March 9, 2006

Pandora: The Music Genome Project

Although I rarely purchase anything on, I maintain an account there to take advantage of the site's ability to make music recommendations based on my browsing habits. By doing this, I've come across artists that I would have likely missed.

Now there's a remarkable new online radio station called Pandora that takes this idea further and generates a 'best guess' playlist for listeners. Users enter their preferred artist or song and Pandora takes it from there.

Using data from the Music Genome Project, Pandora performs a quick analysis of the user's entry and generates an entire playlist. Users can enter as much or as little information as they like to help establish the playlist parameters.

According to the Pandora website, the Music Genome Project has been in development for the past six years. A team of 'musician-analysts' have been listening to music, one song at a time, studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every song. They say it takes 20 to 30 minutes per song to capture all of the details that give each recording its specific quality, including melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics and more -- apparently nearly 400 different attributes.

I gave the service a try today to check it out. I created a 'Boards of Canada' radio station and added other artists like Aphex Twin, Marumari and Freescha. I have to admit, the playlist was spot on. Pandora threw in some Plaid and Lamb (which I also like), along with some artists I have never heard of before but which were right up my electronic alley.

Turning to a different genre, I plugged in the song 'Schism' by the prog-metal band Tool. Given that limited information, the results were limited at best. Some of the tracks in the playlist were right on, while others weren't even close. Obviously, since the output is highly subjective, some listeners will be happy with its recommendations, while not with others. The key, I think, is to feed the engine as much data as possible to help refine the playlist.

Also, after listening to several songs, the Pandora service stopped and made me register (for free) or I wouldn't have been able to continue. It also gave me the option of a paid subscription so that I wouldn't have to suffer through banner ads. I didn’t feel that was necessary as the site is quite clean and minimal anyway.

The user interface is quite good and very flexible. Users can have multiple radio stations and they can edit them at will and on the fly. You can even email your radio stations to your friends.

The only flaw I see with this idea is a philosophical one. Yes, the service can expose listeners to artists that they're unfamiliar with, but because it's preference driven, it won't expose users to other genres and other types of music that listeners wouldn't normally listen to, but what they may like nonetheless. In other words, it won’t take listeners outside their own music box.

Perhaps in the future Pandora can add a 'genre strength' feature that would govern the strength of the playlist to stay within prescribed parameters.

Regardless, give it a try and see what you think.

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