Three Longs & Three Shorts

How headphones are changing the sound of music

David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” talks about how music composition has a context to it. “For example, he explains that medieval European music was often harmonically simple because playing lots of notes at once sounded terrible in cathedrals, and that trumpets were common in early jazz because the instrument’s high frequency could be heard over a talkative audience. Today, keyboards have become the central instrument in music composition because it translates well to MIDI, the interface for digitizing music.”
Similarly, how music is delivered gives context to what sort of music gets appreciated. So, with the ubiquitous use of earphones and headsets for listening to music (according to Nielsen, computers and phones are the top two devices for listening to music and hence the use of headphones), the kind of music that appeals more to listeners is the one that is suited to the technical capabilities of earphones as a delivery device.
“Listening to music on headphones is very different to speakers where there is a temporal and spatial difference between you and the music,” says Charlie Harding, one of the hosts of the podcast Switched On Pop and co-author of a new book on music theory in popular music. Harding partially credits the success of podcasting to headphones: listening that way creates a feeling of closeness between the hosts and listener.
Similarly, he hears this in the singing of some pop artists, particularly Selena Gomez and Billie Eilish. “Their style of singing is almost like a whisper, as if they are right in your head,” he says. The recent single by Gomez, “Look at Her Now” is a perfect example according to Harding.
… Another way headphones are changing music is in the production of bass-heavy music. Harding explains that on small speakers, like headphones or those in a laptop, low frequencies are harder to hear than when blasted from the big speakers you might encounter at a concert venue or club. If you ever wondered why the bass feels so powerful when you are out dancing, that’s why. In order for the bass to be heard well on headphones, music producers have to boost bass frequencies in the higher range, the part of the sound spectrum that small speakers handle well.
Producers are increasingly mixing music for smaller speakers and the relatively low sound quality that comes from streaming music. Jeff Ellis, producer of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, makes a point of testing how songs sound on smartphone speakers and headphones because he knows this is how most people listen to music now.”