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Pandora’s Box

October 13, 2009

For a number of years, I’ve been hugely fascinated with Pandora, the internet radio station that plays songs based on information you put into it. I find the whole premise fascinating, because I love thinking about why we like the music we like. Pandora gets a lot of the why part wrong, at least for me, and that’s what makes it interesting. Because algorithms alone don’t explain taste. But Pandora’s right often enough to make me want to analyze it further. And a lot of times you can tell where Pandora went wrong and why. Pandora isn’t just for listening. I take it as a personal challenge to figure out how to feed Pandora exactly the right information to get what I’m looking for.

The Music Genome Project, the analytical project on which Pandora is based, is an ambitious one. Tim Westergren, its founder, describes it on the Pandora website:

Together we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or “genes” into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song – everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It’s not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records – it’s about what each individual song sounds like.

As a musicologist and erstwhile composer, I find the idea of separating out various musical elements for separate analysis interesting. But the results, I think, demonstrate that music is not always a mere sum of its parts. Moreover, I find that despite Westergren’s claim that the music is not based on genre, more often than not, Pandora’s choices DO at least appear to be governed by genre. That may, however be because songs of a given genre share attributes – that is, after all, how a genre is defined.

So here is the Pandora game I play. I think of a song or band I like and I think about other songs or bands I’d like to hear with it. Then I try to figure out how to give Pandora the bare minimum of information – ideally the name of a single band or song – to get the desired results. This requires my own analysis of the elements that songs have in common. The trick is to come up with a “station,” as Pandora calls it, without typing in a long list of songs and bands. I also try to do it without clicking the button that tells you why Pandora picked a particular song. It usually doesn’t give me information I can’t figure out for myself anyway.

For instance, this morning I woke up with The Police’s “So Lonely” in my head and I thought, “I love the Police. I think I’d like to hear some more.” So I typed The Police into Pandora. What I got was newer Police songs and cuts from Sting’s solo albums along with other British and Irish bands from the ‘80s — U2, Modern English, and a lot of songs that were featured in John Hughes movie soundtracks. None of these songs had the sound I was looking for. So I had to think abou what I wanted. Then I realized what I really liked was The Police’s first album, Outlandos d’Amour, and its burr-edged ska sound. The roughness and the ska beat became more diluted in the Police’s later music and I didn’t like it nearly as well. And what I really wanted to hear with it was more ska-influenced bands like the English Beat and Vampire Weekend. I tried typing in “So Lonely” and got a gazillion different versions of The Police’s “Message in a Bottle” – okay, but not my favorite – and more U2 (including the oh-so-ironic “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”). The only real difference was that this time turned up The Pretenders, which really wasn’t what I was looking for at all. I tried several other configurations of Police songs, but the results were always so mired in the 1980s that I felt like I was having a retro moment. That wasn’t what I wanted. How could I break out?

I decided to try Vampire Weekend instead. Vampire Weekend only has one album, so I knew there’d be more of a mix of bands. This turned up The Killers, The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence, a dance mix of The Shins’ “Spilt Needles,” Spoon, and, God help me, The Strokes, the most mediocre band in the history of rock. The only song in this list that came close to the sound I was looking for was The Shins song, which has a rapid driving bass that gets at the energy of the Police song I started with.
I still haven’t solved this one, but I’m working on it.

I do believe, however, that I won the game with a band-named station that regularly turns up tons of songs I like, quite a few that I love, and never plays any I can’t stand (I’m looking at you, Strokes): Camper Van Beethoven. Camper Van Beethoven is okay, but not one of my favorite bands by a long shot. I’m never sad to hear them, but I don’t seek the out, although I did go to a concert they played at UMass my freshman year in college and narrowly avoided getting raped by a really big guy who grabbed me on the way to the bathroom by kneeing him in the balls. Okay, and maybe I love “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” but I rarely think of it long enough to track it down for a listen. No, the thing Camper Van Beethoven seems to have is position. They both influenced and were influenced by a lot of bands I do love, REALLY love and others I like a lot. So my Camper Van Beethoven station regularly turns out great listening: REM, Wilco, Modest Mouse, Pavement.

I decided to go back to my Police station to try again. This time, the first song up was Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.” That’s a lot closer. I clicked the like button. Let’s see how fast Pandora can learn.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    October 13, 2009 2:48 pm

    I’ve never used Pandora. I usually listen to internet radio when I’m working and can’t listen to anything with lyrics. Which leaves bossa nova (instrumental), jazz and classical. I like the Police’s first album and haven’t thought about it in ages.

  2. readersguide permalink
    October 13, 2009 3:31 pm

    I haven’t tried Pandora, either, but this is fascinating. Hmmm.

  3. October 13, 2009 7:52 pm

    I love Pandora, but have the same issue with it as you do. It’s complicated by the limitations on skipping songs, so “teaching” it is important. And frustrating.

  4. October 14, 2009 7:43 pm

    I love Pandora and I find it fascinating. I don’t mess with it too much though, because I hate listening to music from the computer while at my desk. I like the speakers to be on the other side of the room, and at work, that’s not possible.

  5. October 14, 2009 8:00 pm

    I have a similar problem, Magpie, which is why I’m getting reacquainted with Pandora. I got an iTouch free with my new computer and since it can access the wireless network, I can stream from Pandora through the iPod speakers/recharger gadget that is on the other side of the room. I do a lot more listening now than I ever did on the computer. Julia, I agree. Pandora needs a lot of education. Readersguide, try it. You might be amused. All instrumentals, huh, Freshhell? I think I need to work on a mix for you.

  6. lemming permalink
    October 15, 2009 9:27 am

    Curiously enough, I have to keep telling Pandora not to play me Brittny Spears, but otherwise it does all right by me. Not sure why Spears keeps turning up…

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