Pandora's box

Music - Dan Hancox has fun with the "intelligent" radio station that knows what music you'll like

If mapping the human genome sounded ambitious, charting the DNA of rock music sounds positively barmy. But over the past five years, that is precisely what a Californian company called Savage Beast Technologies has attempted to do. Its researchers have compiled a mind-bogglingly detailed catalogue of more than 10,000 rock and pop songs dating back to the 1950s. This they have called the Musical Genome Project.

The fruit of their research is a kind of intelligent internet radio station called Pandora, which responds to users naming tracks they like by creating personalised "stations" which play them other songs that, in Pandora's opinion, will also be to their taste. So, for example, if you type "I like Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'" into Pandora, it will respond by playing you "Green River" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Radio Free Europe" by REM as well as songs by Elvis Costello and the Smiths. And it does this for free, over and over again. The soft-ware bases its selections on more than 400 distinct musical attributes - or "genes" - that the researchers have identified. These range from "major key tonality" to "dry snare" to "ambiguous lyrics".

An insight into the phenomenal power of Pandora's software is provided when you select the option "Why is this song playing?". When I asked why it had res-ponded to my typing in a song by the 1980s new-wave artists Wire with a track by the latter-day punk band Green Day, it said: "Based on what you've told us so far, we're playing this track because it features hard rock roots, punk influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, and repetitive melodic phrasing." Which certainly beats Zane Lowe shouting on Radio 1: "Check out this new Green Day track - it kicks serious ass!"

Sometimes, however, this works against Pandora. American hip-hop, for example, actually benefits from having a braying moron telling you just how good the songs you're listening to are. Upon tak-ing me from Public Enemy to the rapper Canibus, for example, Pandora did not announce: "We're playing this track because it features dope beats and rhymes so ill they'll blow your muthafu**in' head owff!!" It merely muttered something vague about "extensive vamping and a vocal-central aesthetic". All was forgiven, however, when the station moved on to "West End Girls" by the Pet Shop Boys - which, besides demonstrating considerable taste, showed that, in making its selections, it roams freely across genres.

Because the Musical Genome Project's 35 music analysts and programmers are constantly adding more material, Pandora will continue to expand and improve. As the website rather creepily puts it: "Your stations will evolve all by themselves." But Pandora is only one of a clutch of web-based programs which, almost unnoticed, are changing the way we lis- ten to music. Last.fm, for example, is an internet-based program that logs, cross-references and compiles detailed statistics of all the MP3s you listen to. In years to come, marketing departments will find this invaluable, as for the first time they will be able to document an individual's listening habits, as opposed to what they purchase - which is quite a different thing.

Alex Sushon of dot-alt.blogspot.com, which specialises in music, sees a bold future emerging: "Instead of the 'you like rock band A, so you will also inevitably like rock band B' thinking of mainstream platforms like commercial radio, Last.fm makes recommendations for new music based on community listening habits. It's an open-source data-pool that is snowballing into what will in a short time be the single most valuable market research investment for the music industry."

I can hardly count the number of bands I've discovered since Pandora came into my life. Moreover, I've reappraised bands I had previously written off because there simply hadn't been time to listen to them properly (there's a lot of music out there). So, Pennywise, I apologise - you're not just skate punks with bigger shorts than brains. And Canibus - you are more than just a Wu-Tang Clan clone. I'm no musicologist, but if you're standing at a gig any time soon and hear someone tipsily shouting, "Wooo! Brilliant repetitive melodic phrasing, guys," that will be me.

Pandora's Musical Genome Project is at www.pandora.com; Last.fm is available from www.last.fm