Listening in Lockdown

A team from Digital Creativity Labs and the Department of Music has interrogated data from more than 25,000 Spotify playlists to gain an insight into the ways in which listening has been used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout history, music has been used to improve individual wellbeing during periods of uncertainty and discomfort. With the shadow of COVID-19 causing isolation and disruption, it is possible that music has once again become an important tool to support mental health during difficult times.

Researchers used Spotify’s API (Application Programming Interface) to gain direct access to the anonymised user-created playlists comprising more than 2.7 million tracks.

The team examined the structures of the playlists and the audio features of each track selected by users to build the ‘average’ playlist for the pandemic. All playlists included terms relating to the pandemic including coronavirus, lockdown, social distancing, etc.

An analysis of users’ playlist descriptions revealed stark divides between optimistic or socially minded playlists compiled for personal and collective benefit, and heavily pessimistic, negative descriptions of plague and worldwide disaster.

For many listeners, interest in the charts continued uninterrupted whilst others preferred to delve into dark humour and COVID-related jokes.

Despite the contrasts, the study indicates that listeners were largely attempting to engage with the world in a positive manner through their play-listing behaviours.

Although some users did display discontent, there were many users who voiced defiant or helpful sentiments, using Spotify and playlists to reach out to support others. Others used playlists as a soothing influence to aid with mental health issues, sharing these playlists when needed.

The study used publically available data to examine the soundtrack to a global pandemic and provides a ready data set for comparative analysis if further lockdowns or restrictions are (re)introduced.

From the most frequently included track on a playlist (The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights) to the most ‘average’ song (Donna Summer’s Last Dance), the playlists emerging from the study reveal an intriguing picture of how we listened in lockdown.

The playlists

100 most popular tracks included in covid-centric playlists up to end-July 2020 

‘Average' covid-centric playlist (most unique common track in each playlist position)

‘Average' covid-centric playlist (most unique common track in each playlist position) but with new releases/chart influence removed