Experiencing mood on Spotify

Credit: Spotify Advertising

I’ve been putting some thought into the relationship between mood and technology, particularly looking at digital experiences which build in mood-orientated features. Previously, I’ve discussed why I think Spotify offers an interesting example of the digital world reacting to mood. To explore this idea, I ran a small qualitative study looking at how mood comes into play in users’ experience of Spotify. Here I’ll offer my findings as food for thought for those involved in creating digital experiences where moods might matter.

I’ll skip most of the theory but offer a bit of context. Spotify is an interesting example of mood and digital coming together, in part because of the music streaming platform’s mood playlists and mood selection features. But also because of the platform’s core features: unlimited streaming, curation, customisation, playlist creation and discovery features, all drawing on a enormous pool of music, allowing users to tailor their music listening to their tastes like never before. Meanwhile, Spotify themselves are clearly very aware of the importance of mood in their experience. Whilst there is a wealth of research around the relationship between music and moods (which I won’t go into here), none of this research appears to have zoomed in on the role of mood in music listening mediated through digital streaming platforms.

So, what role does mood play in users’ experience of Spotify? In what ways do Spotify’s mood navigation features contribute to this experience? I ran a small but deep qualitative study to find out. Small because of just 5 participants, all Spotify subscribers in their twenties. Deep because I employed a phenomenological interviewing technique, which involves helping participants to describe fuzzy aspects of their experience for which they don’t have the words for first-hand. So, straight to the findings.

FINDINGS

Spotify played an important role in the lives of participants as their primary source of music. Participants described using the full range of features of Spotify, such as the discovery playlists to seek new music, recommendations personalised to their taste, playlists that they have curated themselves or shared playlists curated with friends and followed playlists and artists. Subscription, rather than the free experience, allows for uninterrupted use of Spotify resulting in a richer experience.

I started subscribing to Spotify a year and a half ago. Originally I would only use it on the shuffle play and look up regular artists that I already knew. Now that I am a subscriber I use it more to find new music or new artists. I also use Spotify every day. Listening to mixes I’ve already created and also with new music. I’m following “Discover Weekly” and every week I get new updates. I have Spotify on my phone and my laptop.” — Jane

All of the participants in this study described mood being involved in their motivations for using Spotify. Participants described listening to music through Spotify in order to either to alter or to react to their moods. There was a fuzzy distinction between the mood that one is in, the mood that one wants to be in, and the mood which is intrinsically imbued within a specific track or genre.

“I probably… usually I choose the playlist based on the mood I am in. But sometimes if I’m feeling sad or something, then I might choose something which is happier, so that I can try to change my mood.” — Emma
“…For example today I was listening to a singing Tibetan bowl sound track that was under the mood genre of relaxation. And I ended up becoming, really calm and centred. I feel like I was easily able to fall into a relaxed feeling which felt like my muscles were relaxing, only focusing on those few things. The music represented and evoked that feeling.” — Jane

That Spotify allows for mood regulation seems intuitive for participants, as music is inherently linked to mood and emotion.

“Music is emotion. That’s exactly what it is. It’s within me, of course. But it’s the sound and me.. kind of the sound and me working together… I’m not too sure what I’m trying to say right now. [long pause] … it’s the music working in me. I don’t know how to finish that sentence.” — Lars
“Music is like therapy… The only way I can calm my stress is through music.” — Jorge

Spotify is understood as providing access and navigation of mood-affecting musical content. That is, it is seen as the container, rather than the ingredients. So these mood-based affordances of Spotify are interpreted as being part of the music, rather than inherent to the platform.

“Spotify is a source of music. That you can use to tailor to yourself, so you can personalise it. And when it comes to emotions. I think really it gives you access to a lot of … a wide variety of music. It’s kind of this platform or source where you can access certain aspects or feelings that you have. If you are premium. It would ruin it if it hard commercials all the times, it would interrupt.” — Sara

For the participants, playlists were the default way of listening to music on Spotify, which means that they very rarely listen to a whole album. Sara notices this when she talks about listening to vinyl.

“It’s interesting when … when I lived in my sisters apartment last year, she has a record player. I put on the Edith Piathe album and I listened to it all in one. And I listened to it multiple times. So like, both sides, you could flip it. And that was interesting because I don’t usually listen to a full album, I listen to a couple of songs. Or, I’ll quickly go through their album and if a song sounds good I’ll add it to a playlist. I kinda sort through things quickly. But here I listen to to the full thing. That was a different experience.” — Sara

The mood playlists curated by Spotify are used occasionally by participants, offering a listening pathway where mood-based motivations are more explicit. Participants find them to be an intuitive way to cut across genres, artists and albums in order to gather tracks in a way which neatly delivers on the desired emotional state.

“Music is like mood-based. It fits well with music to have it categorised that way. There’s a lot of emotion in music. And you use it for different things, to relax you or to pump you up, or… so it kind of makes sense to do it in a mood category.” — Emma
“I feel that it’s a compartmentalised way of managing something unmanageable. Because there is so much music available. In the world. And on Spotify. Mood is a way of compartmentalising and identify a state of being that can be represented in music. I think Spotify is playing on a concept which is quite innately human.” — Jane

This avoids the interruption of tracks which do not fit with the desired mood of music they wish to experience, meaning the music can be listened to in a backgrounded or unconscious way.

