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A brief history of shuffling your songs, from Apple to Adele

“Most people don’t change from default settings unless they have almost an ideological reason to do so,” says Devon Powers, associate professor at Temple University, whose research focuses on popular music. “So this is a big change for a lot of people who were essentially groomed on Spotify.”

The shuffle feature as we know it today came into the spotlight in the early 2000s, with the arrival of the iPod, although music shuffling has been around for a very long time. “Shuffle is a way to listen to music, where you cede some of the control of what comes up next to a machine or an algorithm,” says Powers. That means if you’re using a record changer or CD changer, or listening to the radio or even your own collection of mp3s out of order, you’re shuffling music.

But it was on January 11, 2005, when Steve Jobs presented the first iPod Shuffle, a screenless device smaller than a pack of gum, capable of only playing music randomly, that the shuffle function became a national sensation. While other iPods came equipped with a shuffle function, this release branded this function as an Apple feature.

Even before Apple came out with an iPod specifically dedicated to shuffle, the feature was celebrated. “I have seen the future, and it is called shuffle,” music critic Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker in 2004. In The Guardian, it was called “a radically different way of encountering music.” Noted academic Michael Bull said shuffle turned his devices into “a treasure trove full of hidden delights.”

But there was also backlash from music purists. “Personally, and I believe I speak for many old farts here, I appreciate listening to music, be it an opera or a pop album, in the sequence in which the artist decided to present it,” marketing professor James Kellaris told Wired in 2004.

Eventually, Apple and the shuffle function became closely connected. “The change got branded and very closely attached to Apple technology,” says Powers. “Other people were doing it, but Apple seemed to own it.”

“iTunes really changed the way we purchased music, no longer needing to purchase an album, but having the option of buying single tracks,” she says. “That started a change for the dominant way of listening to music, moving away from albums and to playlists.”

Music piracy also had an effect. In the 90s, downloading one four-minute song could take around three and a half hours. By the 2000s, the mp3 compression format had come into being, and the same song could be downloaded in minutes. As piracy began to increase, people downloading music often went for single tracks, because they were quicker to download and add to a playlist.

Now, we have streaming services, which also encourage random listening, because people don’t even have to own the music they are listening to. Generally, says Krause, we tend to like music less when we become too familiar with it. Some researchers have suggested that shuffling is a way of keeping a music collection fresh, while avoiding the overlistening phenomenon.

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