The Science of Bad Music Playlists

When 15 years old bucks was a lot of money for me, I bought Led Zeppelin’s debut album after listening to it on in-store headphones at HMV – every day for a week. The first piece, however, is one of my most powerful musical memories: I felt those first two chords rolling in my head and saw my arm lift, hand in a self-contained rock finger salute . When I finally got the CD home, I was so excited that I smashed the jewelry box trying to break the security sticker.

In college, which is the Napster era, I was no longer looking for music; but if time is money, I still paid. I heard a song and I was interested in the artist. Then I was stealing leads. A song could take an hour to download, and storage was far from free. So, to make sure I didn’t waste time or space, I was researching to see if the band was worth it: bumping into a BBS, talking to friends. I would listen to it several times. If a song was good, I would burn it on minidisc. (Yes, I’m that guy.) Bad leads have been removed. My mixes were amazing. The process was full of what technologists call friction, the supposed enemy of a good user experience. Still, these college-era blends remain some of my favorites.

Friction or not, this music I worked so hard for has more staying power than the shit I play now. In pathetic thirties fashion, I try to stay relevant. I subscribe to Spotify’s new music playlists and delve into the app’s Discover tab. When I find something I like, I add it to a playlist. But here’s the thing: Even if I like a song when I add it, I quickly tire of every track in that queue. Is modern music so bad? Is it just me? I wonder what a neuroscientist would say…

“When you hear music that you find intensely enjoyable, it triggers a dopamine response,” says Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at the Rotman Research Institute who monitored test subjects’ brain activity while they listened to music. This dopaminergic response explains why people like me crave music. But how does our brain decide what is good?

It turns out that the subjects “also showed activity in the superior temporal cortex.” This is where the brain stores sound. Salimpoor thinks the brain favors music that sounds like you’ve heard before. Music services are taking advantage of this. “That’s how discovery engines work,” she says. Streaming services recommend songs with similar sound signatures to your top tracks.

But there’s a flaw in that, and it may explain my shitty playlists. “Dopamine responses are optimized by an element of uncertainty,” says Salimpoor. “Remember the feeling before a first date when you were a teenager? You had a pattern in your mind for how it might turn out – maybe very well – but there was also uncertainty and you felt a rush of anticipation. This is how our brain trains us to seek pleasure and try new things. This is also why these recommendation engines should to work. But the songs don’t always hold their end.

Pop music is so designed to hit your dopamine jets that it won’t take the rush. When the music is predictably similar, “the dopamine response will decrease rapidly. That’s why people love improvisational music like jazz — it’s different every time. So this Discover tab? It gives me just a short term high and then I crash.

A better drug – or recommendation algorithm – would be one that builds on what I love while challenging me to diversify more. In the meantime, do you know any good jazz?


George L. Hernandez