Music box DNA 

Pandora opens the doors of your perception

For the sake of creating a more navigable infrastructure for travelers wandering about in the universe of noise, a group of music nerds spent the last six years flushing out the science in the music. Since 2000, the creators of the Oakland, California-based Music Genome Project have been busy mimicking, not just the name of their Human Genome Project counterpart, but the goal as well—although with a slightly different end in mind, mapping the genes of music to create what they hope will be "the most comprehensive analysis of music ever."

Thus far, the most palpable achievement of MGP has been the launch of Pandora.com, a Web site that translates MGP technology into a "music discovery" tool for Web-savvy music lovers. Log on to Pandora, create "stations" from your favorite music and Pandora uses MGP analysis to introduce you to music similar to that with which you created the station. The idea is to shed all the usual marketing hype and venture into new music song-by-song based on what users enter as personal preferences.

With software available for nearly every function one can conjure from the depths of a dark imagination, it's difficult to fathom a task as monumental as MGP's not being accomplished by some supercomputer running out of an underground military installation. Truth be told, there's no supercomputer, nor is there some team of meth-fed music hounds chained to headphones. "The actual process is professional musicians listening to and analyzing music," says founder Tim Westergren. "Not just anyone can do this. [MGP] musicians need a good grounding in music. Typically they have a four-year degree in music, they take a test and go through 40 hours of training before beginning."

According to Westergren, a collection of 35 musicians have spent the last six years listening to songs and analyzing them by examining 400 musical dimensions, including musical taxonomy, melody, harmony, instrumentation, orchestration, etc. The completed analysis becomes the song's DNA, which then makes it possible to objectively compare it to other songs, or its musical neighbors. Listeners then choose an artist or a song on which a station's theme is modeled and the musical neighbors of that artist are played on the station.

For example, a station created with electronica bad girl artist Peaches first plays one of Peaches' songs before moving onto a song from Fannypack. At anytime while a song is playing, a pull down menu encourages listeners to better guide Pandora by providing feedback by clicking on one of several options: "I really like this song, play more like it," "I don't like this song, it's not what this station should play," "I'm tired of this song, don't play it for a month," and "I want to add more kinds of music to this station." If Fannypack doesn't do it for you the way Peaches does, tell Pandora not to play that song anymore and your preferences are logged into your account. If the song is an immediate favorite, create a new station from it that will introduce you to Fannypack's musical neighbors. If you simply want to remember it in the future, add it to your favorites page, where an entire catalogue of your favorites is stored and from which CDs can be ordered via iTunes and Amazon. Ask Pandora why its playing Fannypack on a Peaches station and Pandora speaks with authority: "because it shares similar electronica influences, mild rhythmic syncopations and repetitive melodic phrasing."

The more feedback a listener provides to Pandora, the better a station is "tuned." Stations can be finely tuned by adding multiple artists, songs or any combination of the two. Pandora estimates that adding a song to a station increases the playlist by about a hundred songs, while adding an artist will usually increase the playlist by several hundred songs. Currently, Pandora boasts about 300,000 songs from 100,000 artists, and because Pandora's box of mapped music is ever increasing, frequent tinkering with stations expands the variety of musical realms into which listeners delve.

"We're finding artists and music companies scrambling to send us their stuff," says Westergren. "Companies are sending us their entire library because one of the advantages to doing it this way is that it's not a popularity contest. [Pandora] is just as likely to recommend a well-known artist as something you've never heard of." And that's great news for the masses of local, unsigned talent desperately seeking exposure beyond the scope of local groupies. According to Westergren, indie submissions are becoming more prevalent, and not only does Pandora encourage them, but it promises to listen to everything submitted--although not everything makes it into Pandora rotation.

For those artists who are part of MGP and are in rotation through Pandora, keeping them happy is simply a matter of getting play time and paying royalties. Covered under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Pandora's blanket license allows the company to pay a per hour fee to all the central recording agencies. Keeping Pandora in business for non-subscribers is the world of advertising. The subscribers version, which differs from the free version only in its amount of on-screen advertising, runs users $36 for 12 months of unlimited use or $12 for three months' worth.

And given its recent partnership with Squeezebox—a nifty little device that interfaces digital music with your home stereo—Pandora may be a relatively new kid on the digital block, but one that is poised to ripple the pond something fierce. Westergren says the MGP has already begun work on augmenting its collection to include international music with a huge push of Latin music in the deconstruction chambers being readied for those eager to stretch their tastes in a new direction. Next on the list, says Westergren: mobility. In a world where cell phones and MP3 players can easily access Pandora's musical universe from any location, there's bound to be a swarm of rockin' evils descending upon mankind's unknowing ears.

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