iTunes: Party Shuffle Review

Does seeing a connection make it real?
I Ching: throw the coins (or draw the yarrow stalks) and get a number. Do it six times, draw a pair of trigrams. Consult the text and open your mind to the possibilities. Superstition or roadmap to a higher reality? Cognitive bug or spiritual gateway?

According to some recent research, we are wired to see God because we seek to find the best possible meaning to even the worst events of our lives: “What is this meant to teach me?” we ask. I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I can imagine the reproductive value of finding unseen benefit in disasters.

Pattern recognition is the human strength
We are, in fact, pre-eminent pattern recognition machines. A child can recognize a friend by their walk from two blocks away, while even powerful computers cannot reliably recognize a face from 12 inches in bright light. Is it so surprising that our pattern recognition hardware, tweaked by millions of years of evolution, refuses to shut down even when there is no pattern to recognize?

Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to describe disconnected events that appear meaningful because they occur at the same time. Are they “really” disconnected? Later, another Viennese psychoanalyst and Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankl posited that it is not our suffering that depresses us, but its lack of meaning. Placing our lives in a larger context, or pattern, restores us to harmony with the universe or at least with our own minds.

The Matrix is real
Buddhists, physicists and fans of “The Matrix” know there are multiple levels of reality. “Spooky action at a distance”, Einstein’s name for a quantum mechanical phenomena whereby two photons, separated by miles or even light years, instantly reflect the other’s state. Somehow entangled and appearing to communicate faster than the speed of light, this suggests there are mechanisms we still do not comprehend threading through what we so blithely imagine is “reality”.

Add to this list of largely random but sometimes meaningful (to our pattern-craving brains) processes the “Party Shuffle” mode on Apple’s iTunes music management software. As of this writing I have 4,456 tracks in my collection, and my preferred listening tool is the Party Shuffle mode, wirelessly transmitted to the stereo in the next room. Part of what I love about this is that music comes pouring out endlessly without my intervention. Yet endless music is the least of its virtues.

Learning at random
More important to me is how it has changed the way I become familiar with new music. Since virtually all my MP3s are from my personal CD collection (of which I have digitized about a third), I can add a new album and, over time, be introduced to each of its cuts in a context of familiar and loved music.

For example I just added a CD of Chet Atkins to my collection. While writing this a cut I’d never heard before, “Boo Boo Stick Beat” came on. I loved it, didn’t recognize it, looked at iTunes, and realized that the genre label “country” fell far short of encompassing Chet’s genius, and determined that I would learn more about Chet and acquire more of his music. Free of preconceptions about his music, I could just be delighted by what I heard, when I heard it. Over time Party Shuffle will play me every track on that album and I will begin to learn to recognize Chet as I appreciate the breadth of his work.

A slow ramp instead of a big step
Perhaps it is years of instant gratification, or just years, but I rarely feel like listening to an entire CD to learn if I like a new artist. And usually it takes me several listenings to process my reaction to new music. So it is a wonder that I listen to any new artists at all. Until Party Shuffle.

There are few tracks so annoying that they can’t be tolerated or ignored for three to five minutes. Knowing you no longer run the risk of wasting an hour on music you will never like is a wonderful feeling. Suddenly you are free to take risks. And if you don’t like the music, relief is as near as the delete key.

The artifact of the album
There are downsides to iTunes. Perhaps the most serious is that the concept of the album – itself an artifact of the limited recording capacity of the 78 rpm format – is so efficiently dismembered. One could never hear Sgt. Pepper’s or Tommy the way the artists intended. This is not the way to listen to any multi-part composition, be it Bach or an audio book.

The compression typically used for ripping CD’s in iTunes does reduce the music’s sonic quality, although some quick fiddling with the program can reduce that to irrelevance for most listeners and eliminate it entirely for the truly finicky. Running to the computer to check out a track can be a bother, but at least the information is legible and available.

How we experience reality is part of our reality
ITunes is not a new medium, but it is useful improvement on an older one, much as the book improved on the scroll or the LP improved on the 78. Random access to the bowels of one’s music collection, serendipitous segways that spark new excitement from old music, endless music, personal broadcasting, iTunes Party Shuffle opens up a new and often very satisfying way of enjoying music. It is available free from