All the Songs Are Now Yours

Prince performing at a music festival in Rio de Janeiro, 1991
Miguel Rio Branco/Magnum Photos
Prince performing at a music festival in Rio de Janeiro, 1991


In 1939, the American composer Aaron Copland published his music appreciation guide, What to Listen for in Music. Its presumptions were suggested by its title. “Listening” was an arduous exercise in concentration, best performed in optimal conditions: the concert hall, the quiet parlor. In fact, “listening” was not enough; Copland wanted his readers to “listen for” what he called the “sound stuff” of music: to clear the mind not only of external distractions and mental obstacles, but of all nonessential sonic wadding that surrounded it. Music required targeted attention, the state of mind you might enter when doing a word-find or watching, through binoculars, for a migratory bird.

Copland dismissed the mere “sensual” experience of music, which he associated with daydreaming and escapism. The book’s slightly piqued attitude toward listeners suggested that Copland had much experience of recital halls full of people shifting noisily in their seats, looking furtively at the woman in the next row, spacing out, or simply falling asleep. Any artist in any medium who has been told his work is “relaxing” or “soothing” knows the frustration Copland must have felt. His book has a kind of clenched patience, the patience of a parent who has already had to tell his children something a hundred times.

Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever is a music appreciation guide for our era of free or very cheap music, instantaneously available everywhere and to nearly everyone, delivered from the cloud to tiny, relatively inexpensive devices that deliver loud, clear, and accurate sound. In the checkout line at CVS, for around $25, I can find a Bluetooth speaker that pairs wirelessly with my iPhone and will fill a medium-sized room with music. Subscribe to Spotify or Apple Music or Tidal (the service owned by Jay Z and originally the only place to go to hear Beyoncé’s blockbuster Lemonade if you missed it on HBO), and you can check out music from every era and every spot on the globe, even songs long forgotten or considered lost. If one copy of an LP by Pinhead or the Decentz still exists, somebody will upload it to the cloud, and soon the melody detaches from a dusty object and enters the wide world, where it will be universally and instantly available.

You can listen to bluegrass radio from Antarctica, or reggae from Saint-Tropez. Or instantly find every jazz standards program in the world and choose among them. I just looked up every version of “These Foolish Things” and listened to them in random order, comparing renditions by Rod Stewart, Brian Ferry, and Thelonious Monk. I could record a version myself on ukulele and zither and upload it: it would exist proudly beside Billie Holiday’s and Chet…

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