#366daysofmusic

Near the end of 2015, I read a couple of articles about people who set themselves a daily challenge for the year. One woman crafted a miniature chair; one man sought out and consumed a different flavour of taco. I had previously completed a year of collecting one-second video clips each day and was looking for a new creative but bizarrely obsessive way to mark the passing of time, so the idea of doing something a bit more engaged and therefore challenging appealed to me. So, while other people were resolving to spend 2016 reducing energy consumption and producing less waste and becoming more active in charity efforts, I pledged to listen to, and review, a new music album each day of the year. We all give back to society in different ways.

Throughout the year, people who were aware of my quest kept asking the same question: Why are you doing this? This is, really, two questions: First, Why have you decided to spend the year doing a particular thing each day? and, second, Why is the point of this thing? There are many answers to the former: I enjoy being creative, it feels good to set and achieve a goal, having a routine helps keep you motivated on days when you’re feeling lacklustre, doing this ensures I will have at least one thing to blog about this year, and so on.

I originally thought that the latter question was simpler, and had only a single answer: I have a ridiculously large music collection and this will a) justify my ownership of all those albums and b) encourage me to finally listen to things that I’ve never even played once. Almost immediately, though, I began to realise that there was a lot more going on underneath the surface. I had hoped to encourage brand new musical adventures and the revisiting of albums I didn’t feel had received sufficient attention, but I found myself pushed and pulled towards particular songs/albums/artists/genres on particular days or in particular situations. My head might say, “You should listen to the Frazey Ford you’ve never heard,” but my heart would say, “Nope. I want to wrap that Loreena McKennitt around me like a warm blanket.” Some days I could barely force myself to listen to anything at all, but on other days I had a near-continuous soundtrack from my first cup of tea until I turned out the light at bedtime. I thought perhaps there might be some sort of deep and fundamental truths I could unearth by reflecting on all this more systematically, so like a good little scientist I began to collect data. Let’s take a look, shall we?

One of the very first things I noticed–also commented upon by friends who followed the progress of my project on Facebook–was a consistent generosity in my ratings:

ratings-frequency

Over the course of the year, my ratings averaged out to 7.5 out of a possible 10, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 10 (not that I gave too many of either of those two extremes). The most common rating, also the median, was 8. Obviously my sample here was biased, because I was predominantly listening to music I already own–which, given the amount of research and sampling I typically do before committing to an album, probably meant I was pretty fond of the record itself, the artists, or both, by the time I made the purchase. On top of that, despite my initial interest in exploring the neglected corners of my music collection, I couldn’t help but feel drawn towards albums I knew and loved; I was cherrypicking the best ones and, for the most part, avoiding the stuff I’d deemed unworthy. Finally, I tend to be relatively generous whenever I give marks to anything, so in addition to focusing on the best of the best, I am probably guilty of inflation caused by over-enthusiasm. I know all of these things are true, but I prefer to think that I just happen to own really excellent music.

Despite the biases mentioned above, I did actually try to facilitate diversity and variation in my listening. When I’d had too many top-ranking albums in a row, and especially when I kept choosing the very same score again and again, I would deliberately select something I was less familiar with or that I’d previously dismissed as substandard.

Quality over time

To some extent, you can see this reflected in my listening pattern over the year (above). Although the bulk of ratings are clustered in the 7-8 band, you can see regular peaks and troughs, especially after a little plateau. There was more variation right at the beginning of the year, in early April when I did my painful survey of Cat Power albums, and then in early September when I was short on time while traveling and therefore chose albums predominantly based on their length (where shorter = better) rather than their quality. Basically, I think this graph shows that, despite my best intentions, I was fairly consistent in prejudicially choosing tried-and-true albums throughout the year. [It’s worth noting that the “0” towards the end of the year is actually an “n/a” associated with a novelty album. I don’t think I own anything atrocious enough to merit a real 0.]

