Monday, July 24, 2006

The Music Genome Project: Or Follow The Clay Path to New Music

Have you ever wanted to discover some new music . . . but every time you turned on the radio – you heard the same old stuff? I adore music – but discovering new music has been hard. Sometimes I get lucky and I’m listening to an NPR station like WFUV 90.7FM and I hear something different and go “wow” – download some stuff or buy a CD. Sometimes someone will suggest a new artist they think I might like. But “popularity” or big bucks rules the radio waves and great artists exist but can be hard to find.

One day I was listening to Air America and Tim Westergren, the founder of The Music Genome Project was on. He talked about using The Music Genome Project to create a site on the internet where people could people could build their own radio station based on music – not popularity or image. Here’s what Tim says on their website:
Together we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or "genes" into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song - everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It's not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records - it's about what each individual song sounds like.

Pandora is like having your own personal DJ. All the information that was entered into the database was evaluated by musicians. But once the various elements have been analyzed, the computer goes to work. By entering a beginning point – an artist or a song – you are presented with a first song. You say “yes” or “no” to that particular song. If you like it – Pandora will suggest other songs with similar elements. If you don’t like one of the suggestions – the computer will skip and move on to others. You can also add additional singers or songs you like to the station – it will expand the choices.
I found this absolutely fascinating. I love Clay Aiken’s voice. I also love Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Queen, Tim Buckley, Ten Years After. I love jazz, blues, rock, folk – all kinds of music. I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if I started with Clay Aiken and followed the path Pandora set out for me.

I decided to enter Clay Aiken rather than a particular song of his. Of course, all the Music Genome Project has to work with is Clay's MOAM. Pandora came back with No More Sad Songs. I checked to see what the general elements of this song were. Pandora told me it had pop/rock qualities, r&b influences, subtle use of vocal harmony, acoustic rhythm piano, dynamic male vocal. I said “yeah, I like this” and waited for the next song to be played. Duran Duran’s Ordinary World was suggested.

I was curious why this was selected as the second choice so I looked to see why this song was chosen. It said “based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features pop rock qualities, subtle use of vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, acoustic rhythm guitars.” Okay . . . sounds good. Hit I like it.

Next song is by someone I never heard of – Mark Joseph. It played a song called “Fly” from his album Scream. This I like. Hey – I found a new artist to look for. I don’t know if I’ll buy a whole album – but I downloaded that song from ITunes and added it to my iPod.

Next up was Nick Lachey – Sorry . . . nope, don’t like that – please skip. Thanks!

Now they are playing Invisible. Yup – like this song. Play more like this. I check the backstage information about this song. Here’s how they describe it:
Features of this Song
pop rock qualities
a subtle use of vocal harmony
mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation
a clear focus on recording studio production
major key tonality
a dynamic male vocalist
acoustic rhythm guitars
subtle use of acoustic piano

The backstage area of Pandora also makes some suggestions for other songs similar to this in quality:

Love Is Leaving by BBMak

The Summer of My Love by Onlyforward

Everythings Perfect by David Pack

End of Camelot by Peter Cetera

Faithfully by Chris Isaak

Gravity by Embrace

Some I’m familiar with – others not. So I load some samples. Yeah, Love Is Leaving by BBMak – another one to add to my iPod. Never heard of Onlyforward – but like this sample. I’ll have to look for them. I adore Chris Isaak and I’ve already got Faithfully. But I never heard of Embrace. Check out some info on them. Chris Martin of Coldplay played on Gravity. It definitely has that Coldplay feeling— can’t find this on iTunes – so I’ll probably have to listen to samples from the album – just might find another purchase for myself on Amazon.

Now I thought I’d also add something to the mix and see what Pandora comes up with. So I said add some Queen please.

Pandora starts by playing “Tie Your Mother Down”. Good – but I want to know why. So I hit the button to tell me why that song? Well it seems that this song also has subtle use of vocal harmony, major key tonality and dynamic male vocals. Yeah. I always thought Freddy and Clay had dynamic vocals in common. So this gets a thumbs up from me.

Next up – This Is The Night by Clay. Well I do like this song – but I don’t want this particular radio station to become too ballady. So I say “No” to this song and they skip it and give me a song called Come To Me by Eyeinside. Well I’ve never heard of this group - you can get background information from Pandora while you are listening to the songs. This is a Canadian heavy metal group but this particular song is extremely catchy. Great – another new group to look into.

Sarah McLachlen is next – they are playing Adia. I love her and this is gorgeous. It’s interesting to read why they suggest it – but there are musical connections between all these artists. And it’s fascinating to see why I react to certain songs and singers the way I do.

