January 31st, 2009

Doing the ipod shuffle

The ipod is a wonderful invention, especially for those of us old enough to remember when the music collection of the typical adolescent consisted of just a few scratchy but beloved vinyl records.

If someone had told me back then that one day I’d be able to carry an entire record collection of many thousands of songs in a slim black gadget weighing just a few ounces, and could effortlessly dial up almost any tune I liked at any time I liked and listen to it through the privacy of earbuds, I’d have been flabbergasted and entranced in equal measure.

But sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. Having total control of song selection, being able to hear whatever you choose in the order you wish, can be like having too many chocolates at once.

It used to be that on an album there was a certain ratio of boring ho-hum songs to the socko ones. Using a record player meant you usually had to wait through the bad ones to get to the good ones. This taught a certain amount of patience. Plus, it was often the case that if you listened to the less immediately likable songs enough times, you would come to appreciate qualities in them that were not immediately apparent on the first few listenings. This taught you patience as well, and to keep an open mind.

If you were like me, you sometimes circumvented the whole operation by standing poised at the record player at the end of the song, placing the needle on your favorite over and over till that particular band (or your hand) wore out. Maybe this taught patience, as well, although of a different sort.

With an ipod, every song we select to load is one we like. There are no bummers; every selection is a keeper, or we would not have selected it and kept it.

We can play our favorites over and over almost effortlessly with the mere press of a finger, until they are our favorites no more. We can play our tunes in alphabetical order. We can create playlist after personalized playlist that mix and match the tunes in the ways we deem most agreeable: some for the sad times, some for the happy; some for the contemplative moments, some for the active.

But after a while the steady diet of exactly what we like, exactly what we want, begins to pall. We get—impatient.

Too much richness and predictability can be boring. Human beings like to mix it up. But, wonder of wonders, the ipod folks have anticipated this problem and invented the shuffle, which adds some randomness to the proceedings.

We like to say, “surprise me.” And the ipod does, sometimes giving us old favorites we’d practically forgotten about and never would have chosen for ourselves. And then everything old is new again.

19 Responses to “Doing the ipod shuffle”

  1. SteveH Says:

    I practice what some might consider an odd form of deprivation when it comes to my ipod.

    There are some songs i like so much that i don’t want them on it. These would be songs that connect me to magical times and places that seem particularly special. I keep these songs at bay for fear of diluting that connection.

    So i’m happy to hear them by chance on the radio every once in a great while. And the magic is still there.

  2. mizpants Says:

    Right, Neo and SteveH, I agree. I don’t even own an ipod. I use a Walkman when I walk, which gets me the occasional contemptuous glance. And I listen to the oldies station on the radio. Even though I have to endure a lot of shlock, it’s a lovely jolt to hear some song from my past that, as you say, SteveH, connects me to some magical time or place.
    These days technology shields us from every kind of contingency, but at a cost.

  3. Jimmy J. Says:

    The i-pod, digital cameras, and cell phones have delivered a new richness to our lives, but at times the diet may be, as neo points out, just too rich.

    For a humorous look at how a tech gadget might become just a bit too much, take a look at this:

  4. FredHjr Says:


    I retain some of the older patience to listen to music and songs that I just might be surprised by. So, I still buy CD’s, but I also download music for my mp3 player, sometimes changing the format over to wmd and thence to be burned on to a CD.

    If an artist intrigues me, I will get a CD, knowing that, yes, there may be a few songs that will be so-so, but then there will be hidden gems that will delight.

    Where is the sense of discovery in people’s musical tastes now? But you did nail it: patience. There is less of it these days. Perhaps that, in part, explains why fewer people are reading books. If one grows up on MTV and other forms of instant gratification, then the brain and character are trained to be too highly selective and attention-deficit-disordered.

    I watched MTV when I was in college (but not obsessively). I think the music was better then, but now realize that it’s all marketing. Now the music caters to the populations in the urban centers and minority groups. That’s where the numbers are, and therefore where the money is. I just don’t have the patience for rap and hip hop. I didn’t even like grundge when it was popular back in the Nineties.

    Our children are no longer schooled in how to be patient, and work through lessons and readings that they find boring. We all have differing tolerances for “boring.” But our training in how to meet it and be tasked towards it makes all the difference.

  5. expat Says:

    I can remember using the less popular songs on top albums as a kind of soulmate search devise: “Ah, you liked that too!”

  6. njcommuter Says:

    I’ve resisted getting an Ipod because my understanding is that it uses a lossy compression scheme. I listen to a wide range of music, and some of it might just be damaged by the supposedly inaudible compression. I’m thinking of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, with the chorus breaking in between the upper and lower organ chords, for instance, or the Peter Sykes transcription of Holst’s The Planets which, at one point, has notes held by twenty fingers, four feet, and one pencil jammed above a key.

    Without compression, the disk won’t hold nearly as much music. Still, can someone tell me if it’s possible to go uncompressed, or with lossless compression?

  7. JKB Says:

    I never did understand the whole only listen to your favorites idea. Until the iPod, except for radio, you were stuck listening to the same song order, same artist, same genre. The greatest feature of the iPod is the shuffle. Random is king. Random with the ability to skip is god.

    I bought a Miata with a Bose stereo system which I play MP3s in random order but if I try to skip a song the stereo goes out of shuffle mode. Bose, great technology but their interfaces are designed by retarded monkeys. When a song I would like to skip come up, I hate Bose and declare never to buy their products again for the simple lack of the ability to skip and stay in random mode.

