Lossy music might be bad for your health

Lossy music might be bad for your health (people in general), or maybe it’s just me. I know it’s bad for my health; the only question that remains is how common or uncommon my situation is. I have conducted numerous blind experiments on myself, to eliminate the placebo effect or other psychological factors, and the results are absolute: 100% certainty, that certain forms of lossy compressed music make me physically ill. Also, it’s not about music quality – as you will see below – even though I can’t distinguish between the compressed and uncompressed music, the lossy compression will make me sick; and, in some cases the lower quality uncompressed music is fine while the higher quality compressed music will make me sick.

It started around 2003 when I decided to rip all my CD’s to MP3. After some days of listening to music, I noticed, each day about 20-30 minutes after I started the music, I would get a headache, so I shut it off and took a nap. Again and again it happened, but at first, I couldn’t believe it was the music. I decided to look into the music as a possible cause, so I started with “the Pepsi challenge” or “the Coke challenge” as it were: I ripped a bunch of CD’s to both MP3 and WAV format. I was using the LAME codec on maximum quality (320 kbps stereo). I would listen to a section of one song, pause it, then play the same section of the other. Over and over I tried different parts of different songs, trying to see if I could hear the difference. The conclusion: I could not. Except in rare cases, where a cymbal sounds like a splash of water or breaking glass, or a low drum beat sounds like it’s hollow or something. Those “artifact” cases were very rare, and very subtle – certainly not something I would care about. Still, as the days went on, I would occasionally play the MP3’s and get a headache, and I would occasionally play the CD’s and be fine. So it must be placebo, right? I devised a second test; this time a real experiment:

Since I already had several CD’s ripped to both MP3 and WAV format, I wrote a small python script that would play an album, but for each track, it would randomly pick whether it was going to play the MP3 or WAV. It wouldn’t tell me, or display anything different; it would only record its decision in a file for later review. I sat in my living room with a pencil and paper, listening. I didn’t write whether I thought the music sounded good or bad; I didn’t guess whether it was compressed or not. I wrote if I enjoyed the song, or if it made me feel bad inside, in a vague, general sense. After listening to a bunch of songs, I would then compare my notes against the actual decision of the program. The results, over dozens of tracks were astounding: There was a 100% correlation between the lossy compressed music and me feeling bad. Literally every single decision the program made, with zero exceptions, I was able to detect by feeling good or feeling bad.

So it sucked. I had discovered something about myself that I didn’t like, and nobody likes. I became the awkward person who has to ask people to shut off their music sometimes, followed by a long discussion about how it’s not music quality, but subconscious rendering blah blah, which nobody truly understands or believes when I tell them. They just think I’m a weird sensitive audiophile, which is annoying and wrong. If I go to a party and they’re playing music from an iPod or something, I’m not the party pooper who will try to ruin the party; I just leave. We’ve had some cases where people came to visit our house and played music that I had to ask be shut off. Certain stores, I cannot enter. I’ve occasionally had to ask someone to change the music when I got into their car. It sucks; it’s awkward and embarrassing every time.

It’s gotten worse over the years. Now it only takes a couple of minutes to start feeling sick. If I ignore it, by 20 minutes or so it won’t be merely a headache; I feel nauseous and dizzy, in a weird way. I use the words “headache” and “nauseous” and “dizzy” imprecisely – describing this feeling is like using the word “headache” to describe a migraine. Yes, headache can be part of it, but it’s not really a headache. It’s a difficult to describe feeling that is only most closely approximated by these words.

Denial being what it is – Again and again over the years I kept trying to convince myself it’s not real. Unfortunately, I’ve perfected the art of detecting lossy compressed music: I don’t try to listen for artifacts or quality or anything like that. The test is simple: I listen to the music, and imagine what the performers look like. If they look real, playing real instruments, the music is uncompressed. If they look like pixellated monsters, or a music video with glitchy static on the screen, it’s compressed. Nowadays I can usually identify lossy compressed music in a few seconds. After I figure out which I think it is, I ask the person playing the music, what service they’re using. The results of this have also been surprising –

