The Album Gauntlet: Over-Engineered Music Appreciation

How does music make its way into your life? How do you decide what to listen to every day? What if instead of saying, "ah, I'll just put some music on while I'm working," you had an over-designed system created to maximize the number of new artists you can experience and ensure you give enough attention to each one?

Enter The Gauntlet.

The Gauntlet is, on its surface, straight-forward: it's two playlist folders containing seven playlists:

The Gauntlet/
├── queue/
│   ├── zero
│   ├── one
│   ├── two
│   ├── three
│   └── four
├── done (0)
└── abandoned

The Gauntlet is a kanban board for albums. Whenever you want to listen to a new album — say you find out that a new record has come out, or you want to check out the back catalog of an artist that is rapidly rising in your esteem, or someone simply says "oh, you should listen to this album" — you add it to the zero playlist. Every album that you hear about that you even vaguely might desire listening to goes in the zero playlist.

After that, the rules are simple:

  • The zero playlist is your starting point. Once you listen to an album, it is advanced one playlist. That is, for example, the first time you listen to an album, it is added to playlist "one" and removed from playlist "zero."
  • You may only advance an album to the next stage in The Gauntlet once per day.
  • Once an album is listened to five times — that is, once it would advance from the "four" playlist, it goes to the "done" playlist. When this happens, increase the counter on the done playlist's name ("done (1)" becomes "done (2)").
  • If you well and truly cannot make it through an album, move it to the abandoned playlist.

"Doesn't the zero playlist get overwhelming?" I hear you ask. Yes, it does, but that's okay. Not all stress is negative stress. Embrace the zero playlist. I create a new gauntlet for each year (or at least I'm trying to) — at time of writing, we're a little over halfway through this year and I'm at eighty albums waiting for appreciation in my zero playlist, clocking in at about 58 hours of music. Am I going to listen to all of this? Maybe one day!

You will notice that music tends to band together as it makes its way across The Gauntlet. My "one" playlist tends to act as a bit of a proving ground, where albums will get sort of grouped together by genre or mood as they can then move down the line.

Do not abandon albums. You should consider it a personal defeat if you cannot make it through an album. That being said, at time of writing, my "abandoned" playlist has 85% of the number of songs as my zero playlist, and it'll surely be longer than my zero playlist soon. That's just how it goes. Use the "abandoned" playlist as a record of records you couldn't appreciate. Use it sparingly.

I keep these as Spotify playlists, so it's easy for me to navigate on the go; if an album comes up in conversation, odds are I'll quickly navigate to it on Spotify and drop it into my zero playlist.

The history of The Gauntlet

I started using a version of this system a little over nine years ago now. One of the first albums to graduate for me is one of my all-time favorite records, "The Century of Self" by …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Just scrolling through this playlist of albums I've listened to mostly a decade ago, I'm filled with such joy — and because of The Gauntlet, they've been firmly wedged in my head.

I don't really remember why I started doing this — I think it's because I kept finding myself forgetting that artists existed. I also had just met some great folks on turntable.fm (now defunct), and I wanted to make sure I really appreciated their music recommendations.

Some of my favorite albums which have graduated from The Gauntlet
Some of my favorite albums which have graduated from The Gauntlet

Why five listens?

I found five times through an album was enough for me to both feel like I'm really familiar with it and for me to form a strong opinion about it. The first or second time you listen to a song, you might not really appreciate every part of it: you're still skimming the surface. But on the fifth time, for me, I start to understand the story that's being told, and I start hearing the little bits of layering in the tracks that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

This is also why I try to give an album five chances to grow on me, unless it's well and truly distracting. There really are a few albums that I didn't like much on the first listen through, but maybe on the fourth or fifth, one song stood out that I really enjoyed, or maybe I even came around on the whole project.

I also tend to listen to almost exclusively songs with vocals; the fifth listen is when I start to remember lyrics to songs — especially the ones that I really like.

This isn't rooted in any sort of science, though! This may be different for you; you might want to shorten or even lengthen your gauntlet. This is just the sweet spot that I found and stuck to.

Is this right for me?

Of course not! You will not be able to just blindly accept this system. If you want it to stick around, you should make sure it fits somewhere into the workflow that you already have. If you want to implement your own gauntlet, make sure it's not some life-altering event: if it's a little habit change, you'll be way more likely to be successful than if it requires a great deal of shifting your schedule around or a lot of work to remember to use it.

So, please, morph it into your own and make it fit the workflow you already have. I would love to hear about how this changes the way you listen to music — feel free to drop me a line at joewoods at fastmail dot com.

Okay, but why on earth would I do this?

Why not?

I also keep a playlist for songs that stood out to me every month. This may be older songs that I ended up listening to again for the first time in a while and think, "oh yeah, this rules," or it could be tracks that are new to me that stood out for some reason (probably because I thought they were jams). The gauntlet makes filling these little time capsules so easy.

I also write a music article that is completely a side effect of The Gauntlet. Because I put as many new albums in my "zero" playlist as possible, I mostly listen to brand new music, so I write about new songs that stood out to me every month.

This system is so firmly wedged into my habits that it essentially costs me nothing, and that I feel as though I'm really appreciating every song I discover for myself makes me truly happy.

So why not give it a shot?

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