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How headphones will change the way we listen to music

Music and emotion are intimately connected. Just open any of the major streaming services to see that in 2016 we browse music by mood, not genre. And the headphones we use are more than functional – they’re a cultural statement.

Research shows that music can change the way facial expressions appear to us. New innovations in music are driven by this phenomenon, turning the emotional impact of music into a vehicle for adventure that morphs our reality. From Spotify’s Discover Weekly tool, which intuitively suggests songs you might like based on what you’ve recently played, to the latest headphones customised to your ears, listening to music is becoming deeply immersive.

Hitting the right note in the experience economy

Simply providing music for people to purchase music to listen to is no longer enough. Apple was once at the front of the music technology space, but quickly slipped as disrupters like Spotify and Pandora entered the market. Knowing the universal appeal of music services, Apple invested $3.2 billion to acquire Beats Electronics, the company known for its now iconic headphones and its new live streaming service.

But it may be too little, too late. One soon-to-be released product, Nervana headphones, take the listening experience to a new level, using electrical signals to release extreme amounts of dopamine and serotonin while you listen to music, creating a natural high.

The headphones require a generator, but offer the user a way to transform live music. Through its ‘ambient’ setting, the headphones will react to the music, synchronising nerve stimulation with sound. So, even if you’re sitting up the back of a concert arena, you can be having an emotional experience that’s superior to the experience of those around you.

Samsung has recently developed 4D headphones to pair with virtual reality games. The headphones help the player to feel in-game movement by tricking the inner ear into believe the world they’re immersed in is real – proof that headphones will play a pivotal role in the future of entertainment as well as music.

Same song, different beat

Dr Tanja Luckins, Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies at Deakin University is an expert in contemporary culture. ‘The message has not changed but the form has – from radio to vinyl records and then, in recent years, live streaming over the internet,’ she says

‘In the 1960s stereophonic sound was a revelation. The next generation enjoyed quadrophonic sound and stereo 8-track, while these days home theatres boast immersive surround sound systems,’ Dr Luckins points out and adds that while each generation enjoys a new innovation, there is a timelessness to the enjoyment that comes from listening to music. It’s no surprise that as technology has improved; innovators seek to make that experience better. ‘I suspect that immersive headphones will enhance the listening process and create new versions of old rituals,’ she adds.

'In the 1960s stereophonic sound was a revelation. The next generation enjoyed quadrophonic sound and stereo 8-track, while these days home theatres boast immersive surround sound systems.'

Dr Tanja Luckins,
Deakin University

An empathy machine

Chris Milk, a US-based immersive artist and music video director, is working to explore how this emotional enjoyment of music, combined with virtual reality, can make us more empathetic.

Milk’s latest projects have explored telling the stories of those seeking asylum from conflict in Syria and waiting in UN refugee camps. His 360 video Clouds over Sidra follows the journey of 12-year-old Sidra. Viewers watch the film through a VR headset. Sitting alongside Sidra in her home, the camps and taking each step of the journey with her.

Music is a key component ‘The right piece of music at the right time fuses with us on a cellular level’ he said in a 2016 TED talk. Milk believes there is a ‘raw experiential power of pure music’ that makes its partnership with virtual reality unlike any experience we’ve had with music before.

Milk’s project highlights the fact that not only will listening increasingly stimulate our brains, but also that sound technology will be central to our immersion into virtual worlds.

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Dr Tanja Luckins
Dr Tanja Luckins

Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies
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