Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Tracking the Soundtrack of Your Life

We are on a journey to document how to track everything (or at least everything within limits). Let’s look at tracking the music we listen to.

Music has existed since the dawn of humanity. We’ve also been singers and drummers, and over ages, we’ve created a wealth of instruments, sounds and styles. Today we are both listeners and collectors of music.

Today we live in the age of personal music listening. The walkman brought music on the go. Future advances made music listening ubiquitous. We can listen to music on our computer, smart phone or mp3 player anywhere.

But do you know what you listen to most? Which tracks? Which artists? Styles?

There are a lot of aspects of our lives that we can track, and I’m an obsessive self-tracker and an adherent of the quantified self movement. We looked at counting steps and tracking time, and we will be looking at tracking food, habits, and many other areas. But for now I want to look at tracking what we “consume” including TV, movies, books, articles and even music.

In this post, we will look at tracking music listening. Using a service like Last.FM makes tracking your music listening easy. You are able to track what songs you listen to and then look at your listening habits over time.

(NOTE: Unfortunately my travel habits and life abroad makes services like Spotify difficult to use abroad. So we won’t be covering Spotify in this post. Spotify also provides a lot of statistics on what you listen to as well.)

Music Listening Tracking with Last.fm

How about tracking what you listen to?

As a Mac user, I typically listen to most of my music via iTunes. iTunes already provides some basic tracking by looking at track listens. But to go beyond this you need a service like Last.fm. All you need to do is create an account and install the Last.fm plugin.

Once installed, last.fm will pull the name and artist info of the sounds you listen to and send it to their web service. So, each song you listen to gets, to use their language, “scrobbled,” i.e. they will track when you listened to a song and how many times.

Once you set it up, the process is largely passive. Just listen to music and Last.fm takes care of everything else.

The end result is a a series of charts and statistics about how many tracks over time, which artists you listen to most and what specific songs. It’s pretty interesting data to have.

We caveat for me is that due to how I use proxies and VPNs, the tracking system stopped working occasionally. It’s not perfect due to how it uses a workaround to track what you play on iTunes.

That said, it’s interesting data to have and is a great contribution to the goal of having all the data on your complete life.

Conclusion: What was I a listening to then?

The typical goal of tracking is to have a measurable number to compare. So, for example, you can track your steps to understand your fitness level or for productivity you can look at your internet usage time and project tasks.

But when it comes to tracking what you listen to, what’s the end goal? What can be learned from music listening?

For me there are two aspects I leverage and think about with music tracking via a service like Last.fm. The first is knowing how much time and tracks I listen to during a week, and the second is being able to look back in time at what I was listening to when.

Firstly, I’m a big believer of the power of the weekly review and its role in personal development. By looking at your past week and what you did, you can evaluate your past. By then establishing tweaks and changes, you can improve. It’s a process with on-going feedback. I log a lot of data points each week about my life including fitness, productivity, creativity, habits, etc.

I’ve recently added music listens to this weekly review. I’m able to track which artists or song was my weekly obsession. And by looking at how many tracks I listened to, I can get an idea of how much music was in the background of my work and creative week. I have yet to draw out all the comparisons that are possible here but there is a lot of interesting research about positive and negative role of music and doing good work. So it’s an area I’m exploring.

Secondly, one of the overarching goals for me in tracking is to be able to look back in time and see what I was thinking and doing. Each day I take five minutes to write my morning pages which is like my captains log of my mental state and other things. I also rigorously track my completed tasks and log my daily big achievements. These are the big win’s that emerge from each day and week.

To this portrait of a life with words, acts and data, it’s great to add the soundtrack. With a service like Last.Fm, I can look back on my past weeks and see what I was listening to. I can even go back and look at blog posts or coding sessions and line up the sounds in my head. We aren’t yet able to have something like Harry Potter’s ansible but through passive tracking and conscious logging, we can get pretty close.

What do you think about tracking your music listening? Do you do it? What have you learned?

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