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Friday, 3 October 2008

What makes music your favorite? An essay on musical taste.

Greetings those few readers that I attract.

As I was listening to music on my computer via the internet I was tempted to ask myself, "Why do I like one song more than another?" It's almost impossible to answer, so difficult that I cannot even begin. There's rhythm, or if you like the back beat, usually drums and/or bass line. There's melody, a catchy tune that you can't get out of your head. Sometimes it's as simple as the lyrics... one of my favorite musicians is Sting, whose melody lines are not catchy at all, but whose words ring out so often. As an aside, I remember seeing him being interviewed, I think it was on MTV, and was asked what young people thought of all his religion. To paraphrase his answer he said that while church was discredited God was not.

I digress....

Back to the point or points... another example I like is 12/4 time signature. It's simply uplifting, makes you want to dance, and I don't dance, don't ask me....

So imagine my joy at being directed to by a friend. You will see "my" stations listed on the right. How are those created? Simply by seeding your initial station with a song or artist you like, and those clever people at Pandora have spend thousands of hours classifying music in what they call genomes and supply you with similar music on your station. Sounds delightfully simple, but to be honest is as massive an undertaking, in my humble opinion, as the mapping of the human genome. That scientific miracle was said to have been impossible in my lifetime and yet it has happened.

If Tim Westergren, the founder of the music genome project, reads this I hope he takes heart. I believe their map is as incomplete as the human genome was ten years ago. There's simply not enough definitions, enough genres, enough detail at this time. It is, I believe, for this reason that I get music I don't like on my stations at times. That's no problem as I simply pop over to the open web page and click the thumbs down button. They politely apologize and go on to the next song. (Makes me giggle the way they are so polite! Nice!)

Here's an example of the detail of the song I am listening to as I write. The song, You Are, sung by Ron Kenoly, has been detailed at Pandora as follows:

r & b influences
acoustic rhythm piano
call and answer vocal harmony (Antiphony)
extensive vamping
mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation
paired vocal harmony
a vocal-centric aesthetic
major key tonality
string section beds
acoustic rhythm guitars
subtle use of fender rhodes
vocal duets
upbeat lyrics

(That took some fiddling to cut and paste! For the geeks amongst you, I had to switch to "Edit HTML" to strip out the formatting.... what a pain!)

Ok, so do I like the song, yes, perhaps 6 out of 10. So I went back to Pandora and searched for one of my top favorites of this genre to see what they'd written. It's the Lion and the Lamb by Crystal Lewis. They say:

& b influences
major key tonality
melodic songwriting
an emotional female lead vocal performance
a smooth female lead vocal
electric pianos
subtle use of strings
upbeat lyrics

Note the similarities with the definition above. To be fair to Pandora, the above are summaries of their attributes. They say: 

Q: How many attributes or "genes" are there in the Music Genome?

There are just shy of 400 musical attributes in the Music Genome Project.

When you ask the Pandora Tuner "why is this song playing?" what gets displayed is just a summary of the information used by the Music Genome.

Even two songs that show identical answers to "why is this song playing?" still have countless differences that the Music Genome uses when it matches music based on each of those songs.

These attribute summaries are intended to provide some interesting insight into the musicological elements of a song -- without getting into dozens of individual attributes for each element.

For an explanation of the most common summary elements, please see FAQ Section 6D, beginning with:

To close this short essay, let me recommend the following if you're interested:

Q: How can I find out more about music theory and structure?

We're creating an audio and video series called Pandora Presents... that explores in more detail some widely used musical features. To listen, check out:

Happy Listening

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