  8. Kirk Petersen Says:

    I’m with JKB, the shuffle is key. I’ve got just under 2,000 songs on my iPod, and by no means are they all songs that I put there because I love them. I loaded all of my wife’s entire albums — there were a few songs here and there that I just hated, so I deleted them. But any listenable song remains, and as Neo said, I come to appreciate qualities in some of them that I initially missed.

  9. Gray Says:

    I don’t get enough of the things I want in this world. My Sansa (don’t like I-pod) is full of only what I want.

    I like the ‘shuffle’ feature, but you have never truly known pain until your ‘shuffle’ develops an unnatural attachment to a couple of your least favorite songs.

    Patience can only be taught if it is occasionally rewarded. Pathologically unrewarded patience leads to rage and eventually sloth.

  10. mizpants Says:

    Hah! No sooner did I write my anti-ipod post above than my husband gave me a late birthday present — an ipod.

  11. CGHill Says:

    Apple has a lossless compression system (called, with disarming simplicity, “Apple Lossless”), which is supported by iTunes 4.5 and up. Actual file shrinkage is around 50 percent. Any iPod except the Shuffle should work with it.

  12. oceanguy Says:


    I’ve had a similar discussion with my children. For the most part they only load tracks they like, while I obsessively download and upload only complete albums. As a fan of live music I also enjoy downloading entire shows, both good and bad, and still enjoy listening to the entire album/show.

    If I find myself fast forwarding to the next track its’ almost always because the genre or the tempo of the song doesn’t fit my mood, rarely because I didn’t like the track.

    My 20 and 18 year old are more like what you describe. Impatient and completely baffled on why I would save a song I didn’t immediately like. Still I’ll take the portability and convenience of the iPod over the peach crates full of vinyl.

    That brings me to my other obsession… having the album art loaded too. I just love the old “juke box” view where I can thumb through all those album covers… old and new.

    btw this live archive is a good source.

  13. armchair pessimist Says:

    I got my first ipod for Christmas and pretty soon the gee-whiz of all the music coming out of that little matchbook wore off. Loading an entire opera was a horrible experience; the ipod thought it knew better than Mozart what in order the music should go. It took hours for me to unshuffle the tracks. That’s merely an irritant, this is what really queered it for me. One morning I was sitting in my chair reading and listening to the ipod so as not to wake anybody. Our old dog was sleeping in his favorite chair next to mine. Then for no especial reason I happened to look up and caught him in the act of dying. It was a gentle merciful death, a couple of deep yawns and he went back to sleep, for good. By the time I understood what was happening and got the plugs out of my ears, he was gone. So I was there and not there with him because the ipod was trilling away in my ears. Critics have complained that the ipod blocks out life. It also blocks out death.

    Haven’t played it since.

  14. Gray Says:

    Got it right here in my notebook:

    “Boomers don’t like I-pods:

    Damned kids these Days! Back in the days when we invented sex, drugs and rock n roll we listened through the crap! We’d listen to hours of Donovan just to hear one Beatles tune! We’d refrain from sex and start jonesing waiting for the right rock n roll song for the sex and drugs!”

    F’in please…. If the I-pod were invented in 1965 there would be a wing of the Getty Museum dedicated to it and programs to supply them to the ‘less fortunate’.

  15. WillH Says:

    I love my iPod. I got one in 2003 and never looked back. THe quality of digital music, combined with high-quality sound-isolating earphones, has given me an appreciation for some music I never much cared for. Reasons: 1) it was overplayed by the radio stations and I got sick of it (if I had to hear “Stairway to Heaven” one more time …). 2) I was listening to it on crappy equipment, e.g. parents’ 8-track player, tinny one-speaker car AM radio, and/or scratchy warped records from being overplayed and poorly stored.

    The allusions to Led Zeppelin and 8-track players probably date me. But just as an example, I have some digital LZ music on my iPod and appreciate them more now than when I was in Jr-High/high school and they were on the radio all the time.

    Another reason I love my iPod: Podcasts.

  16. Adagny Says:

    Your’e right. For me, it’s about patience and deprivation.
    We’re all aware how those “classic” rock stations have ruined all the old classics by repeating them over and over on their playlists.
    On satellite radio they play songs from albums that were great but never big hits in the day. Hearing them again is so good.
    “Oh these kids today”. (Never thought I’d say that). They have to have everything all the time at their fingertips. True with music, and also true with movies. With the advent of the VCR and DVD favorite movies were played over and over, ad naseum until satiation. When I was a kid I remember having to wait 6 mos. to a year to see a fave again. The wait definately made for ecstatic viewing and a better experience. Even now, movies that I own, (very few), I refuse to watch more than once a year.
    Too much available, all the time.

  17. dane Says:

    I try to continually change my music – but often listen to books and short stories in the public domain I get from here


  18. Jack Says:

    I love my iPod. Got about 4,000 songs loaded and more coming. I dump all of the songs on my CDs onto it. I use the shuffle feature most, but have plenty of of playlists that I have developed for different occasions.

    I still have a record player and a ton of vinyl, but I just don’t play it very often anymore. I kind of miss those days, but…

  19. Oh, bother Says:

    Armchair Pessimist, you have written beautifully about the loss of your dog. Please accept my sympathy.

    My best use of an i-Pod is in the car (just get me through to baseball season!) and when doing a mindless task. There’s nothing like U2 and the Allman Brothers to get you through several hours of data-posting. At home? Never. Armchair Pessimist is right: you have to be there for the ones you love, including the four-footed ones.

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