Seeing Data Blog

The Importance of Taking Time with Visualisations

by Helen Kennedy • July, 15th 2014

In my other research I work on popular music. To be specific, fan experiences. I was fascinated, therefore, by Google’s Music Timeline which at first glance I thought showed the popularity of various genres over time (1950-2010). How exciting to be able to see trends in fandom, I thought. Taking a quick look at the visualisation, it’s clear that by 1960 jazz had had its day and rock was about to take over. Meanwhile country and blues had big bursts of popularity around 1950 and 1960. Heavy metal, the main area of my research, looks like it decreased in popularity by the end of the 2000s… and it was at this point that I became suspicious. The genre name ‘heavy metal’ is contentious. There are many theories on where the name came from, and every fan seems to have a different idea of who is metal and who counts. And who the genre is applied to has changed over time (are Led Zeppelin metal? Are Queen? Both have been referred to as heavy metal, both are now debated as the genre has become heavier and heavier). Who, then, has applied genre names and to what criteria were they working? And what about Nick Drake albums? The visualisation shows that his albums released in the late 60s are most popular. However, I know that Nick Drake wasn’t that popular in the 1960s, but that since mid-1990s there has been a resurgence of interest in his music. The trouble is that the visualisation implies that lots of people bought Pink Moon when it was released, but this famously isn’t the case.

Woman with headphones

There isn’t any narrative on the visualisation to explain how it works so I enquired of the visualisation’s FAQ page. And this is how I found out I had been wrong. The visualisation doesn’t show trends in popularity over time. It shows the release dates and popularity of albums in people’s Google Play libraries, Google Play being the content market place for Android phones and tablets. That is not the same thing at all. This means that people who buy jazz albums from Google Play tend to buy albums released before 1960; but Google Play only counts albums bought in Google Play since 2011 (when it was introduced) and only in 28 countries (notably the majority are in Europe and the Anglophone world) so we can conclude that jazz is today a very popular genre in Western countries. But not all jazz is equal and Google Play users tend to buy old jazz and not new jazz. What does this tell me about jazz fandom? That jazz fans are stuck in their ways and should explore albums released more recently if they want to keep their fave genre alive or do new jazz listeners all use iPhones instead?
So for me reading Google’s Music Timeline is a lesson in reading more deeply. At a glance the visualisation seems to suggest one thing, but more investigation reveals that it is telling a different story: it doesn’t show popularity over time, it shows popular album release dates, regardless of when those albums were bought. This in itself is very interesting, especially as it tracks the appeal of particular genre eras of music and particular artists. For example, Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut has fewer listeners than the preceding album, The Wall. It may not surprise a Floyd fan to know that (guitarist David Gilmour declared The Final Cut was made up of songs that weren’t good enough to go on The Wall), but it might surprise them to know that it has been downloaded only a little fewer times than Wish You Were Here, the band’s critically acclaimed post-Dark Side of the Moon album.

As a popular music scholar I still find things about the visualisation problematic (no classical music? How can ‘World’ be a genre? Who is left out of the data sample?), nevertheless if we are aware of the limitations of the visualisation then it can tell us something about popular albums and genre ‘heydays’. Investigating exactly what the visualisation was representing with its beautiful stream graphs for individual genres, subgenres and albums was worth doing because my assumptions mislead me. This experience tells us about the importance in investing time when engaging with visualisations, but this is something that might be difficult in our society of the immediate spectacle and with so much competition for our attention. One of the challenges we may face in trying to help people engage with visualisations is people’s limited time to spend exploring and thinking critically about them. Asking our participants to keep diaries should allow us to identify if this is a factor in engagement with visualisations.

Further reading

  • Holt, F. 2007. Genre in popular music, Chicago ; London, University of Chicago Press.
  • Waksman, S. 2009. This ain’t the summer of love : conflict and crossover in heavy metal and punk, Berkeley, Calif. ; London, University of California Press.