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Feb 19 2015

The Mother of the MP3, Or, How A Great Song Helped Up-End the Music Business's Apple Cart

Sometime between 1989 and 1990, at the AT&T labs in Murray Hill, NJ, a scientist heard a song. That scientist was Karlheinz Brandenburg . Brandenburg was just your average, everyday, audio engineering genius who also happened to be working on the codec for a new digital music format.

"I was ready to fine tune my compression algorithm and somewhere down the corridor a radio was playing Tom's Diner . I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice," Brandenburg recalled several years later in a magazine interview.

In a documentary for Swedish television in 2009, Brandenburg explained how Tom's Diner continued the journey to becoming the Mother of the MP3. "I was finishing my PhD thesis and I read in some hi-fi magazine that they had used [ Tom's Diner ] to test loudspeakers. I said, 'okay, let's test what this song does to mp3.' And the result was, at bit rates where everything else sounded quite nice, Suzanne Vega's voice sounded horrible." While Brandenburg and others on his team used a variety of music to test samples of the burgeoning mp3 compression format, Tom's Diner was a track they repeatedly relied on to test the effects of the data compression on the recording.

For a little context, here's some information about storage capabilities in 1990:

  • 1988: Prairie Tek releases the first 2.5-inch hard drive designed for the new notebook computer market; it uses two platters to store 20MB.
  • 1991: IBM introduces the 0663 Corsair. It has eight 3.5-inch platters and stores 1GB. (Emphasis mine, plus this drive was only available commercially)
  • 1992: Hewlett-Packard's C3013A Kitty Hawk drive uses two 1.3-inch platters to store 2.1GB.
  • 1998: IBM releases the Microdrive, the smallest hard drive to date with a capacity of 340MB on a single 1-inch platter.

Of course, none of these storage devices were small enough – or battery-powered enough – to carry around in your pocket.

Now let's look at how much data storage space a song can take up:

  • Average songs, when compressed to mp3, take up between 3 and 5MB of data. Let's call it 4MB.
  • A stereo .WAV file (uncompressed) averages around 10.584MB per minute , so a four minute song will take up approximately 42.336MB

For reference the iPod Shuffle had a storage capacity of 2GB (around 400 songs in mp3 format or around 47 songs in an uncompressed format).

Fifteen years ago or so, as a point of marketing, it was not the quality of the music you could now carry around with you, it was the amount of music you could carry around with you. So, here we are now still using a format that was a cutting edge technology at the time it was developed, even though that format (and the storage capacities of the devices we now use) has long ago been surpassed with other compression codecs that don't mess up our music so much.

Here's what you miss when you listen to a compressed mp3:

This cool little video was taken from the Ghost in the MP3 Project a research project done by Ryan Maguire at the Virginia Center for Computer Music , and it perfectly illustrates the otherwise intangible bits of music that we don't get to experience with a lossy music file. To add another layer of coolness to this video, the images are the ghosts left behind when the video to the song was compressed into mp4 format .

Here's the song in it's original form, (yet still compressed for Youtube):

So, the usual preaching from this Blog Pulpit about the evils of compressed music notwithstanding, there's a cool little bit of history about why we listen to music today the way we do.

Jack Sharkey

Jan 16 2015

Why The "Record Store" Is Going To Be Sorely Missed If We Let Them All Die

There's constant talk about audio as a hobby in reference to the purchase of gear (by the way, I'm all Our blogger's current favorite record shop: Princeton Record Exchange, Princeton, NJ for you going out and buying gear, especially from this company ), but there's another side to the hobby of music that has fallen by the wayside: the actual collection and enjoyment of music.

The ever-patient S.O. and myself skimmed through the premiere of American Idol last night ( What? At least I admit I watch it even if the DVR makes it possible to watch a two hour episode in about 35 minutes ). There was one marginally talented superstar-to-be who said she was not only a great singer but was also a writer who had "tons of content." Content. She was sixteen. That's what music has become to anyone born after 1975. Content. Am I the only one who sees this as a problem?


I have an iTunes account. I hate myself for it. I also eat at [ insert horrible fast food restaurant here ] every once in a while. I hate myself for that too, but I still do it. When I'm in a rush or just filled with self-loathing I fill myself with content at [ insert horrible fast food restaurant here ] and then a few days later when I feel better I vow to never do it again.

