On Non-Algorithmic Music Recommendations

“In Spotify’s view…when users search for and listen to music they are providing a measurable set of inputs from which musical tastes and desires can be extrapolated. This user behavior is recorded, compared and evaluated against that of other users, then sorted into metadata and used to calculate every song and artist’s degree of relevance to each individual.”
– Thomas Hodgson, “Spotify and the Democratization of Music”,
Popular Music 2020, Vol 40/1., p. 7.

“A difference which makes a difference is an idea.
It is a ‘bit,’ a unit of information.” – Gregory Bateson

On Spotify, music recommendations are flying my way daily—a bombardment of you might enjoy this! based on the company’s data of since you and others with similar listening habits already listened to this. Usually though, the algorithm is off. I like to think this is so because I don’t listen guided by style per se, but by Quality, which comprises a more difficult to quantify–in other words, subjective–set of attributes. From standard playlist prods such as “The State Of Music Today” and “Discover Something New” to recommendations narrowly targeted to what I apparently listen to (and therefore am, musically speaking), such as “Neo-Classical” and “Atmospheric Piano” and “Experimental Electronica”, on Spotify my tastes are reflected back to me and this reflection is refined in real time as I click to listen to this track, but not that one. As I listen, the algorithm refines itself to better reflect my tastes now, and maybe anticipate them in the future.


What’s the end goal? For Spotify to perfectly predict its users’ listening interests and habits to better keep them inside this streaming universe, paying by the month? Admittedly, sometimes it is nice to be figured out, even by software. I appreciate it when every year or two I get notice of say, a new Autechre recording. (Yes I will listen and yes I will probably find some beautiful moments therein. Speaking of which, have you heard “32a-reflected”?) 

But Spotify also generates vast numbers of playlists on which musicians of varying levels of Quality get lumped together via a presumed shared style. This is the reason why what I hear as the cloying piano music of Ludovico Einaudi sits alongside the non-cloying but more meditative/introspective piano of Nils Frahm. By virtue of their shared sonic surfaces and general style (neo- or post-classical?), tracks by each composer could be considered related, and maybe both musicians are, in the end, makers of atmospheric piano music that is roughly similar. But their Quality quotients are different, and Quality comes from details, from bits of information. As the cybernetic anthropologist Gregory Bateson once said, information is “any difference that makes a difference.” One could make the case that Einaudi’s and Frahm’s music are different in substantial, if hard to pin down ways, yet a Spotify playlist that groups them together glosses over such differences. Tiny differences make something (or someone) who they are, and such details can render one thing (or person) slightly annoying, and another thing well-balanced. Whether we’re talking about musical style or musical Quality, differences can make all the difference.

Which brings me to non-algorithmic music recommendations. The other day I looked up a Frahm piece and noticed that on his Spotify page he had posted a few of his own music recommendations via a playlist of a collection of dub-influenced tracks. I wasn’t expecting this, so rather than searching for Frahm’s music I spot-checked his playlist instead. One track, a 1996 piece by a German artist named Nonplace Urban Field (Berndt Friedmann) caught my ear with its minimalist rhythmic profile. This little musical discovery, I thought, was worth it. It was worth it because the sounds have something, some Quality. Here was music offered up not by an algorithm, but by another musician, as an influence: 

The Perfect Room: Two Perspectives

“When you put on a pair of headphones you are wearing the studio on your head, which is 100 percent reproducible. I’ve never been in a room that affected how my headphones sound.” – Andrew Scheps

“What you perceive when you listen to a mix isn’t some kind of objective reality: it’s almost entirely constructed inside your head, in response to the cues and clues your brain gets from objective reality. 

As soon as you walk into a room, your brain starts to analyze the acoustics, and adjusts almost instantaneously to the new sound. By compensating for the room, you can hear what the source actually sounds like, in the same way your brain will take account of the ambient light when judging what color something is. But when you hear a recording of a room, your brain can’t make those corrections anymore. Suddenly you’re hearing reality.” – Dan Worrall

Resonant Thoughts: Kit Mackintosh’s “Neon Screams” (2021)

“Vocal psychedelia is the omni-genre at the epicenter of our new musical mythology, from Jamaica to Africa to America.” […]

“Auto-Tuned artists are the new synthesizers — they’re the new samplers — and the sounds they make recalibrate your consciousness.” […]

“Music simulates the future. It war-games it. All those sci-fi sounds it produces, all of the vivid and visceral audio imagery it conjures, are premonitions and prophecies of the world that awaits us. You can be a cynic and say this is all bullshit (and you may well be right), but music becomes so much more rewarding if you don’t. So fuck it, have some fun. Suspend your disbelief for a bit and allow these musical delusions to run amok. No other popular art form is still charging forward into the future like music is. It seems to be the only medium still envisioning novel Tomorrows. Like a Voyager satellite, music is this lone, isolated technology ploughing through the outer cosmos of our collective dreamspace.” […]

“In the last fifteen years, new noises have been uncovered by musicians that we have no set way of interpreting or wrapping our imaginations around. Sounds have been created that make no sense; they have no correlates in the wider culture so they just seem to be completely alien to our ears.”

