Shuffle Theory

Way back in March of last year, I wrote a Notebook entry entitled My iPod Loves to Play Fugazi. And boy did it. I was convinced that the iPod (an original 5GB model) was playing me rather than the reverse. Fugazi (of which I have two albums in full on the iPod) would appear more often than any other artist–some of whom I have 5 or 6 albums worth of songs.

For instance, I have maybe 6 albums by the band Guided by Voices on there. A typical GBV album has approximately 3,267 songs on it. OK, maybe 20-30. They’re usually short, quick masterpieces. Anyhow, you’d think I’d hear GBV more often than Fugazi. But it was not so.

As a continuation of the theory, through the aforementioned Notebook entry, I was briefly quoted in today’s New York Times article, Tunes, a Hard Drive and (Just Maybe) a Brain (registration required). Turns out I’m not the only one who believes that shuffle mode may be possessed.

There are two corrections I’d like to point out from the article:

  • It’s Cederholm, not Cedarholm. (very common)
  • I still do like Fugazi. I believe I said I got tired of hearing them so often–but listen to anything in excess and it starts losing its charm.

I will say this, however. Just a few weeks ago, I purchased a new 4th generation click-wheel iPod–and I haven’t heard Fugazi once. Shuffling appears far more random, although maybe it just seems that way. And as the NYT article also points out, a “Shuffle Songs” option is now placed right in the main menu of the iPod’s interface, making it much easier to click once and go.

Unrelated to shuffling, sound quality seems to have been improved on the new models, and although I haven’t drained the battery yet, I’m sure hoping it’ll last as long as advertised.


  1. Fugazi pops up very often on mine too, but not as often as Hüsker Dü and the Descendents. They constitute a small percentage of the music on there, but I hear them every day.

  2. jesus2099 says:

    You sure buy lots of things

  3. david says:

    For anyone not registered, you can use this account:
    usr: www33
    psw: www33

  4. JSM – Very interesting. There’s gotta be a reason for it. Perhaps the iPod developers are big Fugazi fans.
    jesus2099 – They are called “business expenses” ;-)

  5. Kenny says:

    “(Most people interviewed for this article had never heard of Smart Playlists, let alone used them.)” – NY Times article
    So most people don’t read the directions on how to use a product, and then wonder why it isn’t doing what they want?
    Back on the subject of randomness and shuffleness, I once read this: It unlikely for unlikely things not to occur.

  6. Steve Jobs was actually a big player in the Washington D.C. hardcore scene a few years back. Check your Minor Threat linear notes, you might see him in one of the crowd shots :D

  7. Jonathan says:

    *Wish to have an iPod* :/

  8. Good to hear the 4G iPods have better sound quality and “more randomness”. While I don’t have any Fugazzi on my 1G (5Gig) iPod, I do have quite a few songs that seem to pop up more often than not. The really strange thing being that those artists are favoured even after I dump the playlist and import a new one (one does this often on the 5gig model, as there is little room for music *and* client files).
    Luckily, a little bird told me not to buy a 4G iPod because I may get one in my stocking this Christmas!

  9. Matt Wilcox says:

    Personally I hate the shuffle feature, but then i tend to listen to albums as albums, not as collections of songs (big difference)
    People who want to read things on free ‘register to access’ websies would do well to try out

  10. Someone impersonating Ian MacKaye says:

    Dan, you are so mean. I can’t believe you said that in the New York Times.
    Your former friend, Ian
    P.S. Just kidding.
    Based on all the press I just did SHUFFLE ALL for the first time (on 5525 songs). Very weird. Aphex Twin, Cat Power, The Decemberists, Dizzee Rascal, Eleni Karaindrou, and that crazy Pizzicato 5 interview “This Year’s Girl #2″ on ‘Five By Five.’
    Now, if only I could get the Iron & Wine cover of The Postal Service’s “Some Great Heights” from the Garden State soundtrack on iTunes. Musn’t grumble.
    Best wishes, John Nick
    P.P.S. YIKES!!! It just played Richard D. James’s parents singing Happy Birthday to him on his anwering machine. I had no idea that was on my iPod.

  11. Ross Harvey says:

    I have had the exact same thought, Dan, so I am glad you pointed this out.
    I always thought my iPod liked to influence the ‘Top 25 Most Played’ list by itself, playing Bob Marley more than any other artist.
    Its shuffle algorithm appears to be not very efficient at shuffling!