Pandora then suggests Survivor’s "The Search is Over" and Indigo Girls “Andy” but this radio station is now moving too far to the “sensitive” side for my taste – so I say no to both these songs.

Oh, boy that's a switch – “We Will Rock You” is up next. Oh yeah, that’s more like it. But why? So I hit that button and again I’m told there’s mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation and subtle vocal harmonies. We’re in business and this gets a thumbs up. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Loud by Richard X. Heyman. Never heard of him – but this sounds great. So I ask Pandora to tell me more about him. Appears he’s a sadly overlooked pop craftsman of the 90’s but his albums are widely regarded in power pop circles as instant classics. Well I don’t know about the critics – but I really like this tune – so off to iTunes – but they don’t have this particular song. I’m going to have to go back later and listen to the songs they do have – this guy is someone I want to hear more of.

Sammy Hagar is up next – “Make It Alright” – check to see why and Pandora tells me
electric rock instrumentation, subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, a vocal-centric aesthetic, major key tonality, groove based composition, electric rhythm guitars, an emotional male lead vocal performance, upbeat lyrics.
Lots of similar qualities to the other music I like on this station I’m creating – but this one just doesn’t do it for me – so I hit No and wait for the next suggestion.

Something called Down & Dirty by Y and T. Okay. Never heard of them either (how have I missed them?) – but this is really catchy. I can’t believe I didn’t know them in the 80’s . . . but this is good – thumbs up and a note to myself to check out some of their stuff later on Amazon.

Now they are playing something called Nothing Left To Lose by Mat Kearney. Another artist I never heard of . . .but another I really like. Yup – he’s also got the subtle use of harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation and major key tonality. Like Clay Aiken. And this is really really good. Bought on iTunes and added to my iPod.

This is great fun! I'm discovering new artists and also learning a bit about what elements I'm drawn to musically.

OK – guess it’s time for Idol stuff – Kelly Clarkson’s Because of You. I can see the musical similarities as outlined in the information but I don’t need Pandora to tell me about Kelly’s stuff since it’s all over the radio. . . so click No so I’m off to hear something new.

Sammy Hagar again. But this time it’s Mas Tequila. Yeah, I like that. It’s got a hard rock beat but also has the subtle use of vocal harmony, major key tonality and the dynamic male vocals I now know I’m drawn to. Plus some other stuff like dirty electric guitar solo and political satire lyric. Cool.

Next couple of songs – nope don’t work for me – a song by AC/DC and one by Accept – so I say no to those and I get another type of song to listen to. This is more of the indie acoustic singer-songwriter type stuff. Matt Nathanson and a song called “Sing Me Sweet”. Definitely like this and it’s bought on iTunes and added to iPod.

Seriously . . . this is addictive. And what I love is seeing what particular elements of Clay’s songs – like dynamic male vocals, subtle use of vocal harmony, major key tonality and mix of acoustic and electric instrumentation show up in other songs I’m drawn to.

So now I’ve got my pop/rock station I started from Clay Aiken. And every time I go back to Pandora - I can follow that path to new music.

I also spent many more hours playing with other genres. I started one that’s more blues that I used an Eric Clapton song as a jumping off point. Started another station for jazz that started with Andy Bey.

So – if you’re eager to discover new music and bored to tears with listening to the same stuff over and over on the radio – or if you just like the idea of experimentation and finding what elements of music you are particularly drawn to – check the Pandora site out.

One final thing that is definitely worth mentioning. The Music Genome Project doesn't know there's such a thing as genre. It's more sophisticated than that, and so it's not just going to play you any old random country music if you enter Johnny Cash. Instead it rather works off the hundreds of data fields stored about every song and artist. This means you will often be surprised by what you're played. And the surprises for me have been really wonderful.

I cannot wait for Clay's new CD and for his new music to be added to the Music Genome Project. It will be fascinating to do another radio station starting with something from the new album and see where it takes me!

Hey, that’s another thing the Music Genome Project and Clay Aiken have in common – Great Surprises!

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Vox Vixen said...

Very interesting blog. I tried the Pnadora site once, but it I think I was too tired at the time to really listen or absorb the music. I'll have to give it another try. Thanks for the reminder.


lyrichord said...

Never tried this, but it sounds like you had a fun musical journey.

movingsoon said...

Great blog - can't wait to check out Pandora! I have 10 different radio stations programmed into my car radio and sometimes I can't find a single song playing that I want to listen to - satellite radio is sounding better and better to me, since I like LOTS of variety! Pandora sounds like a great way to discover new artists.

pandarose said...

I have a subscription to Pandora and it really is fascinating.