BYU often tops college rankings lists: its library rivals Ivy League institutions, business and advertising programs regularly receive national recognition and the student body is still stone-cold sober. In one area, however, BYU comes in last.
The algorithm-generated list Every College At Once, which processes Spotify user’s listening data, revealed that BYU students collectively have the least energetic music taste of any university community in the world.
Every College At Once and its parent site, Every Noise At Once, are the brainchild of Spotify data alchemist Glenn McDonald. In his view, music is a powerful way to understand individuals and communities.
Through data collection and algorithms, McDonald has found a way to record the unique musical fingerprint of cities, countries, age groups and genders. With Spotify’s student discount plan, he’s also able to hone in on the listening patterns of specific schools.
“Once you have some subset of the world’s listening, then you can ask what is both true about it and different, at once — this measure that we call distinctiveness,” he said.
McDonald defines distinctiveness as a combination of popularity and uniqueness. Thus, the sound of Brigham Young University includes many songs from local bands and the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, but doesn’t feature more ubiquitous artists like Taylor Swift or Harry Styles.
The musical quality of “energy” encompasses factors such as danceability, tempo, emotional tone, instrumentality and volume, McDonald explained. To quantify “energy,” a machine learning process analyzes a song’s waveforms and “attempts to model the psychoacoustic, or the experience of listening to music.”
Junior accounting student Mason Ewing said he was unsurprised to hear that BYU’s listening patterns tended toward the bottom of the energy spectrum.
Until recently, Ewing co-owned Home Studio Records, a Provo recording studio, which regularly serviced local musical groups.
“Indie music is just so chill, and everybody is all about that. For the most part, people who come in are like, ‘I don’t know if I want to use a drum set.’ Everyone wants that vibe to float pretty mellow, not super crazy and upbeat,” he said.
Scott Clarke, a pre-business junior, agreed with the algorithm’s assessment of BYU music culture. “I feel like when I’m listening to music, I’m trying to destress,” he said.
However, Ewing and Clarke acknowledged that personal music taste is a big deal in Provo. People take their music seriously, whether they’re creators or consumers, they said. Students try to curate diverse musical libraries that are simultaneously approachable and obscure.
“I listen to stuff that no one else listens to, and I bet everyone in this room listens to stuff that no one else listens to. If you listen to music that no one else does, you’re cool,” Clarke said.
According to Every School At Once, some of the most popular genres at BYU include LDS, indiecoustica, new age piano, a cappella and orchestral soundtrack, along with a smattering of pop spin-off genres.
Jane Beeson, a BYU senior studying political science, describes herself as an artist “making alt pop in Utah.” She began her musical solo project Beeson when she moved to Provo for school, getting her start opening for groups at Velour Live Music Gallery.
Since then, Beeson has grown a significant audience. In 2022 alone, she played 35 shows.
Her song “Pink Light” is highlighted on Every School’s automatically-generated playlist, “The Sound of Brigham Young University-Provo.”
The playlist updates weekly and reflects events in the local music scene. Both Beeson and San Diego group The Happy Return were featured on the playlist after their Jan. 20 concert in Salt Lake City.
Beeson said she was glad to see “Pink Light” gaining momentum with a local audience. “It’s a song coming from a very female experience. It shows you can listen to music made from a perspective other than yours and still get something from it,” she said.
Despite occasional frustration with what Beeson sees as a “Provo mold,” she said she’s grateful for her audience here.
“Maybe part of the reason why we do have people listening to us is because we’re on the fringes of Provo culture a little bit,” she said.
In creating Every Noise at Once and Every School At Once, the ultimate goal was to foster musical exploration and connection, McDonald said.