Media Hot and Cold Applied to the Modern Music Climate

This project centers around how recording has changed our musical climate. This essay will discuss ideas presented in Marshall McLuhan’s chapter “Media Hot and Cold” from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) and relate them to this project.

Marshall McLuhan published his work “Media Hot and Cold” in 1964, a very different media environment from that of today. Despite this fifty year gap, McLuhan’s ideas have continued to fit into modern musical context through the decades as culture, technology and music itself have changed (1964).

In “Media Hot and Cold”, McLuhan sets out to define and explain his ideas about two different classifications of media: “hot media” and “cool media” (McLuhan, 1964, pg. 36). McLuhan defines hot media as media that creates a “state of being well filled with data” and a media that evokes little from the listener (McLuhan, 1964, pg. 36). This media is one passes a lot of information to its audience very effectively and in large amounts (McLuhan, 1964). By contrast, “cool media” is defined by McLuhan as a medium that creates a circumstance for a listener or viewer where “so little (information) is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener” (McLuhan, 1964, pg. 36). This paper will set out to classify today’s modern recordings and older recordings using McLuhan’s classifications of hot and cool media (McLuhan, 1964).

Today’s recordings are made using the most modern and advanced technologies that can capture sound easily and clearly. These technologies have also greatly changed since McLuhan wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964. This shift in technological capability is not just a great advancement from the early days of recording, but it is also a great advancement from the world of media that McLuhan knew in 1964.

Older recordings made with less technologically advanced methods logically make lower quality recordings that capture less sound in lower quality and quantity than current technologies. For this reason, I would like to present the argument that older recordings could be considered cool media and today’s modern recordings could be considered hot media by McLuhan’s definitions (McLuhan, 1964). The difference in the quality and quantity of information that is provided to the listener is the reason why I make the argument that older recordings should be classified as cool media and more modern recordings as hot media (McLuhan, 1964).

Older recordings, which could even be said to include the vinyl records from McLuhan’s day in the 1960’s, struggle to capture the clarity and amount of sound that modern recordings, today’s Mp3s and digital files, can. There are even continuing debates today about the sound quality between different modern media formats like sound quality of a CD versus an Mp3 file.

By the nature of old recording technology’s limited capabilities compared to today’s technologies, older recording technologies produce media that would be classified as cool media by McLuhan’s definition because of the lack of information they provide (1964). The skips, silences, scratches and overall lack of clarity in older recordings are something that most modern listeners are bothered by.

Today’s recording technology is not just greatly advanced from the early days of recording and since McLuhan wrote his work in 1964, but is also perpetually accompanied by editing technologies like auto-tune that can add information to a recording that wasn’t even there when the sound was produced. This huge information disparity and the differing level of participation from the listener that is required between older and modern recordings is why they fall into McLuhan’s two distinctly different categories of hot and cool media (1964).

McLuhan also draws a distinction between the kind of environments in which the media is used by again using the terms hot and cool, but this time in the context of “a hot or cool culture” (McLuhan, 1964, pg. 43). Even in 1964, McLuhan classified America as having a hot culture (McLuhan, 1964). Today we’re bombarded with advertising, music, images and media almost constantly and even more so than when McLuhan wrote his work in 1964 (McLuhan, 1964). Americans born in the last thirty or so years can’t remember a time when any piece of information or almost any music recording was available at a whim on the internet. Even in 1964, McLuhan classified America as a hot culture in comparison with other parts of the world (McLuhan, 1964). But today our culture is even hotter by McLuhan’s definition because we are exposed to even more media almost constantly in the form of advertising, the internet and other sources (McLuhan, 1964). We live in a hot culture by McLuhan’s definition, and a hot culture by McLuhan’s definition is also not dramatically shaken by the introduction of hot media such as the modern recording (McLuhan, 1964).

Because today’s modern recordings could be considered hot media in a hot culture by McLuhan’s definition, they make very little impact on our everyday life (McLuhan, 1964). To hear a flawless and incredibly clear recording is no longer earth-shattering for our generation; in fact, it is totally commonplace experience.

McLuhan also introduces a good visual analogy about hot versus cold that supports my ideas (McLuhan, 1964).

The principle that distinguishes hot and cold media is perfectly embodied in the folk wisdom: ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.’ Glasses intensify the outward-going vision, and fill in the feminine image exceedingly, Marion the Librarian notwithstanding. Dark glasses, on the other hand, create the inscrutable and inaccessible image that invites a great deal of participation and completion.  (McLuhan, 1964, pg. 44)


I would like to make make the argument that modern recordings are the clear eye glasses that McLuhan describes (McLuhan, 1964). They allow information to pass from media to listener, but are do not create the same mystique that comes with older recordings, or as McLuhan describes it, the woman wearing the dark glasses (McLuhan, 1964). Older recordings, in my opinion, are a wealth of more raw and natural music filled with intrigue that leaves space for the listener to hear different things and different interpretations and could therefore be classified as cool media by McLuhan (McLuhan, 1964). However, modern listeners that have become used to the wealth and convenience of modern recordings tend to not share my sentiments. Convenience and ease of information in our hot culture is the quality that tends to be most valued (McLuhan, 1964).

McLuhan also notes that different types of media, hot or cool, have different outcomes on listeners or viewers (McLuhan, 1964). In our hot culture, modern recorded music is so convenient and plentiful that it is what people are primed for and are used to hearing so much that it can easily become static background music (McLuhan, 1964). To many, this ability to be easily ignored could be the hallmark of a piece of cool media (McLuhan, 1964). However, I believe that modern music is ignored and listened to half-heartedly not because it doesn’t provide a lot of information (as we have established that it does), but because we are a hot culture (McLuhan, 1964). As a hot culture, we are shaken so little by the presence of hot media in the form of musical perfection that it becomes acceptable to play music as you do almost anything, anywhere at anytime, even allowing you to listen in solitude through the use of headphones (McLuhan, 1964). This is a monumental shift from the days before recording technologies or even the time and place in which McLuhan wrote his work. There are now internet streaming services like Spotify that allow you to stream almost any kind of music with limited interruption, again adding to our hot culture and changing our expectations of the role of music in our lives (McLuhan, 1964). This choice of hot media in a hot culture has inevitably changed how we think about different classifications of music media and where music now fits in our musical climate (McLuhan, 1964).

Ideas about how this transition from hot to cool media have changed our musical climate are varied (McLuhan, 1964). As a musician myself, I’ve noticed that there is almost constantly an uncomfortable strong push for technical perfection in today’s musical climate. I’ve always found this push for perfection unnatural. In my experience and opinion, music isn’t something that you can perfect. Music is something that is an artistic creation, free from the rules of gravity. Unlike many other aspects of life, there are no rules in music. Music can be whatever it wants to be and take as many forms as it wants to take. It should allow you space to think and draw your own conclusions and interpretations, but today’s hot modern recordings don’t allow that to happen (McLuhan, 1964). They’re too full of falsified information like corrected pitches, layered tracks and multiple takes to give us anything true and valuable. Perhaps this goal of an honest recording is an unattainable one, but I believe one thing for sure. Today’s hot musical media have changed our perceptions of our musical climate and our perceptions of ourselves as musicians (McLuhan, 1964).


Literature Cited

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), chap. 2, “Media Hot and Cold”

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