Using Pandora the other day, this advertisement popped up next to my music stream:
So in the middle of listening to Timo Maas, Deadmau5, and Daft Punk, I got an advertisement for a bluegrass music festival. I have this picture of some guy listening to American folk music and getting an ad to go see The Crystal Method in concert. It makes me laugh.
I don’t write about music here very often. This is because I know nothing about music and my tastes aren’t broad, interesting, or exotic enough to appeal to other people. In fact, I’m the worst sort of music fan: Both elitist and pedestrian. I’m incredibly picky, I’m irritated by music outside of my tastes, and I like a lot of what most serious music fans (and musicians in particular) would dismiss as mainstream fluff. In general, I don’t get into a band until after they’ve sold out. I’m like the guy who is really passionate and fussy about which brand of greasy cheese-dusted junk food he’ll eat.
A few years ago I found out about Pandora and the Music Genome Project. The system purportedly classifies a piece of music based on 400 different attributes (genes) like gender of lead vocalist, level of distortion on the electric guitar, type of background vocals, etc. It can supposedly find new music you’ll love based on music you already enjoy.
In less than an hour I denounced the entire thing as a sham and gave up on it. Each new song it presented was more grating and distasteful than the last. I kept telling it I hated what it was playing and it kept finding new music that was even further from what I wanted. I think in that run it tried giving me both twangy country and violent hard-core gangster rap.
But I’ve been writing a lot in the last couple of years, and I prefer to have music when I write. So once I’d worn out everything in my collection I gave Pandora another try. I don’t know what they changed, but the thing works like magic now. I admit that my musical needs are a lot more specific than simply “I need to like this”, but Pandora seems to have figured it out:
1) Electronic. I come from a family of musicians, and I’m sure if they were less polite they’d tell my that music is made with instruments and not by some nerd on a computer. But… junk food, remember? Beep beep doot beep doot beep bew bew bew!
Munch munch munch.
2) NO LYRICS. This was something Pandora could not seem to comprehend the first time around. If I’m trying to write, the last thing I want is someone pouring words in my ear. (Which are usually 90% drivel and 10% incomprehensible anyway, so I generally don’t see the point.) A sprinkling of little four-word clips of movies or robot voice phrases is usually okay.
3) Slightly varied. I get agitated when a song loops the same hook for three minutes straight. (Usually categorized as “trance”, but not always.) Even if the hook is good and even if it would be good for dancing, relentless repetition puts me off my flow. I stop typing and start waiting for the song to get to the next bit.
4) Not too aggressive or fast. Even if the song is otherwise enjoyable, too much speed and energy can put me off my flow. I don’t usually want a soundtrack for kicking asses.
5) There are always exceptions. Naturally. Songs which seem to meet all of my normal criteria will still get a thumbs down from me. Songs which seem to break the rules sometimes get a pass. I actually hate doing this. When I give thumbs up to a song which breaks the above rules, I worry that giving Pandora my approval will train its heuristics is give me music I don’t like.
And then there are songs that might confuse it. This song has a woman’s voice, but not lyrics. I must make this clear: If this piece were distilled into liquid form, I would drink it, and I wouldn’t stop chugging until it was gone or I passed out. (It actually gets going at the two minute mark, if you clicked on the link.) But does the woman’s voice sample count as “vocals”? If I approve of the song am I going to get Lady Gaga shouting about her p-p-p-poker fa-fa-fa-face? These are the things that I worry about when tending my Pandora station.
But anyway. Credit to Pandora. I don’t know how they did it. I certainly wouldn’t know how to go about finding music that will work for me. It would be time consuming and I’d probably be lousy at it. And yet someone wrote software that can pull it off. Automatically.
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