Apple Music’s “Recently Played” Problem

You can listen to Apple Music to hear the songs you know, or to discover new music. The “discovery” feature is one of the main selling points of streaming services, which offer tens of millions of tracks. But this discovery is very difficult. As I recently wrote, it’s not easy to play music that you can’t remember. If music isn’t in your library, and you need to search for it or, even more difficultly, use Siri to request it, you will generally not play a great deal of music. You will remember your favorite albums, your favorite songs, the artists you have listened to for a long time; or you will listen to the biggest hits, the current favorites that you hear, perhaps, in a playlist of new music.

While you can discover lots of music on any streaming service, Apple Music makes it difficult to find out what you have discovered. Sure, you can look at your iPhone, or ask Siri, and you’ll know what is being played at a given time. But what if you are out running, listening to a long playlist in shuffle mode; when you get home, you cannot find which songs you heard. You may want to go back and pick some of those songs to add them to your library for your next workout. But if you look at the Recently Played section of For You, all you see are icons for albums or playlists. Even if you play just one song from an album or playlist, you see that icon; nothing tells you exactly what you listened to.

Recently played

This is even worse if you listen to an Apple Music radio station. You will see the station in Recently Played, but you won’t see any listening history. The only place you can see that is on the Radio tab, in the Up Next button, under History.

It’s more confusing because Apple Music lists something as “played” even if you’ve only listened to it for a few seconds. Say you have been sampling some new albums that show up in For You. You start playing one of them, you listen for a minute or so, and you don’t really care for the music, so you stop and try another album. The Recently Played section shows that you have listened to that album. It doesn’t show that you stopped listening to it, that you moved on to something else, that you did not like it. If you’re sampling a lot of music, this makes it very difficult to remember what you did like; unless you choose to “Love” every track that you like just a little bit.

Apple is erring on the side of caution here. They don’t want to not include the music that you listen to, so they include everything and more. What they should be doing is only showing an album if you have started playing the album itself, rather than a song in an album. And they should show songs that you played outside an album or playlist separately. Or, when you select an album or playlist in the Recently Played section, they should somehow indicate which songs you listened to. And they should probably not include any songs that you haven’t listened to all the way through, or nearly. When you play music in iTunes, it only counts as played if you have listened to it up until at least 10 seconds from the end; you can skip ahead during the final fadeout, and iTunes will still count the track as played.

Most people don’t care too much about this; they listen to music as wallpaper, they listen to a playlist because someone or some algorithm suggested it. But for those who are actually interested in discovering new music, it would be useful if Apple improved this Recently Played section.