Tapping into Pandora's music genome

Tapping into Pandora's music genome

Summary: Over the weekend, I've been trying out a new music service that applies a double helical twist to Internet radio. Pandora, which goes live on Monday, lets you create radio stations, tuned to your musical tastes.


Over the weekend, I've been trying out a new music service that applies a double helical twist to Internet radio. Pandora, which goes live on Monday, lets you create radio stations, tuned to your musical tastes. Instead of just relying on playlists, selected by you, friends, services or a DJ, you enter songs and artists and the software scans a music "genome" database to find other songs with similar DNA as a basis for generating the "radio" programming. As you listen to songs you can provide feedback, such as whether you liked or disliked the selection, and the algorithm is tweaked, and Pandora has links to purchase songs.

  Pandora's Interface


The Music Genome database, which has been in the works for five years, abstracts out various characteristics of music--such melody, rhythm, instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement and lyrics--to create a musical identity, according to Tom Conrad, Pandora's CTO. According to the Pandora Web site, "Each song in the Music Genome Project is analyzed using up to 400 distinct musical characteristics by a trained music analyst. These attributes capture not only the musical identity of a song, but also the many significant qualities that are relevant to understanding the musical preferences of listeners."

In my experience, about eight hours of listening time, Pandora isn't as fine-grained as I would like. I created a Bob Dylan/Tom Petty station, and got several songs that didn't meet my expectation. "Pandora proceeds in sets of three to four songs, influenced by one of the seeds," Westergen said. The problem, he said, is that an artist like Dylan has a varied catalog. His musical genome varies depending on the phase of his career. It would be good if the musicologists at Pandora added that dimension to the database. 
Another oddity, flaw or feature (I haven't figure out which yet) of Pandora is that my Dylan/Petty station doesn't play much Dylan or Petty. It finds all kinds of music you could never easily discover from other music sites. As a result, you are exposed to far more of the "long tail." The software finds musical neighbors of the seed song or artists from a huge catalog of indexed, decoded songs. "A big part of what makes the genome unique is that it doesn't rely on popularity or usage habits of other users," Westergen said.  

Here's a sample song sequence from my Dylan/Petty station, which I am still fine tuning.

  • 19 years--Elysium
  • Delirious--Luka Bloom
  • Colorado Girls--Townes Van Zandt
  • 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)--Bruce Springsteen
  • Nobody--Paul Simon
  • Turn Back the Page--Joey Stec
  • Heart My Home--Jim Yoshii Pile Up
  • The Enchanted Car--Freedy Johnston
  • Looking East--Jackson Browne
  • Give a Little Bit--The Goo Goo Dolls
  • Nowhere Land--Cardinal Trait
  • Tennessee before Daylight--Outformation
  • Magnolia Mountain--Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
  • Ashes on the Moon--Riviera
  • Spanish Harlem Incident--Bob Dylan

Pandora's business model is radio-like, in the sense that you have no control over the playlist, other than inputing variables and relying on the music genome engine to deliver songs. Pandora complies with the DMCA license (Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998); based on the DMCA provisions that define streaming Internet-based radio,  you'll hear everything from the Beatles to Metallica, founder Tim Westergen said. Coltrane too, but no classical. Cost of the service is $36 annually or $12 per quarter, and Pandora pays around 15 percent of subscription fees to a clearinghouse that deals with the publishers, and for a lot of bandwidth.

Pandora isn't a substitute for user recommendation engines, but it's a complementary service and great listening. Note: Pandora's Music Genome Project is not be confused with MusicGenome, an Israeli company that has a similar type of song recommendation engine sold to businesses.

Developing deep schemas and decoding data types and events to automate discovery, find relationships and solve problems, such as securing computer systems, is already a major area of software development (I wrote a long piece for Esther Dyson's newsletter on the topic). If it works for music and network events, how about for video content, when millions of people are creating video and uploading it to the Net? What's the genome for video content?

Topic: Legal

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  • This is EXACTLY

    what I had in mind for streaming audio web portals! No freeking downloads, just streaming audio for a monthly fee. The portal keeps track of your preferences and offers DJ-mixed songs and "party" sets. You could add "celebrity" recommendations, or celebrity DJs. You could listen for free - if you agreed to added commercial content - or for a fee and no commercials. JUST like cable TV was SUPPOSED to be - commercial free.
    Roger Ramjet
  • RE: Tapping into Pandora's music genome

    Like just about everybody else, I've come close to despair while trying to discover "new" music. While Pandora is replete with flaws related to the implementation of a worthy concept (use technology to make it easy for human beings to discover new music similar to their tastes), it pretty much does what it sets out to do.