I do feel guilty about failing to explore certain overlooked albums. When I started #366daysofmusic, there were specific records that I wanted to listen to; Joan as Police Woman’s “The Classic”, Sara Watkins’ self-titled album, and the aforementioned Frazey Ford all spring to mind. I listened to none of them. I also feel guilty about inconsistencies in my rating methodology. On the day that I picked a particular album, I might listen to it once or multiple times, after either having never heard it before or heard it many times previously; sometimes I already knew the artist and was predisposed to be positive, but other times I was unfamiliar with the performer and probably more likely to be skeptical. I knew it wasn’t really fair to consider all of these listening experiences equal, especially considering that many artists, and even entire genres of music, provide an experience that needs to be repeated and pondered–nurtured, even–before you can be fully appreciative. All those albums that have, or might have, grown on me over time were given short shrift in #366daysofmusic. Given that it wasn’t a full-blown scientific study, I think I can forgive myself, but the point remains: It pays to be a patient listener who doesn’t dismiss things too readily.

I am also all in favour of being open-minded when it comes to genres. I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly eclectic listener. There are certain genres I don’t own in droves or listen to routinely, and, on the flip side, others that I strongly prefer. I like all sorts of styles, however, including those that blend elements from different periods and disciplines and cultures. Did #366daysofmusic reflect that variety?

genre-frequency

To the best of my abilities, I assigned each of my chosen albums a genre, and the resulting graph (above) shows that I do, indeed, listen pretty widely across the musical spectrum. When people ask me what my favourite genre is, I tend to default to “Americana” because it is an easy way to summarise that I like earthy-sounding stuff that draws from predominantly country, folk, bluegrass, traditional, and early rock influences. Basically, I like what my voice sounds good singing; I am also a sucker for the haunting sound of melancholy melodies and eerie reverb. Harmonic, moody music.

I find myself groaning in aural pain every time I turn on BBC Radio 1, so I never would have guessed that I listened to so much music best categorised as “pop”; then again, “pop” is short for “popular”, so I suppose its prevalence kind of makes sense. The peaks associated with “indie” and “rock” also caught me off-guard because I though that I dislike those genres.  I suspect the mismatch results from the fact that I am inordinately fond of, and own all the albums by, certain artists within those genres–Alt-J, for example–but view those as exceptions to the rule. There are many ways to be “rock” or “indie”, after all, and it is possible to like the decor within a particular room but not like the overall style of the house in which those rooms are found. Or something.

In order to see whether my ratings were kinder in some categories than in others, I produced the following graph that breaks at least a half dozen data analysis rules:

Rating by genre

At first glance, this suggests that there is a slight gradient across the genres, with some getting consistently more favourable reviews than others. I’ve left off the label of the bottom axis because it’s a riot of words, but the genres towards the left, more favourable, side are things like “folk”, “soundtrack”, “pop”, and “indie”. The ones towards the right are things like “reggae”, “hip hop”, and “electronic”. There may be kind of a legitimate pattern here: The genre with the highest average rating is “traditional” and the genre with the lowest (discounting the “blues” outlier driven by a particular album I really dislike) is “jazz”; I do, in fact, really love traditional music and really dislike jazz, on the whole. But, as I said, this particular sample was generated by very biased data gathering techniques, so further music listening would be required to explore this pattern further.

The last graph I made looks at whether I exhibited any temporal patterns in terms of what genre I listened to when:

Genre over time

I randomly assigned each different genre a number between 1 and 22, so what you’re looking for here are clusters of neighbouring lines of the same height. For me, the most noticeable trend is that I started off with admirable variety over the first few weeks of the year, hopping from one type of music to another as I made my way through my collection. At the end of the year you can see a little cluster of genre 20, which was “holiday”. In between, you can see groupings of similar genres interspersed with brief forays into something different. As with the plot looking at quality over time, I can’t help but interpret this as evidence of a tendency to retreat into a comfort zone that I have to consciously work to prod myself out of for the sake of exploration and variety. I’m just relieved to see that there are peaks and valleys, and that I do sail off into new and uncharted waters occasionally. I hate to think that I may be missing out on something amazing simply because I’ve fallen into a rut.

