Monday, January 28, 2013

Pandora: A music vocabulary business model

About two weeks ago, I finally decided to try out Pandora. I know I'm coming late to this game, but until recently I've had no trouble filling my listening time with podcasts, new purchased music, and the occasional re-listening to my collection. A few things led me to reconsider: 1. I'm starting to realize there is so much music out there I've never even heard of, and 2. I'm kind of getting tired of my "All Pop/Folk/Jazz" iPod playlist, which is kind of incredible considering it has 13.6 days of music (my classical collection has 11 days, but gets much less traffic for various reasons). Though I enjoy getting to know new music even if I don't like it, I'd rather encounter music I love, so I thought I'd try out Pandora's "magic" formula for playing music I should like.

My feeling so far: Pandora works. After a few hours of listening and refining a playlist, I do have to say it's somewhat freaky how I can input just a few artists I like and Pandora magically produces other artists or songs I already know I like. I have yet to discover a new act I really love, but I have faith in this method that it will happen eventually. I'm enjoying what I'm hearing, and it's more a surprise than my iPod on shuffle.

The magic

What is Pandora's magic method? Instead of traditional gatekeepers (critics, DJs, your friends, "the crowd", or even computer programs), they use music vocabulary! Musicologists listen to Pandora's song catalog and come up with a song's "musical genome," which is a list of musical descriptors or metadata (for more information, read this 2009 New York Times Magazine article). Then, as you rate the songs you hear, the program looks for songs that have similar music descriptors to the songs you like.

To reveal the musicologists' descriptive vocabulary for each song, just click on the "Why did you pick this?" function. This is probably my favorite Pandora feature. Here are my personal reoccurring musical descriptors:

mild rhythmic syncopation
extensive vamping
repetitive melodic phrasing
subtle use of vocal harmony
clear focus on recording studio production
use of a string ensemble
melodic songwriting
prominent rhythmic piano part

Some of these descriptors surprise me (who wants to say they like "extensive vamping"?), but mostly, they make sense. My new advice for those trying to learn music vocab: listen to Pandora, and click on the "Why did you pick this?" button. Maybe I'll try this next time I teach a music class.

If everyone talking about music started to use Pandora-like vocabulary to describe a song, wouldn't that be great? I think so. We wouldn't be confined to the vague comparisons to other musical groups that usually constitute our musical descriptions.


But Pandora is not perfect. Supposedly, according to it, I'm supposed to like Coldplay, which (with few exceptions), I don't. I'm only a few weeks in, however, so maybe that problem will correct itself. Or maybe their algorithm will get better. Also, Pandora's selection methods by definition don't really get you out of your musical comfort zone, which can be problematic. But I have other methods for that.

Also, I'm not sure that Pandora's business model is sustainable. It's very likely that someone will come up with a program that can do the musicologist's categorizing job for them, and Pandora won't be the company to develop it. Also, categorizing music with people is expensive (though I'm happy someone is employing musicologists), and despite their wide user-base, Pandora has yet to be profitable. It seems that many people want their music for free, which is a problem that all aspects of the music industry are grappling with.

Have any of you used Pandora, and do you like it? If you do, what are your musical descriptors?

Vocab: syncopation, vamping, phrasing


  1. I must have the smallest music library of anyone I know--not even a full day of tracks. I didn't grow up with much musical variety besides Christian rock (which sucks), and most of my CDs are what other people have purchased for me. I've been using Pandora for a little over one year and I like it a lot; I listen to it at work, when I'm writing, and while I'm doing housework.

    It beats the heck out of spending money to listen to music I like, though I have bought many individual tracks I've heard only through Pandora for use in my car. My fiance pays for the non-advertisement version.

    The station that is always on for me started as "Blue Man Group radio," where I get terms like: use of modal harmonies, a bumpin' kick sound, prevalent use of groove, thickly layered production, melodic string accompaniment, and techno roots. I like a strong/funky beat, and I'm currently hooked on techno (Crystal Method, Zircon) and electronic swing (Parov Stelar).

  2. Remarkable what machine learning over good labels can accomplish.