In the age of Youtube and Spotify, it is conceivable that you could listen to music every minute of your life and never hear the same song twice. Within reason, a person might assemble playlists that together include thousands of songs, each for a different mood or social setting.
The key, it seems, is variety: To listen to the same music over and over sounds to many like a punishment worthy of Greek hell, not unlike the eagle pecking at Prometheus’ undead liver.
So, when I tell people that I’ve been listening to the same 50 or so songs for the last three years, they tend to stare at me open-mouthed, eyebrows raised in critical disbelief. I’ve been asked how I’ve avoided going crazy, and if I hate music beyond a few select, nostalgic songs. I’ve been pitied, told that if I only had greater exposure to more genres, I wouldn’t be condemned to the same repetitive playlist. Most often, I’ve been dismissed with a shake of the head, an unspoken, judgmental, “you do you.”
None of this bothers me – it’s just music, not a moral position – but I’ve often felt the need to explain my musical preferences, and I’m seldom given the opportunity to. Until recently, I didn’t even understand my musical tastes myself. “I just like the songs I like,” I would say. Why only five of them at a time? I had no clue.
I only began to realize my reasons for my limited playlist when I arrived to Stanford and started listening to music while walking to classes and before going to sleep. For an hour or two each day, I put in my headphones and let music fill in the background to my thoughts and observations, not unlike the transition scenes in a movie.
Some mornings, I listen to one band’s calm songs on repeat; the next morning, a mix of three upbeat songs. Some days, I listen to the same song eight times in a row, mouthing the lyrics all eight times. I began to notice, a few weeks into school, that my songs were not interchangeable; yesterday’s song, which I listened to 10 times, no longer sounded good the next morning. My favorite upbeat song made me cringe at night. Even one sad song could not be exchanged for another.
Every song, particularly the older ones, evoked a specific emotion, not only because of its melody and lyrics but also because of its history. Each of my songs has its origin story in my memory – not always as a scene, but as an emotional fingerprint. After many listens, different songs have taken on complex topographies in my mind and heart, patterned specifically for different moods and situations.
I not only know every lyric, but every lyric brings up a wealth of emotional data from my past. By listening to those songs now, I can relate back to my past self, giving me both a feeling of continuity and a sense that my life has always had its ups and downs, and nothing is permanent. No song could be the backtrack to every moment of my life, which proves the inevitability of change. Knowing each song so intimately makes me aware, through my daily song choices, of my fluctuating emotions and attitudes towards life.
Since I arrived at Stanford, I’ve added five new songs to my playlist, and listened to them over and over on the way to class, walking around Lake Lag and lying in my bed before sleep. They are each beginning to take shape in my memory like statues for my interior experience here at Stanford. I can’t wait to listen to them in 10 years and look back on this place, filled with the same range of emotions I’ve gotten to experience here.
There’s nothing wrong with listening to lots of different music; variety has its many positives, too. For me, though, music serves a specific function: to supplement my emotional understanding of the world. For me, 50 or so songs perform that function best.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.