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The Science of Spotify Playlists

The fast-growing streaming music service has an uncanny ability to create playlists we love. Here's how they do it—and how you play a role in its composition, according to Spotify's head of curation.

Ever wonder what goes into your favorite Spotify workout playlist? Who creates "Weekend Warrior"? How songs are selected for "Pumping Iron"? And what really happens at Spotify’s headquarters, anyway?

We spoke with Doug Ford, Spotify’s director of product and editorial head of curation, to get a behind-the-scenes look into the inspiration, technoloy, and manpower generating the music that powers your workout.

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MF: So, what does the Head of Curation actually do?

DF: I run a team of 32 (and rapidly growing) curators from around the world whose primary jobs are to formulate hypotheses and put together playlists around different contexts—working out being a huge one for us. These people have different musical strengths, and all we do is work on playlisting. We try to make life better for people.

MF: What’s the inspiration behind some of these workout playlists?

DF: We put a lot of thought into the playlists instead of basing them solely off genres, album releases, or artists. When people get up in the morning, they're not—for the most part—thinking about what the latest release is; they’re thinking about their relationships, their health, their jobs, their bank accounts, getting to work on time, and the politics of what’s going on with their boss today. They want to chill, have romance, and music for their parties. So we have a need-for-life approach. When it comes to “workout,” we started seeing things to support that. We know, on the category side, that lots of people make their own playlists called, “Running,” or “Yoga,” or “Weightlifting.” We know there’s a demand for that, and we know from informal and formal questioning of people worldwide that they love listening to music when they work out. 

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MF: How many people come up with one playlist? Is it a team? Or do you have a software selecting songs? 

DF: We’re a human curation team. Largely, it’s an individual overseeing a single playlist, but in some cases, we have a whole team of people. We have experts with heavy experience in culture and programming certain genres like EDM, rock, and R&B. We’ll lean on them when we want to have tempo-matched music across a genre. With the “running” playlist, that was interesting because that was a team of people who did a lot of research and polling. We even have an internal team of people running to music, just checking what and who the motivators were. We call them the most fit product team in Spotify. We know songs need to have a tempo people can match, and we also found people were interested in defeating the demons of running. They wanted music, not just based on performance, but they wanted music to eliminate the tedium of running, and to keep them going for longer sessions, and we found that people need peaks. They want to cool down and then ramp up to another peak. 

READ MORE: How everyday listeners create the playlists — even if they don't know it >>>


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