posted by Manuel Amador on Wed 14th Jul 2004 18:54 UTC
IconOne of the ultimate goals of music is to provide enjoyment. Be it through association of memories, stimulation, rhythm or melodic messages, music fans all over the world enjoy listening to music.

Digital media, particularly the MP3 format (and later improvements), has empowered you and me in a way imagined never before. Owning and managing a large digital song collection is much easier than owning a sizable record collection. I honestly have songs I haven't ever heard.

The problem: listening to lots of music is harder than it seems

But actually listening to so much music is harder than managing it. Let me explain why.

There are (at least) two different strategies for listening to music. I can either:

  • choose and queue some songs up in my favorite player (Rhythmbox or XMMS, at the moment)
  • queue my entire music collection and turn Shuffle on in the music player.

Here's strategy 1 in a nutshell: When I know I want to listen to Robert Miles, I queue it up and listen to it.

But, in practice, strategy 1 has problems:

  • Selecting and queueing songs is a pain
  • I often do not precisely know what I want to listen to
  • I have to actually select a number of songs in advance, or interrupt my work every two to three minutes to queue a new song
  • I do not get to discover songs I haven't heard

I bet it happens to you too.

So, I resort to strategy 2: Shuffle play. And so, this minute Robert Miles (dream dance) is up, and the next minute perhaps UB40 (reggae) will be singing on my computer. Or Juan Luis Guerra (merengue).

You see, Shuffle is very good at helping you find previously unheard songs, but it's rather bad at selecting the most appropriate song for your current mood. Shuffle can do wonders with a small list of songs, but small lists of songs means you do not get to experience songs which aren't on the playlist. This means you have to either create lists (strategy 1, anyone?), or to interrupt your business every two or three minutes, maybe seven out of ten times.

I bet you have noticed this as well. Lots of music gives you wide variety, but does not guarantee enjoyment.

Unfortunately, there is no practical way to have the computer analyze all songs and tell it to play only “uptempo", or “romantic", or “party” type songs, other than making playlists yourself (cumbersome) or sorting by genre (useless due to the differences in song tempoes). Or is there?

How we choose what we want to listen

A party DJ keeps thousands of songs, and several playlists. But the playlists are just a small part of his equation. His brain performs, in real time, a much more complicated set of calculations: he must mix, match and weigh several factors which ultimately lead to a decision on “what to play next” (that's the mission of the DJ). At any given minute, he factors:

  • requests from people
  • a good sense to determine people's tastes in relation to music
  • a good sense to determine “what to play next” based on what's currently playing and what's your audience's target mood

We (you and me) perform the exact same analysis when playing music, unconsciously. Sure, we may or may not regard others' requests, and your tastes probably differ considerably from mine, but we already silently carry around in our brains what we need:

  • a list of favorite songs, divided into “mood playlists” (we decide on a whim whether a song we hear is “wanted” in our current mood)
  • a huge mass of data on the relationships between songs we've already listened to (if asked, we can quickly know if a song would be perfect to listen to, after this one)
Table of contents
  1. "Shuffling, Page 1/3"
  2. "Shuffling, Page 2/3"
  3. "Shuffling, Page 3/3"
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