There’s a Science to Bad Playlists

This article from Wired explains a lot about music curation and recommendations. Bad playlists have a science all their own.

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

Turns out, subjects “also showed activity in the superior temporal cortex.” That’s where the brain stores sound. Salimpoor thinks the brain privileges music that’s like stuff you’ve heard before. Music services take advantage of this. “It’s how discovery engines work,” she says.

But there’s a flaw in this—and it may explain my shitty playlists. “Dopa­mine responses are optimized by an element of uncertainty,” Salim­poor says. “Remember the feeling before a first date when you were a teen? You had a tem­plate in your mind of how it could go—maybe very well—but there was also uncertainty, and you felt a rush of anticipation.” This is how our brains train us to pursue pleasure—and to try new things. It’s also why those recommendation engines should work. But the songs don’t always hold up their end.

Makes sense, right? Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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