Ever feel like the Spotify shuffle isn’t actually random? Here’s the algorithm explained
I swear I get the same 10 songs every time I shuffle
When I listen to Spotify, I have two main methods. I either listen directly, via the Spotify app on my iPhone / MacBook, or I listen via my Sonos WiFi speaker – which uses my Spotify account from a separate Sonos app. When I shuffle Spotify playlists on my speaker, the songs are clearly true random. It feels like the whole playlist is shuffled and anything could come up in any order. When I shuffle playlists from the Spotify app, the shuffle feels adjusted to an algorithm. The same few songs seem to crop up, especially as the shuffle begins. Songs I’ve been listening to more recently seem to get favoured. I needed to know if it was just me who was feeling this way and needed answers. I did some research, and this is exactly why shuffle is like it is – and the Spotify shuffle algorithm explained.
Spotify HAS changed the shuffle algorithm
When Spotify first started, it operated on true random shuffle. Every song in a playlist had equal chance of coming up when you pressed the shuffle button. However, the streaming service found themselves bombarded with complaints from users saying that the shuffle wasn’t random enough and that they kept getting clumps of songs by the same artist when on shuffle. The issue is that as human beings, our perception of random isn’t how random actually works. All songs have equal chance of being in the order, so you could true random shuffle a Spotify playlist and have an equal chance of getting three Billie Eilish songs in a row every time.
To combat this, Spotify changed their shuffle to actually be LESS random, but in a way that appears more random to a casual listener. For example, if you had a playlist with songs by Drake, Kanye West and Beyoncé in, you’d (sadly) never get five Bey songs in a row. Even though in a true random scenario that would be an entirely possible result, humans had been complaining the shuffle was broken. We don’t like the idea of random meaning four Drake songs then three Kanye songs. We can’t process the concept of random well, and it’s in our nature to look for patterns and solutions when there aren’t any.
D0es Spotify shuffle prioritise certain songs?
There are patterns to your shuffle, but there’s a way to teach the algorithm you want to change things up. I’ve noticed that when I shuffle my main playlist, songs I have on repeat a lot at the moment always crop up within the first 10 (Cleo by Shygirl, All Too Well by Taylor Swift and anything off Lana’s Blue Banisters, if you’re interested).
To combat this and make the shuffle algorithm learn you want a change, there’s a fix. Shuffle your playlist, then turn the shuffle button off. Shuffle again, and repeat. This way, the Spotify shuffle algorithm will learn that you want something different and switch it up. If you don’t, it will presume you’re happy with the same songs being prioritised – which of course, you might be. You’ve been listening to them a lot usually for a good reason.
Personally, I wish Spotify would give the option of having true random or their algorithm shuffle for us to flick between. I’m happy with song clusters by the same artist, and if I’m ever not then I’d like to change to the algorithm. You can read in more mathematic detail on this matter in this blog post from Spotify engineer Lukáš Poláček here.