– Kit Mackintosh, Neon Screams

Music In The Great British Bake Off

While music doesn’t have inherent universal meanings, it is one of the most potent steerers of emotion. Perhaps in a more visceral way than painting or literature, music is literally airborne affect—sound waves vibrating us—that ushers listeners though realms of emotion in real time. Music moves us from happy to sad in a chord, or surety to doubt in a gong tone. It’s because of music’s easy and instant affective power that we depend on it to sell products in commercials or lend dimensionality to films and TV shows via soundtracks. Music says, feel this, and, well, we obey.

This summer I re-watched a fair bit the Great British Bake Off, not because I bake but because watching others do it and then subjecting themselves to Paul Hollywood’s critiques is Quality TV. Is the cake light and fluffy or a bit stodgy? Can you taste the cardamom, or not really? Is the pudding dry, or just under baked? And why would you put so many hot peppers in that anyway?

Tasting food has some things in common with listening to music. You take in something: food through the mouth, music in the ears. As you eat, you can’t turn off your sense of taste, so as you chew you evaluate in real time what’s going down. A pie might strike you as too sweet and cloying. Similarly with a piece of music: as you listen your aesthetic taste runs vast calculations towards quick judgments, like this is needlessly sentimental or it’s too busy.

Re-watching the Bake Off confirmed what I first thought about a few years ago, which is that the show’s soundtrack does its work extraordinarily well. The music steers us into what we imagine are the feelings of the show’s contestants. Depending on where we are in an episode, the music creates drama, lightens the mood, and above all acts as a stand in for elapsing time. The bakers are always under a time crunch—“Bakers you have 30 minutes left!”—and the music lets us know how little that left time is. Come to think of it, the entire show is about running out of time.

Composed by Tom Howe, the Bake Off’s soundtrack is scored for orchestral percussion, strings, harp, some woodwinds, and not much else. For me, a percussionist, the percussion steals the show because the parts are so idiomatic to how the instruments are generally played. We hear piano, marimba, vibraphone, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, shakers, and glockenspiel. Alongside this, the strings bow melodies and pluck them when a quirky situation demands it. With this limited instrumentation, the soundtrack is organized more around a steady pulse than memorable melodies. A typical texture might begin with a single marimba note sounded once every four beats, then joined by shakers, string pizzicatos, and eventually ever larger percussion instruments. The score sounds like sequenced music (which it probably is), albeit with acoustic instruments and without loops. 

Tonally, the music doesn’t travel far. Instead, its role is to articulate the increasing franticness of the bakers as they rush to assemble their breads, pies, and cookies from vague printed directions. To my ear, the show’s musical cues sound like pieces in progress that never quite arrive, and the more I watched the show the more I wondered about why this is. One explanation is that Howe uses variations on recurring themes in each episode so that, for instance, the initial bake has a playful quality (cue pizzicato strings), the more involved technical challenges build to great intensities (cue passionate bowed strings, snare drums, bass drums and cymbals), and the moments of finishing and presenting to the judges have a dreamy, Harry Potter-esque quality. For example, Howe’s aptly titled piece “Sparkle” soundtracks the scenes when the bakers behold their finished creations and then offer them to the judges. What makes this music sparkle? It could be that it’s in a Lydian mode, which is similar to major scale but whose fourth degree is raised (sharpened) by a semitone. (To hear the mode, play the notes c,d, e, f-sharp, g, a, and b on the piano. In “Sparkle” you hear this sharp fourth sounding on the fifth note of the piano melody.) I always hear this semitone difference as a kind of enchantment that evokes or signifies a sense of magic. More than the orchestral percussion and quirky pizzicato strings, it’s this enchanted quality that best captures the earnest Englishness that The Bake Off seeks to convey. Like listening to music, baking can bring us back to our childhood. Baking is sweetly expressive music, making wherever we are home.