Leander Kahney didn't contact me for her story in Wired about the magic of the music shuffle. If she had, I'd have pointed her to this prescient blog entry, the first, and probably the last, time I was moved to share such trivia. It is a fine story nevertheless, touching on many aspects of what makes listening to music such a pleasure. And of course it has the requisite quotes from academics who've latched onto the matter.
"Temporal order is an important element of how a work unfolds dynamically over time, an important factor underlying the aesthetic effect. Random shuffle pretty much flushes that down the toilet."
That is from Michael Bull, whom the New York times called "world's leading expert on the social impact of personal stereo devices". Anyone who grew up in England at a certain point in the past few decades will be thrilled, but maybe not surprised, to learn that Bull is a lecturer in media and culture at the University of Sussex. for all that, though, he may be onto something.
Bull said, "Their music collection becomes a treasure trove full of hidden delights which the magic of the machine throws up at them. Some users feel that the machine intuitively understands them by giving them just the type of music they want to listen to when they want it."
I know the machine doesn't understand me (any more than I understand it). But it often seems that way. I can be driving down the autostrada and, Lo!, up come two or three tracks that I would definitely classify as Cruisin' tunes. Of course, that ignores the tracks before and after the miracle, which could easily have been Smoky Dive or Strange Techno. What this proves, yet again, is the remarkable ability of the human brain to find meaning where there is none. The machine's successions can also amaze. How does it know that Blind Boys of Alabama is going to sound just so immediately after Radio Tarifa? It doesn't. But I do.
Shuffle does more than throw up unexpected segues. It does also draw attention to tracks that I haven't heard in a long time. And often, when that happens, I stop the iPod's shuffle and listen the entire album. In the right order.
Ruth and I were talking about just that thing this past weekend. One can hear, in the mind's ear, the start of the next track on an album just as the current track is ending. But there's no way one could name the tracks in order, especially now that CD cases are so small that one barely even bothers to read track titles any more. So what kind of memory is it? And more to the point, if only one could selectively forget that sort of crap (I mean, how often does one need to know in advance what the next track on an album is going to be?) surely it would free up great gobs of memory for the stuff one keeps forgetting. Come on boffins!
And from a list of personalized engravings -- supposedly rejected by Apple -- my absolute favorite: "Lick my shiny metal ass".