Thursday, May 18, 2006

Boxing with Pandora

Seeing JMB's widget for Pandora on her blog this morning reminded me that Mrs Meridian had set up a Pandora account a while back, so I've been playing with it a bit today.

As the title of this post suggests, it's been something of an initially-frustrating but ultimately humanity-affirming experience.

For those who don't know, Pandora is a product of something called the Music Genome Project: the idea is that you pick a favorite artist and Pandora will sort through its vast catalogue of music for songs that share musicological similarities with that artist and "build" a "station" reflecting your tastes (you can thumbs up or thumbs-down selections, query as to why a certain song was selected, etc.). Pretty cool, as far as that goes.

So today, I created a new station by selecting Ali Farka Touré as my artist, in hopes of hearing more African music in more or less that style (Saharan blues, if I had to describe it). A prompt immediately asked me if I "meant" Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, in reference to their album I mentioned here a couple of days ago, In the Heart of the Moon. Well, no, Mr. Algorithim, I didn't "mean" that, but it's a good album after all, so I'll play along and say Sure. So: Pandora selects the first song from the album plays and I'm happy . . . but then come song after song after song of fairly uptempo acoustic guitar pieces that, whatever their provenance and pleasant though they are, are decidedly NOT African. What gives? I do some exploring on Pandora's site and learn that their 100,000-song, 10,000 artist repetoire doesn't include (many) world music artists. Alas.

Then it was on to a station Mrs. M. had set up for me to show me how Pandora works, "Sigur Rós Radio." The first song was indeed a Sigur Rós song and the one following was similar . . . but the third was, of all things, Jack Johnson's song, "F-stop Blues" (from his debut album). I like Jack Johnson well enough, but: the fact that I once posted about him and Sigur Rós in the same post notwithstanding, they clearly aren't in the same stylistic continuum. The songs that came along afterward were hit-and-miss as regards that thing called stylistic similarity: some yes, some less so . . . James McMurtry, though?? So, I thought I'd help out Pandora a bit by adding Steve Tibbetts. His music is not all that similar to Sigur Rós, but I thought that plugging their respective styles into the algorithm might cause Pandora to select some music that would be new to me. Alas again: Pandora selected a Billy Cobham fusion thingy, then a Tibbetts song, then shut down (the way it stated the matter was that Pandora was "taking longer than expected to select the perfect song"). I had stumped it, I guess.

What to make of all this? Well: somewhat in the sense that there exist any number of poems called "sonnets" but not all of them will be in the "style" of Petrarch or Shakespeare, Pandora can tell you if a selection has, say, major-chord harmonies or acoustic and electric instrumentation . . . but it seems to me, especially if someone's tastes or curiosities run in courses other than the mainstream, there's still no substitute for a few pairs of ears attached to like-minded people.

That fact does not entirely displease me. Print the t-shirt: Computers don't share music; people do.

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fearful_syzygy said...

I'd wear that T-shirt.

Various people have on occasion asked my if I used Pandora, or its rival, and if not why not. Well partly for the same reason as you, namely that I quite like actual people to recommend things to me rather than a computer — the 'you might also like' feature on Amazon is often tempting, but it's not infallible and frequently ridiculous — but for the same reason as I haven't downloaded that little widget on LiveJournal that will 'detect' what song you're playing as you blog. For one thing, I'm quite capable of determining what I'm listening to myself, but I also don't listen to music exclusively via Windows Media Player. I've been through this before, and despite having got an iPod, it still holds true.

Hmm, I get the feeling I'm rambling now... just get me one of them T-shirts, OK?

poco said...

Yes,Fearful, I largely agree with your assessment...I listened to ten lame songs in a row, and then it tells you you can't listen to anymore. But in another session I did discover some new and great tunes by Jimmy Cliff. (Who I already like anyway.)

The pic is totally great.

Joel said...

Well, thanks to your post, I actually tried Pandora -- and while it's not perfect, I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I fear it's because I have relatively pedestrian tastes -- but on the other hand, I started out with the Decembrists, then added 50 or so artists of varying stripes -- Louis Prima, Lou Reed, Merle Haggard, Massive Attack -- to see what it came up with. Aside from a Hootie and the Blowfish song, and a bit of unpleasant Deep Purple, I've enjoyed it a lot.