Every month I create a Spotify playlist to track new music that I discover and find interesting.
I’ve been following this monthly ritual for the past ten years, and I think of it as a sort of music diary.
This is a great way to organize new music, but more importantly, I’ve discovered some unexpected benefits from this sort of regular self-expression.
Sometimes, I’ll make it a week or two into a month with an empty playlist. Once I notice, I can’t help but feel obligated to somehow find time to add some new tracks and inevitably my playlist never ends up empty. Even if I only add a few songs in a month, the fact that it’s not empty means something.
This psychological motivation seems closely related to the Zeigarnik Effect, where researchers have found a natural tendency to finish what we start and experience dissonance otherwise.
I’ve found that the consistency of my monthly playlists tends to correspond very well with my overall mental health.
For instance, the rare times when I realize that my monthly playlist is empty always coincides with rough patches in my life. It’s the times when I’m down & out while going through a breakup or transitioning jobs — when I found myself with more free time than usual — that I empirically seem to let my current playlists wither.
In an unexpected twist, I’ve found that the times when I’m really productive and on top of my game — even though I’m generally super busy — I always seem to find the time to keep my playlist for the month going strong.
I suppose this follows the natural rhythm that’s expected in one’s life, but it’s only when I started looking at my monthly playlists in this light that I started to take them as a more serious reflection of my mental health over time, and ultimately, as a diary in a sense.
Every once in awhile, I’ll throw on a random old playlist, say November 2013, and start reflecting on the time when this was the soundtrack to the daily routine of my life.
I listened to these same songs as I worked at an old job. I listened to them as I went to the gym. As I was preparing for a date with a girl who I would end up dating for the next three years. As I rode the subway back home.
And as I listen, the music inevitably brings me back.
I believe we are nothing but our own perception of the world, and this ability to evoke such strong memories at different points throughout my life is priceless to me.
When I first started organizing my new music into monthly playlists, I never expected this type of vivid, emotional response. It was simply an experiment based on necessity because I was finding too much new music to organize efficiently.
If you’re interested in learning more about why listening to music can make us so emotional, I’d highly recommend checking out JR Thorpe’s excellent article on the subject.
I keep core playlists aggregating my favorite tracks for different genres / moods, and these are sourced from the top songs in my monthly playlists. One example is my ambient playlist, which contains songs with good beats and little to no vocals that I generally use for focused work.
After ten years of vetting songs in monthly playlists, and only promoting the ones with staying power into my core playlists, that I’m pretty proud of these curated playlists at this opint — and they provide an excellent reflection into how my personality and style have evolved over the yars.
I don’t have any pretenses about being a DJ or anything — I’ll leave that to people with more talent, but this particular form of self-expression has worked really well to motivate me over the past decade, and I don’t intend on stopping anytime soon.
I decided to share my approach to organizing new music for two main reasons. First, I’ve gotten a lot out of keeping a music diary, so I hope someone out there reading this will be inspired to either start their own or maybe take my musings and evolve them into something new. Second, I recently started blogging mostly about software engineering, and in a similar vein to keeping a music diary, I find writing these types of articles to be a very healthy form of self-expression in and of itself.
A great example of a personal diary that turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts is this classic internet video in which Noah Kalina takes a photo of himself every day for 20 years.