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Back in the day, I recorded songs from a vinyl LP onto a cassette tape. Or I’d be listening to the radio and press record when a fave tune came on. In both cases, I was creating a personal playlist; curating a collection of songs that had meaning to me.
Nowadays, on Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Music, a computer algorithm does it for you. You get served up a collection of music that the algorithm selects for you. That’s right. A computer comes up with a collection of tunes and calls it “Just For You”. “Because you listened to that, you will love this!”
A Human Algorithm
Now, there’s a podcast called Add To Playlist from BBC Radio 4, hosted by Cerys Matthews and Jeffrey Boakye. They create a playlist that explores the rich and unexpected web of connections linking five special tracks.
I get so excited listening to an episode. They dig into the starting tune – it’s style, composer, key, instrumentation, rhythms, story behind the song – and use any of these pieces to link to a new song.
It’s an incredible ride. I’ve heard music that is new to me and also songs that I know and love and have played. And I hear the tunes in a new light because of this personalized connection.
One of the first episodes I listened to started with Lil Nas X’ Old Town Road. I was familiar with the tune. A student wanted to play it at a school talent show one year. On the podcast, Matthews and Boakye examine the beautiful melody sung in a country style by a gay hip-hop artist who then collaborates with country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. Their discussion is a wonderful music history and theory lesson.
The first connection takes Old Town Road to Aaron Copland’s Hoe-Down from his ballet, Rodeo. The connection is the sound and feel of the American West. Copland’s music is synonymous with our wide open spaces. It’s an easy jump to make – but not necessarily what the computer algorithm would have given you.
Rather than tell you the amazing connections made in this episode, I encourage you to check it out for yourself.
The first episode was Oct. 8, 2021. For eight weeks, they create a 5-song playlist; each subsequent week connecting the first song to the last song of the previous week. They appear to take a month or two off and then start a new playlist, five songs per week for eight weeks. There are now three series of eight-week playlists to enjoy. The last series ended July 29, 2022 and I’m hoping the next one will start in October.