As I type this utterly mesmerizing opinion piece, I am listening to Good Rat's Tasty via iTunes shuffle on my [ insert gratuitous KEF M500 plug here ] headphones. If you live outside of the New York metropolitan area and didn't go to college in the late 70s and early 80s you probably never heard of Good Rats, and that's sad. The song is part of my 6,000+ iTunes library but I never considered any of the songs in that library to be mere content. Then it hit me: It's all become content. Music has become some intangible file residing on some ephemeral cloud somewhere with little or no connection to the human soul. I should have understood this the day U2 and Apple just put U2's new album in my account without asking me first: The thought process in the New Media Frontier is if U2 and Apple think I should have an album of music then they'll see to it that I have that album. I reject this.

Then I got sad and stared wistfully out the window.

Staring Whistfully Out the Window Segment

My first decent paying gig as a musician came on a Friday night during June of my sophomore year of high school. I made $50. The next morning I walked the two miles to my local record store with my fifty bucks and spent forty-seven of it on music. With the left-over three dollars I bought a pack of cigarettes and lunch. To this day I remember (most) of the records I bought that day. At $4.99 a pop, you could buy a lot of music for $47.00. I even bought some music that sucked, but for the most part it was a good score. I never once considered it "content" or as part of some on-going effort to amass a giant collection of music. It had meaning to me, and the records that didn't were soon forgotten. The preceding sentence will become important later on.

That little record store was Nirvana to me. There was always something good on the stereo, To the best of our intrepid blogger's memory, these four albums were purchased (among others) at the local record shop in 1976. there were always other people there, and the cooler those other people were, the harder I tried to see what it was they were looking at. After the cool people left a row of bins I'd slide myself over and see if I could get a-hold of what they were listening to. It never helped my coolness factor (which has hovered around 3 over the years), but I did get turned on to an awful lot of good music – crappy music too, but you get the point.

Music wasn't universal. It was mine. To this day, no one is allowed to speak when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Mr. Bojangles shows up on the radio in the car. Sometimes it was dangerous, sometimes it was safe, but it was always something I considered mine.

Here's the Point

In this image our intrepid blogger submits for evidence some really good music purchased just recently. The Beatles' albums are the new mono re-masterings. A few months ago I went on a shopping spree at Amazon and bought a bunch of vinyl and CDs. I still haven't listened to all of it. I don't remember everything I bought but I know some of it was pretty good. The problem is I really didn't enjoy the experience much. I felt like, I don't know, kind of like a sell-out to the mega-corporations that are trying to make me live in a way that assures them the most profit.

Clicking the check-out tab on a website and having the UPS man show up a few days later with a box of music is simply not the same thing as going out and rifling through bins and being part of the greater experience.

But now that music has become nothing more than content, and musicians and artists mere content creators, music has become the commodity the middle-men always hoped it would become.

Today we can take music with us everywhere – which ten years ago we all thought was going to be a great thing, and twenty years ago was a Quixotic quest – but has all of this portability made our musical lives nothing more than one endless Our blogger's second favorite record shop: Grimey's, Nashville, TN ride in the elevator of some faceless and bleak suburban office building? I submit it has.

As humans, we tend to take for granted that which we have easy access to (how much more do you appreciate your mom now that you have to drive like three hours to visit her in the home?). The things that are always there for us lose their appeal after a while because they're so... familiar . It's those things we have to put in some effort in to enjoy we find the most precious. Sand is annoying. Gold is sought after.

Call me old, call me tragically unhip, call me a shill, but the simple fact of the matter is I reject the notion that a song-writer creates "content," notwithstanding the change in the language from writer to content-creator .

The next time you're in the mood for some new music, ignore what your streaming service says you should like, ignore what your monolithic mp3 music purchasing service says you should like: Go to your local record store (if you are lucky enough to find one near you) and spend some time browsing and perusing. Allow yourself to experience the entire musical experience: the search, the acquisition and the exhilaration of stumbling across music you maybe never would have bought were it not for the communal experience of being a human being.

I don't consider myself an anachronist, I like progress, but progress that muddles or dilutes art is not progress, it's a sham. The things that are important to us stay with us for our entire lives and deserve to be treated importantly. The things that are important to us shouldn't be dictated by algorithims alone.