“There’s something about about not having to think about what you are listening to. So having a playlist which is geared towards your mood and is also pre-made, so you don’t have to worry about changing the song. It’s in the background. You don’t have to think about what you are listening to.” — Emma

The playlists curated for focusing or studying deliver on this need. Focusing, for example, is understood as a blend between mood and activity needing an uninterrupted flow of the appropriate music. Other examples include working through a sad mood to attain a cathartic release, maintaining and reflecting a happy or positive mood, or relaxation.

“Yeh. Focusing… to be focused you need to be calm and kind of forget other things, kind of put things aside. I don’t know if being focused is an emotion but it definitely has emotions that go along with it.” — Sara
“I really like the mood playlists for relaxation and for dinner parties and more like relaxing or cozy music. And also I use the mood for meditation and for yoga.” — Jane

However, the mood playlists do not always deliver the desired effect for participants, as the music contained within the mood playlists does not necessarily deliver on participant’s own taste, or their expectation around the music’s appropriateness for the desired mood.

“Once in a while… you know you can pick a playlist based on your mood or activity… But they don’t always work for me. … I think they are made for a different audience. I don’t know how to say that without sounding snobby.” — Lars
“One time I had a few friends over and we were going to have dinner and the dinner party mood genre was way too up beat for the environment and the event. So it had techno music laced in. I wasn’t certain that that was the right placement for the mood.” — Jane

Nonetheless, the mood playlists do provide a route for discovering new music outside of what the participants usually listen to. Another benefit of the mood playlists is in a social situation, where the desired mood of the setting is easier to agree on than finding consensus on taste, either by artist or genre.

“Yeh, I think. I use them when I’ve been with a group of people and someone needs to put on some music. I sometimes get self conscious with the music that I choose so I’m like OK, I’ll just put on a mood that’s like “party” or “evening chill,” and I’ll scroll through it and see if there are songs that I know. And if there are then I’ll kind of be like, the rest that I don’t know it’ll be OK because it’s in that category” — Sara

Participants describe the sensation of finding the right music to suit their mood — or the sudden appearance of a track that doesn’t suit their mood — in highly embodied terms. For example, Lars chooses to use the metaphor of cooking and Emma screws up her face in disgust at the idea of the wrong music for her mood:

“When I find exactly the music I am looking for… You know when you are cooking, and… you taste the food and it’s not quite right. And then you put something in it and then… then it tastes right. You know what’s right… but you can’t describe it. It just feels right.” — Lars
“I’ll put on a playlist and I’m like eew… I guess it feels a bit gross, you can just tell it’s not right. Maybe in my chest. It’s like a physical feeling. That’s not the mood I’m in.” – Emma

TAKE OUTS

Overall, mood is a vital aspect of participants’ behaviour on Spotify, and it seems that participants listen to music through the platform to manage or at least react to their moods. Yet the role of mood is normally implicit and unconscious in the participants’ listening. The mood playlists represent an alternative listening pathway where moods are satisfied explicitly and consciously, happening in a more limited range of circumstances, such as focusing, exercising and relaxing. Spotify provides a neat, intuitive way of navigating the emotional effects which are inherent to the music itself, allowing that music to be accessed and consumed in a dynamic, personalised and unlimited fashion on-the-go.

I see Spotify as part of a digital portfolio that consumers are using to actively manage their own moods. Yes, in some ways we are quite passively vulnerable to the modes through which digital experiences can impact our mood. An example I’ve looked into is the emotional effects of read receipts in mobile instant messaging. But at the same time, digital experiences like Spotify provide us with strategic cognitive and affective resources, available from a smartphone. Having an unlimited source of music in your pocket is like an on-demand remote control to your emotional life. In the same way as we outsource some of our cognitive load to the computer (e.g. notes and reminders, calculators etc.) perhaps some of our emotional state could also be seen as being outsourced to the machine.

For the music industry, I think explicitly mood-based listening is an interesting, emerging consumption dynamic. Mood-motivated listening is at odds with music traditionally organised by musical genre, artist or album. A mood playlist cuts across these forms of organisation and instead structures music around an assumed affective state. It contrasts with the reemergence vinyl and subsequent “long play” of albums. On the one hand, there is music streaming being structured by discovery algorithms, self or socially created playlists and playlists curated by concepts such as mood. On the other hand, there is vinyl where the listening experience is controlled by the artist or label and materially guides towards longplay.

Finally, this research highlights the difficulties involved in designing experiences for moods. Spotify’s mood playlists, for example, do not deliver perfectly on the mood-motivations held by participants of this study — rather it was the sum of Spotify’s features plus the listeners’ active engagement which resulted in music consumption satisfying moods. Designing for human-computer interaction involving moods will require an understanding of deep and affective aspects of consumers’ experience, drawing on insights from both cognitive science and philosophy. Doing so may ultimately reveal opportunities in this space to make digital experiences feel more human.