Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Opening Pandora's Box

A few months ago I blogged about Pandora, the streaming music service that takes the songs you request and your favorite artists and tries to figure out other tunes that you'll like. It's a lot of fun, especially since it's free. This Sunday's New York Times Magazine had a fascinating article about the mechanics behind Pandora and the Music Genome Project, which powers it.

What was interesting to me about the process is that human beings play a large part in pulling apart the songs and figuring out what makes them tick. It's not just a computer running code:

Some elements that these musicologists (who, really, are musicians with day jobs) codify are technical, like beats per minute, or the presence of parallel octaves or block chords. Someone taking apart Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” documents the prevalence of harmony, chordal patterning, swung 16ths and the like. But their analysis goes beyond such objectively observable metrics. To what extent, on a scale of 1 to 5, does melody dominate the composition of “Hey Jude”? How “joyful” are the lyrics? How much does the music reflect a gospel influence? And how “busy” is Stan Getz’s solo in his recording of “These Foolish Things”? How emotional? How “motion-inducing”? On the continuum of accessible to avant-garde, where does this particular Getz recording fall?
As for what the goal of Pandora is, it's something revolutionary when it comes to talking about music:
Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.

Which raises interesting questions. Do you really love listening to the latest Jack White project? Do you really hate the sound of Britney Spears? Or are your music-consumption habits, in fact, not merely guided but partly shaped by the cultural information that Pandora largely screens out — like what’s considered awesome (or insufferable) by your peers, or by music tastemakers, or by anybody else? Is it really possible to separate musical taste from such social factors, online or off, and make it purely about the raw stuff of the music itself?
I suspect that it's not completely possible to eliminate the influence of peer pressure, general popularity and such (though, your gods know, I'm trying!). But, it does lead to some good stories:
He [Pandora founder Tim Westergen] likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”
As hurtful as a revelation like that could me, it's better to open yourself up to the music on its own terms rather than wallow around with a limited biased worldview.

The whole article is a fascinating read.

UPDATE: David as Prawsblawg offers a discouraging word about the entire Pandora philosophy, what he calls "the moral tyranny of the blind taste test." If you're that superficial, I guess it's not for you.

Also, I hear from Robert in 3rDegree that Pandora wouldn't "take" them for part of the database, for unknown reasons. That's a shame, because it seems like the Pandora system would be a perfect way for more people to hear about a band like 3rDegree and help them grow the fanbase.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Great post. The Blu-ray player I just bought can stream Pandora so I've been listening and experimenting with channels a lot recently.

So far I've found that Pandora works best with genres with which I'm not overly familiar. I created a Miles Davis channel that never fails to disappoint, but that's mainly because I don't have a sizable jazz catalog and what I'm hearing is mostly new to me.

But when I typed in Fleetwood Mac I got slammed with the likes of The Eagles (barf).

Still, it's always fascinating to see what comes up.