Mood and music: Has personalization gone too far?

Woman listening to music.

Music is moody

Listening to music is a very consuming experience. It prompts certain feelings and reminds us of events from our past, of both bad times and good. Listening to music is one of our most leisurely and enjoyable activities, and one that many people take part in every day. This is especially true with the rise of streaming services that bring us music faster and easier than ever before. Because of this ease of access, “mood-awareness,” as Bas Grasmayer calls it in his article “Mood augmentation and non-static music,” has become more commonplace in users’ listening habits.

An age-old tradition

The idea that emotions affects a user’s music choice is not necessarily a new one. The impact music has on mood has been well documented for centuries. As James Lynden details this in his article “Experiencing mood on Spotify,” listeners generally are well aware of their mood when choosing music.

Because users now have so much music at their disposal, they can tailor their music listening habits like never before.

the DILEMMA of mood and personalized music

This tailoring is where personalized listening gets tricky. As Grasmayer believes, with greater mood-awareness comes greater personalization. Beyond mood-specific playlists, though, what is the music industry doing to capitalize on this emotion-driven phenomenon?

As Grasmayer wrote in his article, Tidal recently added a new feature to its platform allowing users to change the tempo and length of an artist’s song. Beyond customization of playlists to suit their feelings, Tidal is giving users to power to actually directly edit songs to their liking.

While personally I am all for mood-listening, this feature seems questionable at best. Understandably, music-streaming platforms are continually searching for new ways to personalize the listening experience for users. But, giving them the ability to edit songs to be different than the artist intended is certainly a grey area.

If the artist didn’t make the song in a certain tempo or to be a certain length, should users be able to? As it stands now, musicians already give up a lot of their rights just to have their music on streaming platforms. Is it reasonable for users to ask – or even demand – that artists relinquish their integrity so they can personalize their music?

Asking the experts

Dr. Bruce Cain, Associate Professor of Music at Southwestern University, is well aware that music has a huge impact on emotions. However, he is cautious to embrace mood-listening and hyper-personalization through streaming platforms. With a bit of apprehension, he laid out how these issues make questionable the integrity of the music industry.

On Vinyl: Do you like the idea of mood listening through platforms like Spotify?

Cain: “I understand the concept… At the same time, it used to be that artists would create an album of songs with a theme… an arch of thought that was their creative outlet. An algorithm takes away from the artistic quality of the artists.”

OV: Tidal recently introduced a feature that allows users to change the tempo and length of tracks. Essentially you can customize the music the way you want. What about that?

Cain: Again… Is that really what the artist wanted?

OV: Do you think this mood-listening makes listener/artists relations worse? Since they’re only searching for one mood? Does it prevent them from finding new music they might have listened to otherwise?

Cain: “I think so. I don’t use [Spotify]. But going for a mood… I wonder if that keeps you from discovering something new and interesting that’s not in that mood. [Listeners] are probably not going to go to the most obscure start-up artist.”

Personalization, Limited

Tailoring music to fit a mood is not so much the problem. Everyone listens to songs based on their mood, for sure. However, it takes a conscious effort on the part of both the streaming service and the listener to ensure the listening experience is inclusive of unknown artists and a multitude of genres. Further – blurring the lines between personalization and music editing is not best for the consumer or the artist.

By no means is mood-listening bad. I’m definitely guilty of searching through Spotify’s Browse tab to find the perfect playlist that fits my feelings. It’s great that streaming platforms are trying to embrace personalization – to a point. While tailoring to a listener’s mood is the ultimate peak of personalization, it opens the door to a multitude of problems. Likewise, features like Tidal’s do little to actually help artists – but only adds to their ever-increasing list of problems with streaming services.