MP3’s bad. AAC bad. CD, FLAC, and WAV are good. FM radio is fine (caveat, HD radio is a problem, see next paragraph). I presume Lossless AAC is ok, but I’ve never actually found anyone using it. If you burn MP3’s to a CD, back in “normal” format for a regular (non-mp3-playing) CD player, that’s also bad. The damage has already been done. Amazon, iTunes streaming services are a problem. Sirius / XM satellite radio makes me sick… Buuuutttt… Music videos on TV no problem. Music in movies on DVD or BluRay no problem. Music from YouTube no problem. I’m not talking about the coincidence of music and video – Even if I shut off the screen, or I go to a party where somebody’s just playing music… I first determine whether or not I’m ok with it, and then I ask them what they’re playing. Consistently again and again, I’ve found that music played from YouTube doesn’t bother me. The music on TV, DVD, BluRay, and YouTube are all lossy compressed formats, but they don’t cause a problem for me. What’s different between these formats and the formats that cause a problem? Most likely they use a different codec, but I’ve never been able to identify which codecs are in use on which media, or test that theory. I know certain lossy codecs make me sick, and others do not. I’m not sure which characteristic of those codecs are the problematic characteristics.

FM radio is uncompressed, much lower quality than CD’s or maximum quality MP3’s. I’ve gotten used to the idea over the years, that FM radio is fine. So a couple of years ago when we went on vacation to Seattle, we rented a car, and I put on the FM radio, and I was surprised to discover it was making me sick. I checked and re-checked, and confirmed, this is only FM radio. It should be fine. It can’t be making me sick. This can’t be real. But I couldn’t bear it; I withstood about 10-15 minutes, and then I had to shut off the radio. Later, in a parking lot, I started pushing buttons on the radio, and discovered: This radio can play both FM radio, and FM HD radio. By default, it plays HD radio, but the display still just says “FM.” You can toggle the HD on or off. So I did. It was unbelievable to me – like night and day – When playing HD, the sound quality was obviously much higher, but I felt like knives stabbing my brain. (Obviously I’m being dramatic and exaggerating). Switch to non-HD, pure relief. Adele sounds amazing and lovely. Toggle back and forth between HD and non-HD several times. Tell everyone about it. Weep internally about the future where everything is going this direction, imagining how I’ll be forced to become a reclusive hermit with no friends.

For the most part, over the last decade, I listen to FM radio and I buy CD’s, and rip them to FLAC format. That seems to work, but it’s a lot of effort. The FLAC files take up enough space that I can’t fit very many in my phone. You don’t get a lot of diversity in your music if you can’t listen to the samples before buying a CD. Unless you dump tons of money into it, you just don’t discover new things. FM radio sucks because of the DJ’s and commercials and repetition. I end up mostly just having no music in my life.

Recently, we drove an hour to visit some friends out in the woods. When we got there, the music was making me sick, but I can’t just leave, because I’m with my family, visiting friends, far away from everything. It’s important for me to stay. So I awkwardly talked to our hosts, and found they were streaming Amazon, and uncomfortably asked to shut off the music. That got me thinking:

It’s 2017. Storage costs have come way down since 2003. Networks have gotten amazing compared to a few years ago. Maybe by now there’s a streaming service that streams lossless music? I googled for it, and sure enough, Tidal exists. They offer a streaming service with lossy compressed music to compete against Amazon and iTunes, but they also offer a premium service that streams lossless.

It’s been a few months since I subscribed to Tidal, and I have been in pure music heaven all this time! :-) Streaming music absolutely changes everything. You can start playing a song, and if you like it, add it to one of your play lists. You can browse “similar artists” and discover music you never would have otherwise known. You can select from genres or playlists that they publish for you. In my phone, I can select an album, and toggle “make available offline” so it will download over wifi, and I can play in the car without consuming mobile data (or needing a 4G signal to be reliable). I absolutely love it.

I am an exceptionally self-aware introspective person, and I wonder, are other people also negatively affected by lossy compression formats? But they’re just unaware of it? Or is it just me? Now that I work at Tufts, I’m considering going to the psychology dept to ask if anyone is interested in either doing a case study on me, or perform a behavioral study on a larger audience, but I haven’t done that yet.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s a very real chance other people are also negatively affected by lossy compressed music; they just haven’t connected the dots and figured it out yet.

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