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Outsmarting the Algorithm: Dissecting Your Favorite Song to Build a Personalized Playlist by Catherine Harris-White / SassyBlack

Posted Wed, 2/05/2020 - 9:17am by  |  Category: , ,

There are many reasons music resonates with us.

Most times it’s because that music has prompted a bit of nostalgia. Maybe it reminds you of your childhood or of a loved one or even a lover. Sometimes music can remind you of a film or TV show. Sometimes it brings you right back to a place or a specific environment.

Very similar to taste or smell, music takes us on a journey and can help us to relive an experience. In that same way, music can push us to new heights and inspire new experiences. Music can launch a new life, a new take, a new outlook. Overall it is a very powerful art, so it’s important to understand its power—why we do or don’t like it—and take the steps to finding what other music we might like.

So how do we find this magic music? In this day and age, we often turn to a streaming platform to design our playlist for us. That is all good and fun, but do you ever stop to think about the music you might be missing out on?

Below are a few steps to building your own playlist without the almighty algorithm!

Step 1. What type of mood do you want to feel when you hear the music?

Are you getting ready to head out to a party to kick off the weekend or headed to bed? On your way to work or studying? Maybe you’re planning a romantic evening. This information is necessary to help shape your playlist.

The songs you will ultimately choose are setting the tone for your experience. It’s basically going to be your theme music, so it’s important to have a clear idea of the type of mood you are trying to set. Think about what you want to get out of the playlist. It’s important to understand what type of mood each song generates so you can take the next step.

Step 2. Lyrics or no lyrics?

Do you like instrumentals, or do you need some words to get you going? Some folks find lyrics to be too distracting; sometimes music without words can be too drowsy. Do you want rap or spoken word to be crooned to? Perhaps a rocking sax or guitar solo can help you on your way.  What’s your take?

Step 3. Do you have a genre preference?

Although genre is becoming more of a concept of yesteryear, it can be important to figure out what genre speaks to you. While these descriptive categories still exist and play a big part in radio play, synch licensing and more, it is not the end-all be-all. More and more music is mixing up genres. Whether it be funk, jazz, pop, EDM, etc., this type of thinking will help you along the way with your research.

Step 4. Start with a song you love.

This is the easy part! Now that you’ve discovered the mood of your playlist, let’s add our first song. What’s a song you already know that embodies the energy you are seeking to amplify through this playlist?

Once you’ve started that train of thought, let that baby run wild. Write down as many of the songs that come to mind as possible.

Step 5. Phone a friend! Keep building the list.

This is just the beginning. There are so many music platforms, it can make it hard to figure out where to go next to find a new song or a familiar sound, so reach out to your family and friends. Ask your coworkers or barista. Open up your ears and shazam whatever TV show you’re watching.

I’d also suggest checking out platforms that are more likely to showcase up-and-coming artists like Bandcamp & Soundcloud. Check out something brand new, search these platforms like you would Google or Bing or any other search engine.

It’s all a big adventure—while the algorithms can be fun and introduce you to new music, don’t take for granted the joy of self-discovery. 

To learn more about music—and how to write your own stories into song—join me for Creative Storytelling through Songwriting, beginning Monday, Feb. 10.


A graduate of Cornish College of the Arts, Catherine Harris-White / SassyBlack, who first started performing in clubs at 18, hit the public consciousness in 2008 with her hip-hop duo, THEESatisfaction, releasing two records on Sub Pop. Since, she has fostered a solo career, writing and producing all of her music and releasing 11 projects since 2015. With melodies often compared to Herbie Hancock and a voice often compared to Sarah Vaughan, Black has received acclaim from myriad publications, including Pitchfork, Noisey, Afropunk, SPIN, and Essence.

With the gravity of a celestial body the gods themselves would fawn over, the artist will release her next record, Ancient Mahogany Gold, fall of 2019. Black, who has shared stages with performers like Princess Nokia and Charles Bradley, has played popular summer festivals like Capitol Hill Block Party and SXSW. And along with her music, which has been featured on the Adult Swim compilation, LUXE, her acting prowess has been featured on the HBO series, Vinyl, and Comedy Central’s Broad City. In short, she’s a modern day creative oracle.