Can you measure how much music excites you? I tried, here’s the data.
It was my first night out of SXSW 2018 and like most years, I had a long list of bands I was hoping to see. At the top of the list was Sudan Archives — an LA based violinist and vocalist. They were playing that night in the inside room at The Mohawk and I was intent on making it. My hopes were high. I had already started plotting out how to see them a second time later in the week, even before seeing the first performance.
As I had hoped, the show was great. The songs translated really well into a live performance — full of looping violin sounds use to build songs one piece at a time. Their performance matched the songs with great presence and musicianship. At the height of the show, they ripped into an intense violin solo and blew the roof off. I came away from the show inspired, impressed, and ready to see them again.
There was a high likelihood that I would love the performance based on how much had been building up to it in my mind. I had listed to Sudan Archives 107 times from the beginning of the year until that show. The deck was stacked in their favor.
In situations like this, I’ve often had the question in my mind, “Did I love the show because there was something inherent inside of me that connected with the music? Or did I love it because I had talked myself into loving it long before the show?” This time, I was wearing a device on my wrist that would help measure my visceral reaction to the music, a sort of measurable excitability. I came prepared to answer the question of intellect versus intuition.
The Data and the Device
The device I was wearing is called the Embrace. It is made by a company called Empatica. The Embrace is designed to “observe increases in sympathetic activation by monitoring subtle electrical changes across the surface of the skin.” Electrodermal activity has been used in a variety of medical research applications. The Embrace was designed to track such data to detect epileptic seizures. Read more about the science.
I wore the device for 113 days from January 1st until April 23rd. During that time, the Embrace registered 52 different events that would classify as highly excited or stressed. What these events mean for me is that there were electrical changes in the surface of my skin, which likely meant activations of my sympathetic nervous system. That’s a scientific way of saying that I experienced some elevated level of “excitement or stress whether physical, emotional, or cognitive.”
By wearing the device and analyzing the data, I hoped to be able to measure how excited I was when listening to music, attending concerts, or other music related activities. If I could correlate the data from the Embrace with my music listening then maybe I’d be able to identify which songs and artists are my definitive favorites.
Let’s Dig Into the Data
In addition to wearing the device, I was also tracking other personal data in hopes of providing context to the events measured by the device. Of the 52 events that qualify as highly excited or stressed, I was able to correlate 29 of those events to other things I was doing. 11 were specific to music. 9 of those were live concerts and 2 were songs I listened to.
Music correlations were much lower than I had hoped. Over the period of time I wore the device, I listened to 2,473 songs. Yet only two had any measured elevated excitement. In that same time period, I attended 16 concerts. A higher correlation than simply listening to a song but still far from a one-to-one relationship.
Digging deeper, there were 8 related to public type events. 6 were at a University of Texas basketball game with my family. One was during the March for Our Lives at the capitol building in Austin, also with my family. The other was during a live taping of a podcast. These were public events, with many people around cheering, very similar to a concert. There’s clearly something about being with a crowd of people who are excited about what is happening that is conducive to my own excitement and/or stress.
23 had no traceable correlation though 13 of those were on a Saturday or Sunday, when I was at home with my family. This follows the trend of being around people as a catalyst for excitement or stress.
The remaining 10 events seem to correlate to stress on my body. 7 happened after a 10 mile run, all of them within 30 minutes of finishing my run. 3 happened while on vacation in Idaho to visit my parents, where we spent a lot of time outside in bitter cold weather. In one specific case I was outside and the temperature was -20F. A plot of the events by date and time shows a handful of clustered events. Most notably the UT basketball game, SXSW concerts, and the 10 mile run. Aside from those groupings, the events appear to be random. Though very few happened before midday.
Quantified Excitement + Music
The impetus for the experiment was to correlate music listening to excitability. The two songs that correlated with the data were “Kennedy” by The Wedding Present and “All Night” by Big Boi. Of the 9 concert moments, the elevated excitement happened during 5 different shows: Sudan Archives (3 times across 2 shows), Mallrat, The Wedding Present (2 times in one show), and Rostam (2 times in one show).
The two songs played that registered events stood out as outliers. I went through my historical record of listening to understand more. This was the first time I had ever heard the song “All Night” by Big Boi and I have not listened to it since. It was January 29th at 1:17 PM. I was likely at my desk at work. Looking at the sequence of songs played before and after, I was in run of high energy hip hop. “All Night” was preceded by three consecutive plays of a Tee Grizzley song called “First Day Out.” Maybe “All Night” wasn’t the catalyst after all, but rather the run of songs leading up to it.
The second song that correlated has a bit more to the story. “Kennedy” by The Wedding Present was played for the third time that year at 9:53 AM on Saturday, March 17th. The night before I had gone to see The Wedding Present at SXSW. I knew very little of their music going into the show. Looking again at my listening history, I saw that I listened to “Kennedy” twice on my drive home after the show and then again in the morning on a speaker in the kitchen. I listened to “Kennedy” 5 more times later in the year.
For those keeping track, The Wedding Present concert also registered two events. In hindsight, I’m surprised it didn’t register more. It was as close to the perfect live show that I can remember.
It was my last night out at SXSW and I took a chance on seeing them even though I knew little about them. It was bit of a walk but it was perfect weather. After a short wait in line, I walked into the venue, past an amazingly named punk band — Grim Streaker — then outside where the band was set up on the ground. They were surrounded on all sides but I managed to find a spot behind the drummer. I couldn’t see the band’s faces but I could see the faces of everyone else in the crowd.
The Wedding Present had their heyday in the 90’s. It appeared that most everyone at the show had been a long time fan of the band. Most knew all the words to the songs. I could see an iPad the lead singer had set up with the lyrics on it, and could vouch for the accuracy of the singing. One fan standing off to the left was wearing a shirt that said ‘too much apple pie’. The shirt stood out to me simply due to the phrase. When the band started playing “Kennedy”, I realized why he had the shirt and why he was kneeling for most of the show. The first lines of the song are:
Lost your love of life? Too much apple pie
Oh have you lost your love of life? Too much apple pie
The energy and enthusiasm of the song had a way of instantly converting me to a fan. In the middle of the set, I posted to Instagram: “This is everything I’ve every wanted from live music.” The show was perfect. So much so that I played the song for my family the next day in an attempt to recreate some of the magic of the show. I went on to listen to The Wedding Present 24 times following the concert. Each time I hear a The Wedding Present song, I am transported back to that magical performance.
Excitement is Quantifiable After All
In many ways, the data backed up what I might have guessed. A show that felt perfect had a measurable excitability. Given how much I loved The Wedding Present in the moment, I didn’t need data to tell me that it was a moment of profound effect. But to me, that makes the experiment a success. It proves to me that the thoughts in my head are, in fact, connected to my feelings. There is a connection with my intellect and my intuition. And that’s what I set out to learn.
The other moments that measured similar were a bit of a surprise at first: a bitter cold walk in Idaho, a college basketball game, a public demonstration, and a live podcast introduction segment. A little more context to those moments made it clear that there was something in common: family. I was with at least one member of my family in each of those instances.
I hoped that music would be the common thread in the data. Instead, enjoying life with other people proved to be much more common. That’s my catalyst for excitability. Sprinkle in some music with those people and the odds go way up. That’s why I do these types of experiments. To get one step closer to a clearer understanding of myself.
I have been tracking data related to my music listening and discovery habits for the past decade. Previous year’s projects are compiled on my website: www.ericboam.com