Playlists have always been a big part of my musical life. They continue to perform an important function in my musical diet. I’m sure they accomplish many of the same things for you too. Some hold down a mood; for me, this usually means they help foster productivity so I can sprint through homework. Some are filler in the background, cancelling out road noise or the annoying chatter of a TV. People have “workout playlists”, or at least Spotify seems to suggest they do. It almost goes without saying that playlists are a central way in which we consume music. But is this an objectively good way to listen to music? Are we trading something away when we employ playlists, rather than listening to albums in their entirety?

My History with Playlists

In middle school, my mother coerced me to get a MySpace account. Begrudgingly, I complied. I didn’t care for it at first, until I discovered the music part. Every day after school I would come home, grab a snack and jam out to Skillet or whatever new rock band I had found that week. On Windows Media Player, and eventually iTunes, I would create playlists by selecting songs individually to fit some mood. These were, and continue to be, denoted by some epic title such as “An Attempt to Inspire Joyful Thoughts and a Great Night”. This is the name of the playlist Michelle and I used at our after-wedding-ceremony-dinner. “Block Out the World” has a lot of heavy music on it, which not too surprisingly helps eliminate noise pollution from Michelle’s intense gaming session on The Sims. Also, there’s the infamous “Ballds” list, which is just a collection of slower songs. And yes, the title is “ballads” spelled incorrectly. I never changed the title because I felt it gave it a unique flair of its own.

borrowed from Apple

Now, on Spotify I try to do the same, although Spotify generally beats me to it. Either it generates solid “Daily” playlists or it leads me to sweet gems that I end up “hearting”. On one hand, this is good. It saves me time from combing through songs to create a playlist, especially if I’m not familiar with all the bands in the world….which I am currently not, despite what my wife or friends claim. But, at the same time, I love digging music into and finding songs that mesh together to create a certain atmosphere or mood. It feels satisfying to hear the songs shuffle together or play straight through, front to back.

Do playlists Distract us from Enjoying the Music?

As I mentioned, Spotify has a lot of pre-made playlists. It also generates new playlists for everyone as it collects data on each listener’s music tastes. But is this harmful, in some capacity? By indulging in playlists, do we lose something, specifically do we lose a connection with the music itself and the artist?

Obviously, I’m a fan of playlists, but I feel they serve a fairly specific purpose. At a party, they might help blanket the background with something other than random conversations. For shy individuals like me, this gives us confidence to mingle with guests at a post-wedding-ceremony-dinner. They can also help motivate us to finish our workout routine in its entirety, rather than skipping out halfway through. For gamers, they might narrate the harrowing events of a brutal match. In other words, they’re perfect for a continuous stream of background noise. This stream can be customized to fit a mood or a theme, depending on the situation or the event. For example, the playlist Michelle and I had for the dinner was much more tame than ones I listen to regularly because it (unfortunately) wouldn’t have been appropriate to jam out to heavy metal at the dinner with our families.

borrowed from Spotify

When I discover a new band, I try not to listen to their entire catalog on shuffle. I go one song at a time, listening to the music and focusing on the song itself. Or, if I’m lucky, Reddit will direct me to a popular album, which I’ll listen to straight through, trying to dissect what the band was trying to do with the record. Sometimes they just offer a handful of songs on a disc, and sometimes they try to do something more creative. Albums that tell a story, whether it’s a concept album or a collection of songs that take you on a journey, are vastly more interesting than playlists. Part of this is due to the creativity that went into crafting the album. It takes a lot of skill and thought to make a good concept album. As someone that endeavors to tell stories and write, I find this craftsmanship is intrinsically attractive. Additionally, I value these albums greatly because they do something on top of offering good music: they tell a story. They challenge me emotionally at times, like any good story.

In Closing

The biggest point I’m trying to make is pretty simple: I think that playlists are great, they have played a central role in my musical education and experience, but there are times when we should just lean back, obey the Doobie Brothers’ command and just listen to the music. Moreover, we need to remember two of the central reasons we listen to music: to share in the creative process with the musician and surrender to the groove and beat of the music