How Many Songs Need To Be Good?

I had an off-the-cuff thought during the podcast this weekend that keeps resurfacing in my head. We were talking about music, and I asked how many songs off of an album needed to be good for that album to feel like it was worth it. Pretty much universally, the answer was “about three”. It’s been sitting with me ever since.


I’ve been looking at media in general, and how much of it I have to really like to stay engaged. There’s a song on an album I own that’s three minutes and fifteen seconds long. At about the 2:45 mark, it cuts into a different vocalist for a segment that I really dislike. It’s jarring and ruins the track for me. I now skip that track entirely, even though I like the first two and a half minutes of it. In the same vein, I haven’t played MGSV in days for a relatively banal reason. It’s not any of the objectionable things in the game, it’s that I have a mission where the drop off point is way too far away, and I just can’t be bothered to go through the hassle.

So, I need about 25% of a music album to feel like it’s worth it, but if the last thirty seconds of a track isn’t to my liking, I skip it. I am willing, and in fact expect, to sit through the first few episodes of an anime before making a decision, yet if a game hits a lull, it becomes harder and harder for me to come back to it (see also: grinding of any kind). My tolerance for parts I don’t like varies widely from medium to medium, and sometimes wildly within the same medium.

For any given bit of entertainment, there’s a threshold where the parts I don’t like outweigh the parts I do, and I check out. It seems simple and obvious, but it’s also something that’s gone entirely unevaluated. What are the exceptions? Can I predict this? I feel like if I can understand what the mix is like, I can better understand both myself and the media I consume.

Trying to pin it down is frustratingly elusive, though. When I try to analyze my thoughts across media, I find myself immediately making excuses, about how one thing is different in some specific way. I know enough about psychology to know that there’s almost certainly a pattern I’m not seeing– or more likely, not letting myself see– but knowing it’s there and trying to make sense of it are two very different things.

I say a lot that good design is about knowing what people haven’t yet realized they like. The real magic of good design is being able to elicit a positive, wholly unexpected reaction from someone, and I feel like if I could tap into my own mental hangups and processes, I could start to get a handle on how to better approach design. If I could precisely (or even roughly) pinpoint where people check out, where a piece of media loses people, I could develop better intuition for how to avoid those pain points.

I am opposed, fundamentally, to the idea of “I’ll know it when I see it” design. It asks a designer to magically intuit something that the requester can’t even articulate. It’s like telling a chef to “make some food, I’ll know if I like it once I try it”. It’s why I started taking notes on the things that I loved and didn’t expect to, and the places where I find myself checking out of something. I’ve tried to get better at articulating precisely why I like or dislike something, because it’s from those evaluations that I learn and grow, and can tell other people what I like and don’t like. It’s meant I need to have a constant mental cycle active, monitoring my own reactions as they happen, and drawing connections. When I talk about my “designer brain” always being on, that’s what I’m referring to. It’s comforting at the same time as it keeps me from ever fully engaging with something.

I’ve gotten so used to that background process running smoothly that it’s jarring when it runs into something it can’t or won’t process. I’m still mulling over the idea from before– how much of something can be bad or uninteresting before I stop caring? Why and how does it change across media, even across different entries in the same medium? Why do I get frustrated at stretches of fruitless-feeling running around in MGSV and, in that frustration, switch over to trying fruitlessly to solve challenge puzzles in The Witness?

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