Is Music the Glue That Will Get Us Through?

Is Music the Glue That Will Get Us Through?

When we have instant access to every piece of music that we love, anywhere and anytime, something profound has happened, writes Toner Quinn.

Are you a listener who describes the music they listen to as ‘my music’? That is, when you are talking about the music that you have on a digital device, do you feel that it is yours, or that it somehow represents you? Perhaps it is organised in a way that is unique to you, which makes it possible for you to enjoy it on demand, and you adjust it as your mood changes. How attached are you to the experience? Is ‘your music’ now an extension of you?

Music has become so personal to people, so organised for them through facilities such as playlists and app-generated personalised mixes, that it seems – as if anyone ever thought it possible – that this art form is becoming even closer to people’s hearts and minds. It is not just the fact of the extraordinary volume of music that is now available to us, it is the ease with which we can access it. 

‘A thousand songs in your pocket’
In 2001, Steve Jobs of Apple presented the first iPod as having a ‘thousand songs in your pocket’. Seventeen years later, Spotify has over 30 million tracks available to us. Complete catalogues of contemporary and historical artists, the outer reaches of the avant-garde, specialist folk and regional collections – all are making their way on to the little green app. The national and global charts that it provides show huge listening numbers, as well as a striking similarity in our musical preferences across the world, from Taiwan to Ecuador. If we add in the music on YouTube, Soundcloud, Apple Music and Bandcamp, then we are in a musical utopia where the 4 billion people online can be constantly connected with the great musicians, bands and composers of our time and before. There is music here that changes lives, that saves lives.

Daily chemistry
When we have instant access to every piece of music that we love, enjoy, or that simply interests us, anywhere and anytime, something profound has happened. Music begins to play an even more important role in our lives. It is no longer a leisurely pursuit – an optional extra, as it has been presented for much of the industrial age – but part of our daily chemistry, orbit and function. It is there in the morning when we get ready for the day, as we travel by car or bus, in the moments when we walk or run, when we seek ‘me-time’ or ‘down time’, or make food, 
socialise, wind down, sleep. This new global access to music means it is forming an even deeper part of our identity, a greater part of our connection with the world, a more critical part of our relationship with others. As we listen, music is shaping all we feel and see around us.

Last November, Nielsen, which documents the global consumption of music, announced that, in America, the average number of hours spent listening to music online had increased from an average of 3.5 hours daily in 2015 to 4.5 hours in 2017. Technology is actually fuelling people’s listening to music. They are listening across at least three devices, sometimes up to ten, from smartphones to wearable technology.

The great global conversation
What does this mean? Is music evolving a new role in our lives?

Most of the discussion about music these days is about the income that musicians do not receive. Artists and labels are putting their music online for free, providing technology companies with the opportunity to leverage their work, but then not compensating the creators appropriately. Why do musicians continue to do it therefore?

For the same reason that publishers and writers provide their content for free. The greatest global conversation the world has ever known has just started, and we are all compelled to be a part of it.

This is a massive mental shift. Every one is head down with their digital device, catching up on the global conversation with 4 billion others, trying to understand, find their voice, contribute, looking for traction for their ideas. It requires new ways of expressing ourselves, from posts and podcasts to blogs and vlogs. How can we sustain such intensity and creativity? It is exhausting, and often mentally bruising.

But amidst all of this is the new, instantly accessible world of digital music, an equally unlimited world of personalised sounds, in turns motivating, diverting, entertaining and healing; it is an entirely solitary place to retreat to from the great conversation, to recharge before leaping into the stream of red-dot engagement again. People are silently carrying more conversations in their heads, responding emotionally to digital posts from the other side of the world and then trying to balance this with real-world demands. In a world of such distraction, what could possibly help us keep it all together? Is music the glue that will get us through? 

Published on 5 April 2018

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here. Toner will be giving a lecture exploring some of the ideas in the book on Saturday 11 May 2024 at 3pm at Farmleigh House in Dublin. For booking, visit

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