My Favorite Things

I realised recently that I’ve maintained a consistent iTunes library for ~10 years. For most of that time I’ve been listening exclusively to iTunes, rather than to music in other formats. So the library is a useful source of information about my tastes in music. It should be possible to look at who are my favourite artists, what bands need more investigation, or just to generate some interesting statistics based on my favourite music.

Play count is the central statistic here as it tells me how often I’ve listened to a certain track. It’s the equivalent of a +1/upvote/fave/like or maybe even a citation. Play count increases by one if you listen to a track all the way to the end. So if a track starts and you don’t want to hear it and you skip on to the next song, there’s no +1. There’s a caveat here in that the time a track has been in the library, influences the play count to a certain extent – but that’s for another post*. The second indicator for liking a track or artist is the fact that it’s in the library. This may sound obvious, but what I mean is that artists with lots of tracks in the library are more likely to be favourite artists compared to a band with just one or two tracks in there. A caveat here is that some artists do not have long careers for a variety of reasons, which can limit the number of tracks actually available to load into the library. Check the methods at the foot of the post if you want to do the same.

What’s the most popular year? Firstly, I looked at the most popular year in the library. This question was the focus of an earlier post that found that 1971 was the best year in music. The play distribution per year can be plotted together with a summary of how many tracks and how many plays in total from each year are in the library. There’s a bias towards 90s music, which probably reflects my age, but could also be caused by my habit of collecting CD singles which peaked as a format in this decade. The average number of plays is actually pretty constant for all years (median of ~4), the mean is perhaps slightly higher for late-2000s music.

Favourite styles of music: I also looked at Genre. Which styles of music are my favourite? I plotted the total number of tracks versus the total number of plays for each Genre in the library. Size of the marker reflects the median number of plays per track for that genre. Most Genres obey a rule where total plays is a function of total tracks, but there are exceptions. Crossover, Hip-hop/Rap and Power-pop are highlighted as those with an above average number of plays. I’m not lacking in Power-pop with a few thousand tracks, but I should probably get my hands on more Crossover or Hip-Hop/Rap.


Using citation statistics to find my favourite artists: Next, I looked at who my favourite artists are. It could be argued that I should know who my favourite artists are! But tastes can change over a 10 year period and I was interested in an unbiased view of my favourite artists rather than who I think they are. A plot of Total Tracks vs Mean plays per track is reasonably informative. The artists with the highest plays per track are those with only one track in the library, e.g. Harvey Danger with Flagpole Sitta. So this statistic is pretty unreliable. Equally, I’ve got lots of tracks by Manic Street Preachers but evidently I don’t play them that often. I realised that the problem of identifying favourite artists based on these two pieces of information (plays and number of tracks) is pretty similar to assessing scientists using citation metrics (citations and number of papers). Hirsch proposed the h-index to meld these two bits of information into a single metric, the h-index. It’s easily computed and I already had an Igor procedure to calculate it en masse, so I ran it on the library information.

Before doing this, I consolidated multiple versions of the same track into one. I knew that I had several versions of the same track, especially as I have multiple versions of some albums (e.g. Pet Sounds = 3 copies = mono + stereo + a capella), the top offending track was “Baby’s Coming Back” by Jellyfish, 11 copies! Anyway, these were consolidated before running the h-index calculation.

The top artist was Elliott Smith with an h-index of 32. This means he has 32 tracks that have been listened to at least 32 times each. I was amazed that Muse had the second highest h-index (I don’t consider myself a huge fan of their music) until I remembered a period where their albums were on an iPod Nano used during exercise. Amusingly (and narcissistically) my own music – the artist names are redacted – scored quite highly with two out of three bands in the top 100, which are shown here. These artists with high h-indeces are the most consistently played in the library and probably constitute my favourite artists, but is the ranking correct?

The procedure also calculates the g-index for every artist. The g-index is similar to the h-index but takes into account very highly played tracks (very highly cited papers) over the h threshold. For example, The Smiths h=26. This could be 26 tracks that have been listened to exactly 26 times or they could have been listened to 90 times each. The h-index cannot reveal this, but the g-index gets to this by assessing average plays for the ranked tracks. The Smiths g=35. To find the artists that are most-played-of-the-consistently-most-played, I subtracted h from g and plotted the Top 50. This ranked list I think most closely represents my favourite artists, according to my listening habits over the last ten years.


Track length: Finally, I looked at the track length. I have a range of track lengths in the library, from “You Suffer” by Napalm Death (iTunes has this at 4 s, but Wikipedia says it is 1.36 s), through to epic tracks like “Blue Room” by The Orb. Most tracks are in the 3-4 min range. Plays per track indicates that this track length is optimal with most of the highly played tracks being within this window. The super-long tracks are rarely listened to, probably because of their length. Short tracks also have higher than average plays, probably because they are less likely to be skipped, due to their length.

These were the first things that sprang to mind for iTunes analysis. As I said at the top, there’s lots of information in the library to dig through, but I think this is enough for one post. And not a pie-chart in sight!

Methods: the library is in xml format and can be read/parsed this way. More easily, you can just select the whole library and copy-paste it into TextEdit and then load this into a data analysis package. In this case, IgorPro (as always). Make sure that the interesting fields are shown in the full library view (Music>Songs). To do everything in this post you need artist, track, album, genre, length, year and play count. At the time of writing, I had 21326 tracks in the library. For the “H-index” analysis, I consolidated multiple versions of the same track, giving 18684 tracks. This is possible by concatenating artist and the first ten characters of the track title (separated by a unique character) and adding the play counts for these concatenated versions. The artist could then be deconvolved (using the unique character) and used for the H-calculation. It’s not very elegant, but seemed to work well. The H-index and G-index calculations were automated (previously sort-of-described here), as was most of the plot generation. The inspiration for the colour coding is from the 2013 Feltron Report.

* there’s an interesting post here about modelling the ideal playlist. I worked through the ideas in that post but found that it doesn’t scale well to large libraries, especially if they’ve been going for a long time, i.e. mine.

The post title is taken from John Coltrane’s cover version of My Favorite Things from the album of the same name. Excuse the US English spelling.


3 responses

  1. […] previously written about analysing my iTunes library and about generating Smart Playlists in iTunes. This post takes things a bit further by generating […]

  2. […] found it difficult to predict what will be interesting to lots of people. Posts that took a long time to prepare and were the most fun to think about, have received hardly any views. The PCA post is most […]

  3. […] back in time to 1994. This made me wonder what albums released that year were my favourites. As previously described on this blog, I have this information readily available. So I quickly crunched the […]

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