    That's where the good news ends. If your attitude towards music is the same as some people's attitude towards *food* (they'll eat *anything*), then, by all means, check out Pandora. Gorge yourself.

    Here's the reality: Pandora's "library" (unlike the apparent shills working for CNet who plugged it in this review who optimistically referred to it as "surprisingly deep") seems to me to be disappointingly shallow. Really.

    If you believe the hype, Pandora has at its disposal some incredible software algorithms (yada yada) to identify some sort of meta-physical/spiritual secret "code" or something that can (again, in theory) be used to find all of the music in their, uh [coughing], "deep" library that matches a given person's particular tastes --- hence, the name "Music Genome Project."

    I tried plugging in several of my favorite artists to "seed" a new "Station." The new Music Station (in theory) should take advantage of all this great, whiz-bang technology, and PRESTO! A virtual Radio Station that not only exposes me to "new" music, but new music I like.

    How does it work?

    Well, it depends on your perspective. As I already mentioned, there are differences in the way different people enjoy music. Of course, otherwise, what would be the need of this, uh, service anyway? Like with food, we could all just be, uh, "eating" the musical equivalent(s) of Soylent Green or something. You get the idea.

    But, here's the way it works. I *tried* plugging in some fairly well known New Age artists --- not obscure and unheard of my any means.

    NOT FOUND. Yada yada. OK. I tried some others. I started my own station. Great. Now, just kick back and have the wonderful technology provide me with all sorts of musical delights that I can savor and enjoy for the first time.

    Kind of like going to your favorite Thai (you love Thai food, right?) restaurant and pointing to something on the menu you never tried before (maybe because you couldn't even pronounce it or something), soon find out how what goodness you've been missing.

    But, it doesn't work out that way. Not only could I not seed (or start) a new station with some of my favorite artists from some well know labels, but the songs that were played were consistently losers. Not too much unlike food that, if I were literally starving, I would, in theory, eat. But *only* if I were starving.

    Sorry, but I am not starving for music that badly. My music collection is already substantial and, yes, it's getting increasingly difficult to discover, uh, "new" music that I actually like.

    What amazes me is how many songs were played that I felt obliged to give a "Thumbs Down" to. Guess what? Six thumbs down (essentially, a "Fast Forward" function) per hour. Period.

    How would you like to be limited to *six* uses of your Fast Forward on your CD player or iPod per hour? Yeah, yeah, I know. Pandora's licensing agreements (yada, yada) don't allow for more than that. So what's the point?

    It's like saying, tell us what you like, and we'll give you a coin to flip. Every time it comes up "Heads," well play a song you like. Except that I found myself getting "Tails" about two thirds of the time. Out of thirty songs or so that played, I ended up hearing a few that I actually gave "thumbs up" to because I really liked them. The others, I merely endured because I had to.

    This service just doesn't work for me. Even the artists' [those whom I plugged into the system to help it generate musical genetic matches] songs that played were often undesirable. Funny, sad, but true. Like, wow, how could "they" (OK, the *software*) find so *many* songs I *don't* like by an artist I *do* like?

    Like, man oh man, I've heard of "Single 'B' Sides," but this really was ridiculous. I decided to try an experiment. Like most people, I've never heard a Beatles song I didn't like. Well, hardly. Even their "B" sides were frequently hits or, at least, popular.

    So, I tried to Create a New Station with the Beatles as the artist I wanted to "seed" it with. Guess what? Yep, not in their, uh, "deep" library.

    Well, the purpose is to discover new music, and, arguably (like most people), there is probably no Beatles tune that I haven't ever heard. Fair enough. Well, not wanting to give up on my experiment, I tried the Rolling Stones.

    Success! My new station was created and, lo and behold, the first song played was by The Rolling Stones. As fate would have it, it was, in fact, some obscure (ala Grateful Dead) live recording of Street Fighting Man that sucked. Really. So, after a prompt "Thumbs Down," I was rewarded with another song by the Stones I never heard before, Mixed Emotions. I hated it.

    In frustration, I couldn't help but wonder if *anybody* finds Pandora truly *useful* for discovering music they *really* like. I tried eMusic and, mostly by chance and reading the reviews of other Average Joe's (and Jill's), I actually found some stuff I really liked.

    Over all, Pandora is a great big disappointment to me that doesn't even come close to living up to the hype.

    Again, your mileage may vary. Perhaps you don't care that much about what sort of food you eat, either.

    More power to you.
    brian ansorge