  12. You can also grab the Postal Service cover from the Such Great Heights single… unless everyone has stopped buying music in a physical state…

  13. Brandon says:

    Hmm… how coincidental that the Such Great Heights cover is being talked about here, and I just ordered that very single from Amazon on Monday.
    Have you guys heard the Phil Collins cover (Against All Odds) by The Postal Service? So good.
    I like the ITMS, but would like it more if they offered a PDF with the liner notes and cover images, when you bought an album.

  14. Andyk says:

    My 15Gb 3G iPod likes Bowling for Soup. I’ve got about 20 songs by them but other artists have got 4-5 albums worth (40+ songs!) yet my iPod frequently picks BfS tracks! He seems to especially like “life after lisa”.
    Scary… I just refered to my iPod as “he”

  15. eric says:

    I too just ordered a 4G ipod, so it’s great to hear that it’s got better shuffle, and sound quality is good to have too!
    I’ve not noticed the repetition with my old 2G ipod, but iTunes itself seems to really like specific songs when i’m party shuffling.

  16. Mike D. says:

    I think the New York Times should publish a front-page correction of your name. 96 point headline type would be extra nice.
    You should bitch.

  17. Rob Mientjes says:

    Curious stuff. I never noticed a pattern.
    Wind of Change – Scorpions
    Bring my Family Back (Paul van Dyk Remix) – Faithless
    Fooled Around – Elvin Bishop (didn’t even know I had that song…)
    Duits bier (translates as ‘german beer’) – Poelmo (Dutch cabaret – really funny)
    Council of Elrond – Howard Shore (LotR1 soundtrack)
    Hmmm… No pattern for me. Maybe they don’t know my music :op

  18. ODB says:

    The secret is out. Everyone now knows that FUGAZI finally sold out.
    After all those years of hardcore/DIY ethics, $5 shows and keeping their integrity, they finally broke & cut a secret deal with Apple to purposely program the ipod to give special treatment to the term “Fugazi” in shuffle mode. (haha….)

  19. seth says:

    re: randomness…
    Randomness has nothing to do with how often a particular song is chosen, but that the CHANCE of any one song being picked over another is the same.
    Ever watch the colors/numbers history on a roulette table? I’ve seen it hit black 15+ times in a row.
    Flip a penny 1000 times. You will definitely see “streaks” where the same side comes up.
    It is also impossible to come up with a pure random number generator, and perhaps iPODs are especially poor at it.

  20. Sam Newman says:

    In danger of starting a meme:
    Main Offender – The Hives
    When Disaster Strikes – Busta Rhymes
    Letter from home – DJ Shadow
    Desire – Ryan Adams
    In The Forest – The Coral
    My 2G 10GB iPod seems to like Busta Rhymes quite a lot since I put him on – before that it had a crosby stills nash and young fixation, to the point that I had to take the album off before I started to hate it. I’ll stick some fugazi on it tonight and see how long it takes for it to pop up :-)

  21. Cameron Moll says:

    Ouch. Of all the people, I’d expect The New York Times to spell your surname correctly. I can forgive bloggers, but not the Times.

  22. Olly Hodgson says:

    Scary… I just refered to my iPod as “he”
    Aye, its blatantly a girl ;-)

  23. Just in case anybody missed it because it wasn’t linked… regarding and others: Registration not required…

  24. Brian Warren says:

    Since we’re all about different ways to get to that article – here’s the no-registration-required New York Times article link:
    Tunes, a Hard Drive and (Just Maybe) a Brain
    And for extra credit – the favelet that can give you a no-registration-required link from any NYTimes article:
    nyt link

  25. I have found that my 3G 10gb iPod can be notorious for playing some of the same things over and over and over. I think part of the problem happens to be simply that when the iPod is off, and it restarts, or when you move to another song in your playlist manually, it will always RESTART the numbering of your damn playlist. That is always been a behavior that I have not liked, because I believe that it means that your record of the songs it has already played vanishes and suddenly it starts randomizing anew. That is a behavior I hope is fixed in future iterations.

  26. rickm says:

    I don’t like to shuffle on the iPod since I can’t set the option on a per-playlist basis, but I find that don’t need it.
    Before iTunes added the Party Shuffle feature, I rolled my own using a smart playlist with the following criteria:
    My rating is greater than **
    Last played is not in the last 3 days
    Limit to 500 songs ordered by random
    Works great! Nothing repeats within three days, and I get a mix of songs I have rated at *** or higher. On the iPod, of course, the list is not smart; it’s just a snapshot of the list as it was in iTunes when I last synced. However, I sync frequently enough that I never reach the end of the list. And happily, iTunes picks up the last-played dates from the iPod when I sync, so the three-day rule applies whether the song was last played on the iPod or in iTunes itself.

