Mon, Jan 09, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Music for the masses

Innovation has been the mother of democratization for music, which makes finding suitable new tunes difficult

By Mark Lupton  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

There is an argument that technological innovations over the past 25 years have democratized music. Get yourself a laptop and some cheap (or free) software and you can make the kind of composition that would once have cost Pink Floyd a fortune. Music -- electronic music in particular -- is finally for the masses. But the net result has been a proliferation in the sheer amount of music now available.

Unsurprisingly, it isn't all good.

All of which has made the task of finding something you love that bit harder. The old answers -- riffling through your elder sibling's LP collection or tuning into pirate radio -- won't suffice. Record shops, after all, list alphabetically or by broad genre, not "X sounds like Y."

The Internet's potential is obvious. Amazon will tell you that "customers who bought this also bought..." and allows customers to create lists they can share. Apple's iTunes store has a "listeners also bought..." and a recommen-dation system that suggests "You bought X, you might like Y."

Web sites such as and draw on the knowledge of a team of music writers to point users in the direction of things they might like, as well as offering sample clips.

Now, though, there are signs of more sophisticated attempts to recommend music based on individuals' unique tastes. While each has flaws, and the technology is in its infancy, the development could point the way to something wonderful.

Creating a stir online since its launch in August is Pandora (, an offshoot of the Music Genome Project, set up in 2000 by a group of musicians and music technologists who wanted to create "the most comprehensive analysis of music ever."

Treating music choice as an objective science rather than a subjective artform, the team assembled a database of more than 70,000 songs by more than 10,000 artists and is used by Pandora to guide listeners to music they might like. You go to the site (you'll have to give it a US ZIP code, as the rules insist you must live in the US, but it can be fooled) and are invited to create a "radio station" by picking a tune or artist you like. The site then picks songs with similar musical qualities such as form of melody,

harmony and rhythm, instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics and so on. A simple thumbs up or down tells the program if the choices are right or wrong. (Two thumbs down for a particular artist banishes them from that "station." But you can create multiple stations, on different genres.) The results can veer wildly, though generally, the broader the range you enter, the more likely you will approve of the output.

"It's quite fun just putting it on when you're doing something else but I'm not sure I would use it as a music recommen-dation site yet," music writer John Mullen said. "It's a bit too random. And I really don't like its pretensions that it is offering some kind of universal truth about music.

"It just got it wrong for me too often. For example, I put in Nirvana and it was playing bands that would make Kurt Cobain turn in his grave. It's a bit crude. Often, bands that are similar on paper using their method aren't alike in reality. You could say Radiohead and Pink Floyd have similar musical `genes' but really they create incredibly different music."

Pandora is also flawed to the extent that users' personal stations, by definition, are narrowly defined.

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