Jack Sharkey for KEF

Nov 25 2014

A Look At the Vinyl Resurgence From A Human Point-Of-View

Infographic: The LP is Back! | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

This year will be the best year for vinyl sales in a long, long time. Total vinyl sales in 1993 were around 250,000 units (in the US), and will top out a little over 6 million this year.

In other news, even though most people assume the CD is dead, CD sales were 165 million units against 118 million for digital album sales. Digital retailers really want you to believe the CD is dead, but so far, it's only just slightly wounded.

As for vinyl, 6 million units compared to 165 million and 118 million isn't much, and with less than 2% of total sales comprising vinyl, it's easy to write off the numbers as just the reflection of a hipster fad that will eventually go the way of painfully skinny jeans and humongous, fantastically groomed beards. But there are many of us who believe it's more than a fad.

In the last twenty years if you wanted to own a business with flat growth in the best of years and steeply declining revenue in every other year, you would have owned a record pressing plant. That's why by the dawn of this century there were only half a dozen or so pressing plants in the US cranking out vinyl for DJs and the occasional nostalgia piece. There are now sixteen plants nationwide, and most of them are running three shifts a day, seven days a week to keep up with demand. Nashville's United Record Pressing plant just added sixteen new presses to keep up with demand. If the vinyl resurgence is just a fad there are an awful lot of people investing an awful lot of money in it.

The Numbers

There is no doubt CD sales are in a steady decline, but one trend being overlooked is the decline in sales of digital albums. Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are definitely responsible in some part for this, but to say that streaming is single-handedly killing the physical product market might be a tad short-sighted. CDs and digital are dropping while vinyl is increasing almost exponentially. That speaks volumes to me.

In 2013, digital singles dipped just under 6%. Granted even with the dip, 1.26 billion singles were sold, but it's still interesting to note that this year for the first time since the launch of iTunes in 2003, sales have declined. In the US, CDs comprise 57% of all sales while digital albums make up 40%. The other two-plus percent is shared between vinyl and that bastion of horrible fidelity – the cassette.

Comparing sales in 2012 to sales in 2013:

  • Digital albums fell from 316 million units to 289 million (- 8.4%)
  • CD sales fell from 193 million to 165 million (- 14.5%)
  • Vinyl rose from 4.55 million to 6 million (+ 32%)

Billboard magazine, January 2014

The music industry is not dying a slow and painful death. The sales are still there (as are the income streams), they're just different now: Most industry insiders acknowledge the decline in physical product is offset by the increase in subscription and ad-supported streaming services. When I was a kid we called that "radio." Streaming services will provide the same vital function your mom's little transistor radio provided fifty years ago, but it's kind of naive to assume that streaming will become the only way we listen to music.

But Maybe It's About the Sound

In my research for this piece I came across more than two "audio" blogs who scoffed at vinyl because of its fragile nature and inherent noise. One audio blogger even explained to me that mp3 was a better format! (Even though it's on the Internet kids, it's not always true, so be careful who you read). There are problems with every playback method to some extent, and quite frankly, I haven't been to a live performance in a long time where I was totally happy with the sound. That's the nature of the musical beast.

My view on listening to music is that I live in the real world, along with other people, cars, dogs and airplanes that fly over my house on their way to the local Air Force base. Music is emotional and not logical so it shouldn't be that hard to assume we can listen past the imperfections of everyday life to get at the core of what we're listening to. Do I want the very best listening experience my environment and equipment can provide? Absolutely, but I don't want music to be anti-septic, I want it to be real. That's one reason why I'm a fan of vinyl.

A lot of folks are downplaying the increase in vinyl sales as the result of a mere fad, but since every format is flawed in some way, maybe we should look at the increase in vinyl sales as the result of people who truly love music finding out that they prefer vinyl over the other formats. Maybe people have become over-technologized and their antidote is the imperfection (and beauty) of an analog record. It doesn't have to make sense to the bloggers and critics and the stuffy people of the world, it just has to make sense to the people buying the product.

So, Maybe There's More To This Than Just The Desire To Look Cool To Our Friends

Unless they're being manipulated for nefarious purposes, numbers don't lie (I've been wanting to use 'nefarious' for like three months, but the word never really comes up when talking about audio and music).

Sure vinyl sales are a mere drop in the bucket when compared to CDs and digital, but you cannot deny a 32% increase in anything. Is it possible we're moving toward streaming for our casual listening (we used to call it 'radio') and back to vinyl for our serious listening? Is it possible people are becoming interested once again in serious listening? Maybe there's room for every format and – wait for it – maybe the choice of how we listen can be left solely to us and not the experts. I know that's technological blasphemy, but it may also simply be true.

Let's take a look at the experience we have when we listen to vinyl:

  • You get to hold a physical product that gives an actual connection (however tenuous) to the artist who created it
  • You have to get up after around 22 minutes to flip the album over
  • Skipping from track to track is a bit of a pain so you're more likely to listen to an entire musical statement by an artist rather than just the songs you really, really like
  • We hear in analog, including all the bits of air and space that we don't even know are there, so maybe we're able to make a deeper connection to the music

Physically, when we download a song, we have no more connection to it than we do all of those people we are 'connected' to on Facebook. When I really want to connect with a friend, I go to a bar and sit and talk (until he starts checking his phone, then I just get annoyed and leave). When I really want to connect to a song, I want to be immersed. I want to listen. I want to hold a record sleeve and read notes and look at pictures. My computer is a poor substitute for that experience.

Because the remote control has been removed from the equation, I'm a captive audience to what is playing. By being a captive to the music, I get the full emotional experience the music was intended to give to me.

Since I can't skip tracks (easily) the music I'm listening to needs to be good all the way through. I save the singles for my Spotify account and iTunes, but vinyl reminds me of the joy a really good set of music can bring.

I contend that eventually science will overcome the truly discernable difference between analog and digital and account for that difference, but for now its there and you can't ignore it.

Technology Schmektology, I'm A Human Being Dammit

I just gave you four reasons why vinyl may be on the increase, and even though they have very little to do with listening technology, they are valid reasons. They are human reasons.

But to me, the greatest part of the vinyl experience was and always will be, the trip to the store and the search for the record, followed by the rubbing of the plastic cover on my jeans to open the record up so I could put it on the platter and the drop of the needle.

And lastly, have you noticed, back in the days of vinyl you listened to music with other people and now you pretty much just listen to it by yourself while you're doing other things?

We're social animals and we thrive on shared experience. That's why NFL stadiums are generally full in spite of the weather or the record of the team (sorry Oakland and Jacksonville, you weren't part of this survey). Football is much better on television but somehow, sitting next to some drunk guy who drinks milkshakes and beer and then belches in a horrifically unnatural manner throughout the game (true story) is more desirable than sitting on your couch eating nachos while your dog stares at you.

Maybe we're getting a little tired of all the 'i' in our music and we're missing the 'we."

To me, that was the single greatest thing I lost when technology took over my music.

Jack Sharkey for KEF

Nov 04 2014

Taylor Swift Vs. Spotify. Without All The Cute Taylor Swift Song References

For the last twenty-four hours, every too-clever-for-their-own-good snarky journalist in America is laying claim to headlines that read something like " Taylor Swift Breaks Up With Spotify " or " Taylor Swift And Spotify Are Never, Ever, Ever, Getting Back Together. " I get it. Brilliant. I see what you did there. I'm ironically laughing at how sardonic you are.

Lame Taylor Swift song references aside, there's an actual story here beyond the silliness music lovers should be aware of. I'm a bit put off by the condescending tone the media is reserving for Ms. Swift, especially here in the New York area, but that's another subject for another day. I also think the braintrust at Spotify could help their brand by laying out the facts instead of publishing silly playlists and treating this whole situation as if Ms. Swift is just in a bit of a childish snit.

I've admired Swift more for her business acumen than her music (but I do like her music), and I think as a business person, performer and public personality, she's done a good job of letting other young women know you don't have to sell yourself out in order to make good, accessible popular music. But there is more afoot here than a lone artist taking a stand against a corporate giant that's out to rip her off.

It's not unusual for an artist to embargo their work from Spotify and other streaming services, and that's certainly their prerogative. The Swift Vs. Spotify story has been reported as a "dispute" between the two. It's not. There is no dispute. Swift and her label, Big Machine Records, decided to pull all of Swift's back catalog from Spotify after opting not to release her latest album 1989 to the service. This is a business decision, with the extra added benefit of being able to be played as a crusade.

Swift has been vocal about her belief that music and art in general has intrinsic value and should not be free  – and there is no disagreeing with her on that point. The problem is, even on the free-side, music from Spotify is not "free." Artists get paid for each spin a song gets. There is a ton of misinformation being thrown at the public that what Spotify pays is barely worth anything, but the numbers don't back that assertion up.

