What I Learned From Tracking Every Song For A Year

Part 2 in a series recapping my Year In Music project for 2015

Twelve thousand six hundred and sixty-nine songs is a lot of songs. It’s a lot of songs to hear and it’s even more to keep track of them. I did more than simply count each song. I logged the artist and song name and also pulled in additional data points like time, date, and location. The corpus quickly ballooned to over 150,000 data points. Left unexplored and unfiltered, it was merely a massive spreadsheet. So I spent the next few months digging in, looking for stories and insights locked away in the immense grid of cells.

I expected to learn an overwhelming amount about my music habits, and I did. What I didn’t expect, however, was to learn so much more about the rest of my life, from my work patterns to my home life.

Insight #1: My Entire Life Has a Soundtrack

Every song plotted by date and time.

When the right song comes on in the background of a tv show I think, “I wish I had a soundtrack to my life.” After paying attention to the music in my life, it’s clear that I do have a soundtrack. It’s easy to see the constant presence of music by plotting the date and time of each song I heard. Patterns also emerge that correspond closely to different activities in the stages of the day.

The time when I am asleep is the most apparent and, by association, the late nights and early mornings. Additional patterns emerge through filtering the data. Showing only those songs logged through Spotify or only those logged via Reporter start to tell a story about when I listen intentionally versus incidentally. Distinct behaviors become more apparent — swaths of afternoon productivity (headphones on, getting some work done), parent duties after work, and evening TV time can all been seen.

Insight #2: Listening to Music Is My Sport

Number of songs heard, by day, from each of my 10 most favorite albums of the year

As mentioned in Part 1, I’ve been making Top Ten lists of my favorite albums each year for nearly 15 years. All those years of year-end list making molded my approach to listening. It was not apparent to me, however, just how systematic my approach was until I plotted the data filtered down to my 2015 Top Ten list. What I found exposes the story of how I listen.

As the year begins, my gaze is wide as I look for new music to listen to. New music rolls periodically, heightening in the summer. As November rolls around, my focus narrows. I comb back over everything that stood out and listen again with more intent, playing the entire album front to back. The same focused listening appears a few more times before the year ends and my Top Ten list is complete. Everything drives towards the end of the year and then resets when the calendar flips.

Insight #3: The Effect of Changing Jobs, Quantified

The dark area represents the number of songs I was above or below the average pace for the year (average songs per day)

I draw a lot of inspiration from music in my job as a designer. When it’s time to get serious, the headphones go on. I’ll spend a few minutes looking for the perfect accompaniment knowing that it will make a difference. It’s engrained in my process to have music on when I work, so when I changed jobs in the middle of March, I was able to see how my process evolved.

I had a couple different charts that started to hint at an increase in my listening at the new job but the effect really stands out when charting my pace of listening. For the year, I averaged 34.7 songs per day. The chart above shows how much I was above or below that pace each day. For the first 3 months of the year, I was under pace. Then, just a couple weeks after starting my new job, there is an inflection point. My pace picks up quite a bit, peaking in the fall and then dropping quickly at the end of the year when the holidays came around.

I knew that my working style had altered slightly after the change in jobs. For one, I was the lone designer for the first couple months which meant more time working alone. Seeing the difference spelled out so clearly helps to quantify aspects of the employment change.

Insight #4: A Four Year Old Disc Jockey

Spotify plays attributed to my son, counted by time of day

From an early age, my oldest son was drawn to music. I started making playlists on Spotify to more easily play his requests. As he got older and more computer savvy, he began to cut out the middle man and run the play queue himself. From the moment he wakes up he steals every opportunity to be the DJ.

Plotting his Spotify plays by time of day shows my presence in his life. He plays music all morning while the house is getting ready for the day, and again at night after dinner. The songs he plays says a lot about what influences his taste in music. His playlist is heavy on the soundtracks of his favorite movies, though I’ve managed to sprinkle in a few songs that are more tolerable.

Insight #5: Music Is Everywhere

Maps of the 3 cities where I heard the most music. In order, Austin, San Francisco, Baltimore.

I had the location of 40% of the songs I heard. It was the least complete part of my data set, but it yielded some of the most interesting charts. The maps above show a dot for every song heard in Austin (where I live), and the two cities where I logged the most songs: San Francisco and Baltimore.

The Austin map is densely populated downtown where my office is. There are other hot spots around town, the largest of which are at grocery stores. Every grocery store has that faint music floating overhead. For that reason trips to the store were particularly agonizing, but those stores have a large presence in my year in music.

San Francisco and Baltimore were the destination of several business trips. In those cases the hot spots were at restaurants and hotels. My movement around the city and to and from the airport also stands out. Street performers, cars with their windows down, and every Uber driver’s Pandora station served as a proxy for tracking my location.

Technology has bred the ubiquity of music. It has also devalued the song as a musical unit, while at the same time making music indispensable. Music permeates every part of our life. So it makes sense then that so much of our daily activity can be identified through a history of our listening. If there is any lasting insight from my experiment in 2015, it is just that — music is the ever-present companion of contemporary life.

Part 1, focused on the process of collecting the songs, can be found here. Part 3 can be found here, which summarizes the making of a music chart.

There is a 12 page book summarizing my findings and process in tracking my year in music. It is a limited edition of 250 copies chocked full of data, maps, and visualizations. Order a copy of the book here.

Previous year’s projects are compiled on my website: www.ericboam.com