I was out with a group of friends recently when the subject of Spotify Wrapped came up. One by one, we all fessed up to what we’d spent 2023 listening to, sharing our little videos with the rest of the table.
I wasn’t embarrassed by my final five songs or artists (Matt Corby, Khruangbin, Real Estate, John Mayer, The Dip). Being an Apple Music guy would be much more shameful, in my opinion. But it occurred to me that even though I spent over 80,000 minutes listening to music this year (over 55 days!), I didn’t veer too far from my tried and true. Spotify endeavors to introduce its listeners to all sorts of emerging or classic artists, offering bespoke playlists and recommended radio stations, but I pretty much played my personal hits over and over again.
On the surface (assuming you aren’t frying your ears with too much volume), any sort of listening is a positive. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, enjoying music could even be called a “total brain workout.”
Because music is “structural, mathematical and architectural,” your brain needs to work extra hard to process what’s going on. Regular listening can reduce anxiety and blood pressure while improving mood and memory. I’ve found music an invaluable companion throughout my life for workouts, walks, chores and work. (I’m listening to some right now.) But as it turns out, just as lifting the same amount of weight the same number of times can create diminishing returns in the fitness department, listening to the same music again and again won’t work the same wonders for your mental acuity.
The Most Underrated Musical Genre for Working OutFor more effective endurance exercise, dip back to the 18th century
The Scientific Case for New Music
I’ve recently been keen to increase the intentionality of my listening and seek out brand-new tunes. (Not necessarily just-released music, but music that’s new to me.) Why? Well, there are serious health benefits to listening to unfamiliar music. Introducing new artists and new songs increases the plasticity of our brains.
Neuroplasticity, as a reminder, refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Why would we want this sort of restructuring to begin with? Because an ever-rewiring brain is also a more resilient, or “youthful,” one. The more you seek out neuroplasticity, the likelier you are to remember things, learn new skills, adapt to environments and protect yourself from cognitive decline. (Some call this dementia prevention.)
In an excellent article for Pitchfork, Jeremy D. Larson writes of our same-song fixation: “People love the stuff they already know. It’s a dictum too obvious to dissect, a positive-feedback loop as stale as the air in our self-isolation chambers…[but] our brains change as they recognize new patterns in the world, which is what makes brains, well, useful.”
Give an Album Generator a Go
Listening to new music is also a worthwhile experience outside the cerebral benefits. It could pose a challenge, or provide comfort, depending on what you’re listening to or when you’re doing it.
Lately, I’ve been discovering new music with an assist from an online tool called One Album a Day: 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Basically, you give the tool your email and each morning you wake up to some critically-acclaimed album, with a link out to Spotify (Apple Music too, for you loons out there). The generator sources its picks from this book (which is itself critically-acclaimed!).
It’s a fantastic tool. For one, I’ve long felt like my 20th-century music knowledge needs some dusting up beyond the obvious top names. But more than that, the picks here are expansive and fun (I credit this generator with getting me into the Velvet Underground, and this morning’s offering was Beautiful Freak by Eels). It’s sort of a daily bootcamp for the uninitiated.
But, crucially, it isn’t rigorous. I like to put the album on in the morning, while I’m getting ready or commuting. It creates a clear soundscape for those early hours — in some cases, a unity of vision or messaging — that I can’t guarantee from a mood-driven playlist or my repeats. I can sink into a world for a little bit, whether I like it or not, and form some thoughts — if not outright opinions.
When I like a song, I “Like” it in the app, and when I love the whole album, I read more about the band online. Sometimes, I find out they used to practice and play close to where I live. All told, it creates an experience that’s equally low-stakes and intimate, which will probably enrich my brain, and almost certainly enrich my Spotify Wrapped next year. Give it a go yourself. Even if you know all 1,001 albums, it might reintroduce you to some music you haven’t given much thought in a while.