I admit that when I first heard about the 1989 Spotify embargo I was all like " You go girl! " until I looked into the matter a little deeper.

Last April, one of my Spotify channels played a song by a new band from Alabama, St. Paul & the Broken Bones . I live in the largest metropolitan area in the United States, but it's also an area bereft of good radio. If you don't listen to a very few, narrow, genres of new music, or aren't stuck only listening to music that was popular 35 years ago, you're beat. Well, through Spotify I fell in love with St. Paul & the Broken Bones, as well as another half dozen or so other acts I would not have heard otherwise.

Let's look at the money I've spent on St. Paul & the Broken Bones so far since April:

  • For rough numbers, I'll say I listened to each song on the album 20 times via Spotify. Spotify pays roughly $0.005 per stream so I earned the band $1.20
  • I bought the album (on vinyl). I don't know what St. Paul's label pays them, but it's probably somewhere just south of $2.00, so now I've earned the band roughly $3.20
  • I also went to New York and saw St. Paul open for the Drive-By Truckers at the Beacon Theater last month. No offense to the Truckers, but I was there to see St. Paul. I spent $108 on two tickets. I don't know what the deal was between the two bands and the venue, but it might be safe to assume that St. Paul earned around $4.00 from my $108.00

So, there you have it, I'm a big fan of a new band and all of my support for the band has earned them around $7.20 – to split among the band and cover its other expenses!

I love this band and I'm trying to spend as much money on them as I can. Honest. But let's look at the numbers from a different point-of-view: the money I spent on the physical product (the LP) I spent once. I'm old and don't like people all that much so I may not ever go to another show of their's again, but every time I play them on Spotify, they get paid. I paid them once when I bought the album, but I rent the music when I stream it. Spotify's royalty rate is pretty much in line with terrestrial radio, and maybe a little better than satellite radio, but when I'm in the mood for some Southern blue-eyed soul, I can listen to it when I want to listen to it. In 40-something years of being a die-hard music addict, I never paid a dime to an artist to listen to their music on a terrestrial radio station, which was how I got my new music until recently. Now I do. Whenever I want. That's a good thing. (I do pay for a Sirius/XM subscription, but for this discussion, that business model isn't really relevant.)

So Why Did Taylor Swift Pull Her Music From Spotify?

You Swift fans aren't going to like this answer, but I'll sum it up in one word: " publicity ." I usually write about Cute gimmick, but what has it done to further the conversation? such fun and exciting topics as RMS calculations and speaker dispersion, and here I am writing about Taylor Swift – just like every other media outlet (real or imagined) in the country is doing. I'd say that as a publicity stunt, it's worked very, very well.

Swift and her label have every right to make her music available on whatever format they wish. Just like U2 had every right to invade my personal music space by adding their new album to my iTunes collection without so much as asking if it was okay (it wasn't). If she would rather her fans buy her music via downloads or physical product, that's great, but I don't think we should confuse this as a mighty stance for the little guy.

Another harsh reality of the music business may be in play here as well, and that is that Swift's label Big Machine, is on the market and an increase in physical sales will most certainly mean a higher value for the company as a whole. Remember, we're talking corporate profits and bottom lines here, so don't get mad, just understand that it is what it is.

If you're actually interested in fully understanding how this all works, read ." Macias is president of Thirty Tigers , a Nashville-based label services company that is in the forefront of the new music business economy.

Spotify would do well to stop trying to be cute with it's rejoinders to Ms. Swift, focusing instead on letting its customers know the service pays out approximately 60% of its income to artists and labels. Maybe a little more information about the new technology of music would help all of us be better understand our own roles in the relationship.

While Ms. Swift is a champion of getting artists paid for their work, this may not be her most shiningly altruistic moment. And that's okay to extent, as long as it doesn't perpetuate false ideas about how the music industry works as it enters a new era.

Jack Sharkey for KEF

Oct 23 2014

Why You Think Today's Music Sucks...It Comes Down to Neurochemistry

If you're reading this chances are you're a music fan. You may have very particular or very broad tastes; you may love the way it makes you feel or you may not even really care why you love music. But there's no getting around the fact that to varying degrees, you and every person you have ever met has a deep, personal relationship with music. There's a scientific reason for this.

