buying a new release. I never had this problem in high school, listening to OK Computer on repeat. Now my iPod is like a remote control or a slot machine, flicking through 500 songs, searching for another emotive spike. I find myself getting bored even in the middle of songs simply because I can.

The paradox of spending so much time changing songs, trying to find one you like, is that you wind up attached to none of them. "Yes, there is too much music product, and most of it is terrible," says Peter Crabb, an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State University. "Kids can spend more time trying to figure out what to listen to and fiddling with their computers and MP3s than actually spending quality time listening to good music."

And there is good music out there. As Ravi Dhar, the director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management, says, "At some point, one has to stop looking for the best strawberries and start eating them."

 
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