  27. Jeremy says:

    Dan – I’ve found every version of iTunes to do the very same thing with Fugazi, and it seems to favor Repeater over 13 Songs, Steady Diet of Nothing, or The Argument. Perhaps there’s an irony there.
    Oddly enough, Tom Waits’ Singapore shows up more often than any other song even on party shuffle. Not that you can go wrong with Tom Waits, I’m just saying is all.
    And only 6 GBV records? Isn’t that like 3 months of output for Mr. Pollard and friends?
    JSM – I personally wouldn’t complain if the Descendents were coming up more often…frankly over the past month I’ve been vascillating between Milo Goes to College and Cool To Be You for my commute, and I can’t seem to get them out of heavy rotation in my car (except for some occasional Superchunk).

  28. Joe says:

    Yeah iTunes does the same thing, it seems like only play about 3 albums, and I have like over 2000 songs. I just switched to musicmatch this morning and I have been way happier.

  29. Seems the “shuffle” functionality is hard to master, as I’ve seen shoddy implementation of it for years now. I wonder why that is.

  30. Pete says:

    Using shuffle I’ve also found that the iPod has a tendancy towards playing Fugazi. What’s weirder is that I don’t have any Fugazi tracks on my iPod. Spooky…

  31. Dante says:

    The SF Chronicle doesn’t make you sign up to read articles online, like the silly NY Times does. So I cannot read the article. But that’s off topic.
    I personally hate shuffle mode. Simply because sometimes it seems, like you said, Dan, “possesed”.

  32. Jon Buda says:

    I just purchased a 4G 20gig iPod through the edu discount with my Powerbook. My first Mac, I’m now addicted after merely 2 days. Anyways, Ireally with the iPod came with a carrying case like the 40gig version. That really irritates me. I had a 2G 10gig ipod and it had a case. Now they want $30 more dollars from me.

  33. Simon Cox says:

    Yeah! Original 5GB iPod!! Still got mine and I don’t want to change it for a new shiney one. Retro iPods are already ‘IN’!
    I have had the ‘Fugazi experience’ (but not with Fugazi as I don’t own any) with several differenet bands since getting the iPod. It freaked me out when I kept getting two Radiohead tracks in a row which happened many times at the beggining of this year but what is stranger is that it appears to play music that suits my mood. Or could this be a deja vue thing where my mood changes depending on what music is played…

  34. Small Paul says:

    Let’s all play the shuffle game! It’ll be like that desktop screenshot on, just more sonic.
    Here goes:
    Everytime – Britney Spears
    Hey Baby – DJ Otzi
    The Rise And Fall – Craig David
    Wannabe – Spice Girls
    5678 – Steps

  35. soxiam says:

    Holy Cow… A web designer who’s into Fugazi and now cycling. All I have to do now is shave your head and teach you how to speak Korean and we’d be twins.

  36. Carl Peterson says:

    Off topic, I know, but if I were to buy my first Guided By Voices album, which one would you recommend? I’ve actually been thinking about trying them out.

  37. Donnie Jeter says:

    I have listened to “The Killers” new album 53,000 times and it still has all its original charm.

  38. gerard gualberto says:

    Carl Peterson – For my money, “Bee Thousand” is the best album GBV ever.
    I used shuffle on a road trip last week with my 4G 20GB iPod and it really seemed to like Elliot Smith.

  39. Carl – For me, it’s a tossup between “Bee Thousand” and “Alien Lanes”. Either are superb.

  40. Charles G says:

    Funny you should mention this, my Ipod (10gb 2nd generation I believe) has the same exact problem, although instead of Fugazi (which I have 3 albums worth stored on my ipod and it never plays one song), it really likes to play the Flaming Lips… mind you, I too have just about every GBV album made stored on this thing (all 67,954 songs) and only hear them once a month. Very odd indeed.
    PS: bee thousand is definitely my favorite album, just can’t get Echos Myron outta my head =/

  41. monkeyinabox says:

    if Fugazi made the iPod, it would only cost $99. :)

  42. tam says:

    Late to the party, but I just had to share -
    I have a ton of R.E.M. mp3s on my iPod (boots & studio albums) and on my recent move from Ohio to Massachusetts, my iPod decided to play nothing but EVERY.SINGLE.VERSION. of “Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.
    I’ve known about the smart playlists since they were announced, but I’ve been too lazy to implement one. I think now its time.