One of the more profound books I've read is Dr. Daniel Levitin 's . Dr. Levitin is a musician and a neuroscientist and in this book he posits the theory that our musical brains actually guided our human societal development. In short, where we came from and where we are now, culturally speaking, is a direct result of the strong interconnection between our musical brains and our intellects.

Dividing song types into songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love, Levitin takes us on a journey from Beethoven to the Beatles to Busta Rhymes as he examines the evolution of language, culture and consciousness. This is all because our human brains are hardwired to be musical. It is really a fascinating read.

Now Let's Talk About Why You Think Today's Music Sucks

In a review published ( April 2013, Vol 17, No 4 ) written by and Dr. Levitin, the authors report on the connection between brain chemistry and music.

Music can evoke a wide variety of strong emotions, including joy, sadness, fear, and peacefulness or tranquility , and people cite emotional impact and regulation as two of the main reasons why they listen to music . Music can produce feelings of intense pleasure or euphoria in the listener , sometimes experienced as ‘thrills’ or ‘chillsdown-the spine.’

In short, music acts on our brains in the same way opiates and other drugs act on our brains, except without the addictive properties. It also excites the pre-frontal cortex associated with memory. So, when you're a kid, running around the neighborhood doing kid stuff, you're filled with all kinds of hormones like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin coursing through you mesocortolimbic system and ventral striatum, and other cool brain places that respond to rewards like joy and happiness, as well as sadness and rejection like when that gorgeous girl three blocks over made you wait outside for an hour on a November night before coming out and telling you she's going out with some 6'2" football troglodyte as opposed to a skinny 5'9" long-haired type who really doesn't like gym all that much. ( But no hard feelings or anything ) Digression notwithstanding, this means the music you were listening to while your brain was developing became hard-wired in your memory system, and hearing those songs brings back memories that are more intense than those memories built by hearing a similarly good song while in your thirties or forties.

My conclusion, which may not be the same as the conclusion reached by the smart people who wrote the review, is that you think music sucks today because your brain already has intense musical memories that are personal to you and your particular journey. So lighten up on the kids a bit and let them fill up their pre-frontal cortexes (cortices?) with their own memories and emotions ( as long as they stay off my lawn! ). That may also be the reason why the best audience and largest consumers of music are people in their late teens and early twenties

Happy Song/Sad Song

When I'm not reading books I barely understand about subjects I can scarcely conceive, I watch clever YouTube videos by the Gregory Brothers . In this favorite, the Brothers Gregory do a mash-up (we used to call them 'medleys') of happy songs played in minor keys to make them sad, and sad songs played in major keys to make them happy. It's more interesting than you think...

Although the aim of the video is to be funny and entertaining just for entertainment's sake (not a bad thing), there's something deeper here: The way the chords and notes intertwine with the emotion of the singer has a profound effect on the chemistry in our brains. Changing something as physically minor as the key the song is performed in drastically changes the entire emotional conveyance within the song. This is a result of our brain's interpretation of what it's hearing.

From Levitin and Chanda's report:

Musical pleasure is closely related to the intensity of emotional arousal. Even opposite emotional valences (e.g., ‘happy’ or ‘sad’) can be experienced as pleasurable and listeners often report that the most moving music evokes two or more emotions at once. Music does not have the clear survival benefit associated with food or sex, nor does it display the addictive properties associated with drugs of abuse. Nonetheless, the average person spends a considerable amount of time listening to music, regarding it as one of life’s most enjoyable activities.

That's why songs from your youth that are associated with sad memories or tough times bring you such peacefulness and happiness when you hear them now.

At it's very core, music is emotion and a very personal experience, much like our own emotions are. In the past ten years or so we have seen an explosion of music in our environments that has made music become depersonalized while at the same time it became ubiquitous. If something is powerful enough to actually change the chemistry in our brains, shouldn't it deserve a higher place in our lives than background noise? Or worse yet, a tool to drown out background noise?

As Chanda and Dr. Levitin put it:

Many believe that music has special, mystical properties and that its effects are not readily reducible to a neuronal or neurochemical state. Advances in cognitive neuroscience have challenged this view, with evidence that music affects the same neurochemical systems of reward as other reinforcing stimuli.

All of that being said, I still think music is special and mystical, and even though I dig the science behind the report, I'd just as soon keep it that way.

Jack Sharkey for KEF