UCL Anthropology


WP1a: Music Recommender Systems and the Development of Aesthetic Experience

a musictape with a red background

Jenny JudgeAssistant Professor & Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, University of Melbourne,
Georgina Born, Professor of Anthropology and Music, Dept of Anthropology and Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL


Over the last fifteen years or so, music recommender systems have become the dominant means by which many listeners organise their musical listening and seek out new music. The task of a music recommender system, such as Spotify’s, is to sort a catalogue of music in descending order of relevance given information about a user’s musical preferences, which the system typically infers by monitoring individual users’ past behaviour, and then to offer a personalised recommendation based on that ranked ordering. In recent years, a literature has emerged critiquing music recommender systems along ethical and political lines. Drott (2018), for example, takes Spotify to task for marketing to third parties the sensitive, often highly personal data it extracts from people’s listening habits, effectively turning music into a ‘technology of surveillance’ as well as commodifying musical experience itself (Couldry and Mejias 2019). In a similar vein, Jonathan Gingerich (2022) argues that Spotify’s recommender system undermines cultural democracy by eroding citizens’ opportunities to engage with culture directly and spontaneously, thereby eroding their opportunities both to develop conceptions of, and crucially to change their minds about, what is ultimately important and worthwhile. 


Crucial as these critiques are, they do not exhaust the normative issues arising from music recommender systems. For there are distinctively cultural and aesthetic issues to consider, too. This project launches an in-depth examination of one such issue: the influence of music recommender systems on the development of aesthetic experience. Key questions are: In what ways are music recommender systems affecting the development of aesthetic experience? What normative models can philosophical aesthetics provide for both the individual and collective development of aesthetic experience? What kinds of musical attention are elicited by the 'discovery' algorithm, with its unlimited supply of new suggestions? Does this unlimited supply favour a glancing, instrumentalising kind of attention to unfamiliar music, and what new forms might aesthetic experience take under these conditions? What is the relationship between the development of aesthetic experience and collective dimensions of musical experience — and are music recommender systems, with their hyper-personalised address, undermining either or both of these? What happens to musical publics and ‘musically imagined communities’ (Born 2011, 2013, 2022) under the recursive, cumulative influence of personalisation? In a world where value judgements, both individual and collective or societal, are bracketed in favour of implicit neoliberal notions of consumer sovereignty and self-sufficiency, what precisely has been lost and what potentially gained? And finally, how is the rise of generative AI likely to bear on the development of aesthetic experience, at both the individual and the collective level? Drawing on conceptual and empirical resources from philosophical aesthetics (Judge) and anthropology, musicology and sociology (Born), the project will take a distinctive, and distinctively interdisciplinary, approach to a burgeoning field of inquiry, one that promises to demonstrate the centrality of aesthetic issues to normative critiques of AI.