Why shuffle?

I’m going to start this blog post with a confession.

*deep breath*

My name is Martin, and I am a music snob.

That’s right. I’m a complete snob when it comes to music. If there’s something I hear and I don’t like, I will not like it, no matter the well-reasoned arguments.

If there’s an artist that I don’t like, even if they release the modern day equivalent of “Kind Of Blue”, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Reckoning” and “OK Computer” combined, I still won’t like them.

Even if they pay me.

On the other hand, if an artist I do like releases something like “Around The Sun” or “Raditude”, I’ll forgive them and stay loyal, right up until the end.

Now that I’ve proved my snobbery, I can get to the point. All the titles above are known as “albums”; collections of between 10 – 20 tracks by an artist that can be, though not always, thematically linked.

Why then, “shuffle”?

Shuffle

The mark of the beast.

This seemingly innocuous symbol is everywhere. Look at the bottom left of iTunes, it’s there.

The idea of “shuffle” is to play your music collection in a random order, generated by whatever logarithm the programmers put in there to do so. It means that, with a suitable large collection of music, you can be listening to Blur’s “Song 2”, immediately followed by “The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan, which is in turn followed by R.E.M.’s “Find the River” and the main theme from Star Wars.

At a social gathering (of which I have attended a number), this could be advantageous, certainly if, as with iTunes, you’re able to choose which tracks are ignored during the random skipping. Who needs a DJ carefully crafting an ebbing and flowing playlist, responding to the room, when you can have an arbitrarily selected running order produced by a piece of software? From your own music collection no less?

It’s on the personal players that this function annoys me, for two reasons.

1) If I want to listen to an album, I’ll listen to that album in the order the artist intended.

In the majority of album releases, the artist or band involved has gone through an often agonising process choosing the tracks to go on the album, discarding those that either don’t fit with the tone of the album, over-extend the running time, or haven’t worked quite as well as some of the other tracks. However, the result is a series of tunes, showcasing the artist / band at that moment, maybe telling a story through a multi-song narrative at the same time.

The album can then be released to the listening public, with the tracks in a artist / band-approved order where the listener can be taken on a continual musical journey. As the artist / band intended.

On the rare occasion where I’ve put an album on, and the shuffle function has been in play, I’ve found myself hitting the skip button to find the actual next track on the album, rather than the one that shuffle has thrown at me. It’s how I know the album, it’s how the artist / band wanted the album to be heard, and I’ll listen to it that way if it kills me.

2) Gaps.

On the last couple of mp3 players I’ve had, and on the one I have now in my phone, and in some of the software I use to listen to music, there are hardware / software issues that enforce a gap. between. each. track. (My current phone also includes a lovely “pop” noise between tracks, but therein lies a different story).

With a studio album, where songs stop and start, this can be a minor irritant. On studio albums where songs flow one into the other, it’s a nuisance. On live albums, it’s intolerable.

The only reason I can think of for having these gaps is to allow for the shuffle. The hardware / software seems to provides a gap to allow for time to find the next random track. There’s not much point to this if the next track to be played is the very next track on the album.

Obviously, this is conjecture, and, if you know better than I about the reasons behind this, feel free to either a) let me know, politely, that I’m wrong, or b) rant and rave about “this idiot that…” anywhere but in the comments below.

So, in conclusion, I hate shuffle. It takes away the pleasure of putting the effort into a playlist, it frustrates me when I can’t listen to the song I expect, and it seems to have even fouled up playing an album properly.

Don’t even get me started on the iPod Shuffle…

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4 thoughts on “Why shuffle?

  1. I have to say that, as much as I loathe the 21st Century creation that is the MP3 ‘shuffle’ function, the 90s produced something far worse – CD players with a ‘random’ button. Whereas the MP3 ‘shuffle’ at least serves a small purpose as highlighted above, the CD ‘random’ function purely allowed for the listener to move randomly through a single album. Whoever though that this could ever improve anyone’s listening experience?

    • I know exactly the offending button you mean. It’s the proto-shuffle…

      I’ve a feeling it was initially to allow continual broadcast of albums in commercial settings, such as stores or Music-on-Hold systems, and just bled into the commercial market.

      On the other hand, it could just have been invented by some R&D lab-rat at Sony, whose entire record collection was made up of “Greatest Hits” and “Now That’s What I Call Music” compilations…

  2. I’m sorry guys I love a good shuffle, metallica/peatbog faeries/ captain beaky combo sets me up for the day and I have an iPod shuffle as its light so when I’m in the gym it clips to my belt and I get a different sound track each time.

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