A friend, Mike Weston, directed me to Pandora (www.pandora.com). He said:
"You give them an artist or even just a single song, and they create a station based on that. As things play you can tell them which ones you you like and which you dislike, and they adjust accordingly. Apparently they have been creating this "music genome" for several years, having trained musicians listen to each song and categorize it with hundreds of attributes."
I was intrigued. Websites that match your tastes to music lists are not new (first one I saw was in 1995). The early ones use "collaborative filtering" which matches your tastes to other peoples' and guesses that you will like what they did. It works pretty well but stumbles, especially when you have varied tastes. This one is a lot more sophisticated and engaging. Way cooler than I expected.
Right off the bat, I tossed it a hard one -- "Beatles." It's hard because it tells them nothing much about my tastes. Early, mid, or late Beatles and which of their many styles? Do I like it because it's pop, because of the instrumentation, or a billion other reasons?
It played "Twist and Shout" and then something I never heard of (Sandy Salisbury, "Here Comes that Feeling") which was recognizably similar in musical structure, but bland and uninteresting to me. I gave it a thumbs-down. Then they tossed me an Elton John cut I had never heard ("Who Wears These Shoes") which I liked.
Then "Ticket to Ride" and Fleetwood Mac's "Monday Morning" and Badfinger's "Baby Blue." I like all of these but my station was locked into a narrow groove . So I added some new artists using the items I have rated most highly in my own iTunes collection. I deliberately chose a range (Al DiMeola, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Sarah McLachlan, U2).
It kept coming up with songs I liked, including many that were new to me. The styles varied.
I threw it some slightly whackier choices like Gorillaz, Zero 7, and Shania Twain.
It continues to play a pleasant mix of known and unknown cuts and artists. What I find impressive is how it combines dissimilar music profiles. And I really like how it has found stuff I'd never heard of.
After that second cut, it never gave me anything I did not like!
You can set up "stations" to accommodate different moods and tastes. I could make myself some narrow programs -- jazz, female vocal, aged hippie dinosaur rock -- in addition to the variety mix my first station embodies. I'll experiment some more and see if it continues to work as a benevolent robo-DJ.
Interesting to click on the song and ask "why did you play this song?" They will tell you the common aspects -- e.g. " Based on what you've told us so far, we're playing this track because it features mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, extensive vamping, electric rhythm guitars, and a dynamic female vocalist." The text varies with each song, reporting what in this track resembled the overall profile. Another one from my station, for instance, said that the track "features jazz fusion elements, electric bass playing, unusual rhythms..." Isn't it interesting how it recognized two different styles that I like?
The user interface is very nicely engineered. It doesn't demand you register, instead seducing you to by offering something of value. Pandora is free if you are willing to see ads, $3-4 a month for ad-free.
(Speaking as an Internet marketer, I found the idea engaging in other ways. They have the opportunity to do highly targeted advertising. For instance, you can buy music, and they can aim ads at you based on what you like.)