So, those vinyl lovers might actually be onto something after all, it seems. A group of researchers in Hong Kong have discovered that the act of compressing a piece of music into an MP3 file means that some of the emotional tonality is lost. When a piece of music is converted into a digital file, some tones don’t make it to the other side, and the timbre changes. As it turns out, this process might actually be dampening some of the emotional appeal of music.
The study was investigating which musical instruments are the most degraded by file compression. This is how it went down: 20 native English speaking subjects were asked to listen to a series of instruments in different recorded formats, and then rate the sounds based on particular emotional traits. The study found that more positive emotional terms were far less commonly associated with digitally compressed files.
On top of this, they also noticed that certain instruments lost a lot more than others in the translation – trumpets got hit the hardest, whilst horns more or less got away clean. This has some pretty broad implications – firstly that we might basically all be listening to music wrong, and that perhaps older formats shouldn’t be avoided. Recently the aux cable socket in my car broke, and once I was done crying, I was forced to start listening to CDs again. While I didn’t consciously notice a major markup on quality (though there obviously is one), I did find myself getting more absorbed in the music as I listened to it.
Beyond just this, the more limited emotional range of digital music might suggest why certain musical trends have become more prevalent. Darker, deeper bass tones have become more the norm, but so have more intense melodic rises. The former could be a result of producers leaning into the skid, whilst the latter could well be a means of trying compensate for it. It’s hard to say, really, but it might be time to shrug off the fears of hipster assimilation and dust off that Walkman, or even a record player. Hell, bust out a gramophone if you’ve got one, it worked for Christian Bale.
You can read the full study here.