By LINTON WEEKS
WASHINGTON -- Roberto Cabrera is a self-professed iPod addict. On this recent weekday afternoon, Cabrera, 22, is at a favorite hangout, the suburban Atlanta Bread Company, sketching and listening to Billy Idol and Pulp. Telltale white wires, tentacling down from his earbuds to his 20-gigabyte iPod, connect Cabrera to more than 5,000 songs that he has downloaded from CDs and the Internet.
If you listened to an hour's worth of tunes a day, with each song lasting an average of four minutes, you would spend about a year exhausting the playlists on Cabrera's iPod.
Cabrera listens to 14 hours a day. He needs two iPods -- so one can be charging at all times.
"I've always been influenced by music," says Cabrera, a junior majoring in international business and studio art at the University of Maryland. Now he needs it "all around me, all the time."
He listens to music while: eating, running, painting, pumping weights, driving. He even listens to music in the classroom. "Like if it's a history course," he says, "I really could care less. The teacher is talking in a monotone. I turn it up. I put in one earbud and turn my head a little and the teacher can't tell."
A swimmer, Cabrera packs his own tunes -- with the help of a waterproof device and headphones -- while practicing at the University of Maryland pool, which has underwater speakers piping music to swimmers.
Cabrera is a musicholic, a classic creation of our time: the Era of the Ear, the Epoch of Omnipresent Song, this miraculous Age of Ubiquitous Music.
Here, there ...
There's no escaping it. Via broadcast and satellite radio and TV, an ever-expanding array of recording technologies and the Internet, music has invaded the tiniest, quietest corners of our lives. You hear it in grocery stores, dentists' chairs, whenever there's a lull in the action at sporting events, in bookstores, on the telephone while on hold, at restaurants, health clubs and gas stations.
Online music stores such as iTunes and Napster offer hundreds of thousands of songs for downloading. New bands spring up all the time, many producing tired music. Old bands refuse to fade away, reuniting ad nauseam for PBS concerts and producing more tired music. TV music shows such as "American Idol" spawn even more tired music.
Music fans carry CD players and MP3 gadgets. Many depend on Apple iPods: 10 million have been sold since the device was introduced in November 2001.
Satellite radio companies advertise a whole new explosion of music possibilities. Sirius promises 65 channels of music; XM offers 67. Oakley's Thump sunglasses contain a tiny digital music player, and cell phones everywhere ring to the opening bars of "Stairway to Heaven."
"There has never been a human culture existing or extinct that has not had music," says Mark Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School who believes music is a universal language.
Ever since the first Walkman appeared in 1979, social scientists have railed against the alienation caused by personal music devices. Other scientists have warned us of the inevitable deafness and cerebral distraction.
We are caught in the middle of a musical war. Whole industries are built on dumping music upon us, while others allow us to choose what we want to listen to. It's a battle royal for our ears, our brains, our bank accounts.
As composer Libby Larsen puts it, "Recording technology has made us all digital democrats." Music today is free-flowing, intoxicating, addictive, and it's no wonder that some people, like Cabrera, just can't get enough of it.
Music is arguably the quickest, most immediate mass cultural auger into the brain. Sound streams through the ears to the auditory cortex, which links directly to the limbic system, the emotional clearinghouse. In a fraction of a second, your hearing's job is already accomplished. Then the mind and imagination take over. The sound is reshaped into more abstract representations of music. It conjures up notions of pleasure and displeasure, of desire and dissatisfaction, of memory and long-lost tinglings.
Neurologist Richard Restak says this pinball effect in the brain explains music's transcendence and power. It can "evoke an extremely intense experience," he says.
And this explains why neuro-marketers -- lab-coated people who study the sweat patterns and heart rates of consumers under various circumstances -- are deeply intrigued by music's effects and how they can be used to manipulate us.
Muzak to our ears
One of the new-school companies on the edge of manipulation-by-music is also one of the old-school originators of the idea.
Muzak, a name synonymous with syrupy, go-nowhere elevator music, has reinvented itself to take advantage of music's useful ubiquity. As we sift through the ever-expanding global jukebox to put together the soundtracks of our lives, Muzak -- along with firms such as DMX and Audio Environments -- is only too happy to help.
From its founding in 1934, Muzak has nearly always been ahead of the curve technologically and psychologically. In 1937, British psychologists asserted that music increased worker efficiency, and the idea of using it to bring order into the chaotic noise of factory machines took off. According to the corporate Web site Muzak.com: "World War II resulted in great growth for Muzak. As the whole country geared up for production, Muzak took a leading role in work-related music. Time and again, industrial psychologists found music improved morale, attendance and production."
In the late 1990s, Muzak reinvented itself into a New-Agey "experiential-branding" concern. The company shifted its focus from background music to foreground; the music suddenly wanted to be noticed, to implant "earworms" -- musical phrases you can't get out of your head -- into the disc changer of your brain.
Today the South Carolina-based company has 3,000 employees and some 350,000 clients. It is pushing a high-concept plan called Audio Architecture, which is emotion by design, says Muzak's director of corporate communications, Sumter Cox.
"What our product does is create an experience. We are a branding company," Cox says. Muzak consultants ask their clients what idea they want to communicate: Do they want to be perceived as macho or feminine, young or old, country or urban? Muzak then selects a specialized music program that helps "tell" the company's "story."
The song list for Red Lobster, for instance, contains music that "embraces customers and makes them feel cared for and loved": Marvin Gaye, Sade, Simply Red. For LensCrafters, Muzak found music that exudes "assurance and independence": Norah Jones, Sting.
For some companies, such as Old Navy, Muzak sets up each store's sound system: Klipsch speakers, Bose amps, etc. An automatic timer lowers the volume in the morning hours and cranks it up for the midday onslaughts.
Some businesses have not only tunes playing overhead but specially packaged music for sale. Williams-Sonoma sells its own CDs; Victoria's Secret has a rack of "road trip" CDs; Godiva offers the disc "Melt: Music to Eat Chocolate By." In May, Starbucks reported that it had sold 21,000 copies of Antigone Rising's "From the Ground Up" in 12 days from 4,400 U.S. stores.
Quantity, not quality
There is far too much music in the world, the late composer Virgil Thomson wrote in London Magazine. "Musical sounds are always a pleasure. It is unmusical sounds masquerading as musical ones that wear you down, and the commercializing of musical distribution has given us a great many of these," he wrote in 1962.
"It has also given such currency to our classics that even these the mind grows weary of. Because though musical sound is ever a delight, musical meaning, like any other meaning, grows stale from being repeated."
Neurologist Restak is sometimes overwhelmed -- for example, by loud, incongruous music in bookstores. "They'll have something on there by the Doors," he says. "I can't look at a book in that situation.
"To me it's dissonant. There is an emotional disconnect, a physical disconnect," Restak says.
But at the Atlanta Bread Company, Cabrera listens to Rasmus on his iPod while overhead, Muzak's classical music plays.
And when he goes to shop at a mall, and the stores and the corporations and the philosophies infiltrate his ears and seek out the tiniest, quietest corners of his life -- he likes to wear his iPod.
That way he gets to listen to the music he wants to, while choosing the clothing he wants to buy. And, he says, there is added value: Salespeople leave him alone.