The graphs are an amusing way to visualise my #366daysofmusic adventure, but they fail to capture the most interesting and important things I learned. I found that my mood really influenced what type of music I was willing to listen to. If I was feeling stressed, I wanted some soothing classical piano or Loreena McKennitt. If I was bummed, I was drawn towards Lana Del Rey or Bon Iver. If I was feeling energetic, I might play Lady Gaga or The Black Keys. I noticed that my choice of music could either reinforce how I was already feeling or help me actively combat it: Wallowing in some lugubrious Lera Lynn is perfect for savouring a sensation of gloom, whereas Mark Knopfler is balm to a suffering soul. Singing along always made the listening experience more enjoyable, and dancing around further augmented the happy mood. Even though I might not want to crank up the trance when I’m in a grump, I discovered that it’s likely to do a lot more good than drooping around with some Carla Morrison or Chelsea Wolfe (however much I may like their albums).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
One of my favourite places in my hometown is Hoffa’s music store, which I photographed for a blog post about the things that make Athens most dear to me.

I also noticed that I continue to have very strong associations between certain songs/artists/genres and particular memories and sensations. Once your mind has established links between specific tracks and specific people–especially people you’ve been in a romantic relationship with, and especially especially people you’ve broken up with–I think it must be nigh on impossible to erase them. I’ve gotten to the point where “The Sound of Silence” is no longer ruined by its connection to the ex-boyfriend who first played it for me, but I still can’t play it without having at least a fleeting thought of that idiot; how annoying. Country music always reminds me of summer, and hearing it makes me picture driving down a midwestern US highway with corn fields on either side. The soundtrack to The Matrix brings back scenes from my high school track meets, and “The Electric Slide” will always time-warp me to middle school dances.

If you’re lucky, you begin to know yourself better as you grow older. You refine your tastes and you hone your abilities to pinpoint exactly those experiences that will bring you the greatest pleasure. Part of this probably has to do with growing wiser, and part of this probably results from necessity: You have to spend so much time and money doing super-important grown-up things, you have to figure out ways to avoid wasting precious seconds and pennies. On the one hand, this means you can accurately predict that if you like Artist X or Album Y, you will also like Z (increasingly intelligent algorithms also help with this). On the other hand, you risk becoming blinkered and missing out on those joyous moments of unexpected discovery. It is a tricky balance to strike, and I was surprised by how reluctant I sometimes was to strike out on a little auditory adventure. If music is a microcosm representative of the rest of my life,  I will obviously have to be ever-vigilant of my feet-dragging tendencies.

The final lesson I learned is that sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing–even music. After obsessing over my daily selections for the entirety of 2016, I hit a wall in 2017. I needed silence. I needed birdsong drifting in through an open window. I needed the music produced by my own instruments and not somebody else’s. I needed to focus on thoughts rather than noises. I needed to seek enlightenment and enjoyment through some other medium (hence #poetic2017). This abrupt desire to take a hiatus may have been unrelated to #366daysofmusic; I did also overindulge on the La La Land soundtrack shortly after Christmas, and perhaps that was the last straw. Regardless of its origins, the need for silence was strong and lengthy and I am only just returning to normal. I have gained a deeper appreciation for people who review music for a living; I do not know how they manage to listen as widely and deeply as they need to for their jobs without going crazy from lack of peace and quiet.

Piano
When I was young, I spent many hours at various rehearsals at Ohio University’s School of Music

What I haven’t gained a deeper appreciation for is music itself, because that would be impossible. Even when I wasn’t listening to it recently, I was still playing it (as in, on my instruments), and reading about it, and buying tickets for concerts. I don’t remember the time before I learned how to play piano, and some of our earliest family films feature me singing fearlessly and with great aplomb right into the lens. Lasting friendships have sprung up with fellow music performers, not just because of a shared excitement about particular genres and artists, but because there is a special sort of bond that develops when you join together to create beautiful sounds and rhythms using your own bodies. Music has provided a soundtrack to my life that has augmented my very highest moments and helped to rejuvenate me and fill me back up at my very lowest and emptiest. It provides a sort of spiritual sustenance.  It has been a constant companion, not just for the 366 days of 2016, but also for the approximately 12,700 days that preceded it. However many more thousands of days are left to me, I hope that they, too, are days of music.

Further reading

  • By happy chance, Susan Maury curated Real Scientists during #366daysofmusic. She has some amazing wisdom to share about music psychology.
  • Music is more portable than ever, and some researchers are looking at the role of music in daily life.
  • I’m not the only one who loves music so much. Scientists are trying to figure out why it’s so prevalent in human cultures.
  • If you want to become a better listener to music, you might want to read this article.
  • Do you have a particular fondness for the tunes of your youth? Blame your neurons for that musical nostalgia.