Playlists: from singalongs to earbuds

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In our last post, we met the young cellist Rose tweeting about how playing the cello helped her depression and anxiety.  She recommended listening to a Debussy playlist while studying.  Today Rosella Room takes a look at the digital music phenomenon of playlists.

Music is part of human cultural DNA, but we can safely say that listening practices have changed over the centuries.  In recent decades we have moved from the singalong around the piano to the solitary practice of funnelling tunes directly into our heads.

How music is curated has changed as well.  With the arrival of digital radio services such as Classic FM, and streaming sites like Spotify and Apple, it’s now as common to group pieces of music according to function or mood as it is to classify by artist, composer or genre.

We’ve traded rock and jazz for playlists for every situation: “music while studying”, “music for walking”, “music for exercise”, “reading chill out”, “relaxing sleep music” and “morning commute”, and every mood: “relaxing”, “mediation”, “summer”, “epic”, “sad”, “happy”, “romantic” and  “warm fuzzy feeling”.  And, our personal favourite, ‘coffee playlists’ eg “Wakeup and smell the coffee“.  Spotify also has playlists according to horoscope (one for each sign of the zodiac).

What do Rosella Room readers think of this development?

We think these regularly updated musical collections are useful for matching music to mood or activity, and they certainly introduce you to new music.  You can skip tracks you don’t like and save ones that you do,  and it’s easy to share your favourite pieces with friends.   Plus, you can create playlists of your own.

Yet you also lose a level of understanding of the music when it’s taken out of its historical and/or musical context.  And while a playlist is a handy short cut, you learn a lot about music through your own harvesting, as it were.

For example, you could research the main types of jazz and listen to albums recommended by jazz historians.  In doing so, you might trace the ebbs and flows of different influences or perhaps the presence or disappearance of particular instruments, rhythms, melodies or harmonies over the years.  You might also gain insights into the cultural place of musical traditions through the decades, such as the American South or Nazi Germany, when jazz was branded degenerate.  And you’ll come across lesser-known pieces.  Streaming a pre-arranged playlist of ‘Jazz essentials’ will not give you this depth or variety of musical experience.

Who makes commercial playlists, anyway?  Here at the Rosella Room we guessed that streaming companies hire musical experts to hand-select pieces, or they generate algorithms with the help of computer experts.

A quick google search revealed a more complicated picture. Yes, playlists are curated by both algorithms and experts (Spotify even consulted an astrologer for their  zodiac playlist.)  However as a commodity, playlists are bought and sold by major labels and dedicated playlist companies which service the streaming platforms.   For example, search for ‘Peaceful cello’ on a streaming service and you may well find that the playlist is produced and owned by one label.  Advertising and marketing play a role in what music reaches our ears, pushing us towards ‘recommendations’, before we’ve even reached for the search button.  See further the research in “The Secret Lives of Playlists“, by Liz Pelly.  See also this 2015 Quartz article by Adam Pasick which delves into how AI, deep learning and the playlists of other users shape your own music ‘choices’.

Are you aware of any precedents for this streaming, playlisting (yes, it’s also used as a verb) culture?  The term ‘playlist’ has its genesis in broadcasting, and is still used today in radio program lists.  In the heyday of radio, did stations broadcast music according to theme, mood or activity?  And earlier, in the days when the piano was a central feature of a living room, and a Saturday night might be spent with friends singing at the piano, was sheet music also packaged or marketed according to mood?

Rosella Room readers, we want to hear your memories and thoughts.

Interested in the effect of music on mental health?  See also our Music and mental health: the cello and Music therapy for anxiety: Recipe for a Chill playlist.

Image credit: Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash


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