Here’s the current string, in all asynchronous argument —
Fellow music analysts,
To be honest, when a student in my anthropology of music class last year sent us a link to the ” Music Genome Project ” I had something of a knee-jerk reaction and even allowed myself to be a bit snarky. Probably because, to a culturalist, the term “genome” as applied to music seems quite misleading. Since then, I was able to listen to an interview with MGP founder Tim Westegren, which gave some insight into the project’s methodology. More recently, a Radio Open Source show on the effects of randomness in music selections (iPod’s shuffle feature as something of a “breakthrough”) also had Westergren on, talking about his project. Basically, they tag tracks for specific features and allow listener’s to connect those tracks through musical similarities instead of through genre labels. They do have a fairly extensive musical selection, possibly covering some of the musical ground many of us are working in.
To me, the MGP relates fairly directly to Alan Lomax’s work: the analytical method used by MGP resembles Cantometrics and MGP’s Pandora “radio station” seems somewhat related in concept to what I understand Lomax’s Global Jukebox Project to have been, almost twenty years ago. Have some of you looked into the Music Genome Project and its implications for our discipline? Westegren’s work clearly isn’t ethnographic and has no pretense of being ethnomusicological. Yet, we can probably relate to some of the ideas surrounding the project.
I actually work for Pandora.com. I am one of the Senior Analysts, and I also oversee our Rap and Electronic music areas. If anyone has any questions I’ll be happy to answer tham as candidly as possible.
Here’re a few links with info about Pandora – there’re plenty more interviews around on the web if you do a Google search:
Essentially what we do is to analyse a song based on several hundred musical categories – eveything from vocal register, to the amount of guitar distortion, to the use of sampled music, to the timbre of the drums. We then use the data from these analyses to drive a matching engine that creates playlists of similar music. When using the Pandora radio station you can interact with the matching engine (tell it YES music like this should play on this station, or NO music like this should not play on this station).
It is really an amazing product, and when a user gives the player some direction it is frightening how good the matches are. Also, Pandora is constantly changing which aspects of the song it is matching on so a listener still gets a pleasant amount of variety on their stations.
There are a couple of caveats all should know: Everyone at Pandora works our hardest to ensure there is no bias. We aren’t affiliated with any record label or whatever. We buy and accept QUALITY music of all types – Tho at this point our catalog is limited to: Pop (rock, R&B, blues, punk, etc.), Rap, Latin, Electronic, and Jazz. Classical is just getting it’s feet off the ground and may be going public this year.
Alex – you are correct there are some similarities with Lomax’s work, but I’ll leave it up to the scholars to flesh out this aspect of the discussion further.
I presented a paper at the 2006 SEM meetings on Pandora.com and the Music Genome Project, and have had stimulating dialogues with colleagues at NYU and Duke about this since. In my view, there is too much smoke-and-mirrors around the coding parameters used by Westergren’s company to make any substantial connection between cantometrics and the so-called musical genome. What are the parameters coded? Which ones seek to the describe the music, and which pertain to the sonic dimensions of sound recording as a medium through which we consume music? How do those parameters grapple with the subjectivity of the listeners who code them? How do the terms of the coding mediate between musical sound and the linguistic conventions of describing music and sound? What does it mean to engage in musical analysis as a means to sell a service to producers and consumers (Pandora) as opposed to engaging in academic analysis of musical structures and performances (Lomax)? Can one compare a marketing tool to disciplinary analysis? Can one compare a method geared toward delivering taste-based consumption to a method for (ostensibly) describing relationships among musical structure, culture, and society?
In any event, I think such comparisons miss the point of the Music Genome Project. There is a common appeal to scientific authority in both Westergren’s genomes metaphor (which is little more than a metaphor, if you look at the biological definition of genome) and Lomax’s work (regardless of what position you take with respect to it), but little more. Ultimately, what is of interest about the Music Genome Project are not any of its specific claims, but the way in which it participates in a debate about whether marketing music to consumers should be based on (ostensibly) scientific authority, or on populist definitions of what constitutes good music (as it exists in social networking sites like last.fm).
Associate Professor, Anthropology
Director, Media Studies
Director, Independent Program
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY