Music as Data, and the Wisdom of the Crowd

The Conversation:

The Musical Genome, the algorithm behind Pandora, sifts through 450 pieces of information about the sound of a recording. For example, a song might feature the drums as being one of the loudest components of the sound, compared to other features of the recording. That measurement is a piece of data that can be incorporated into the larger model. Pandora uses these data to help listeners find music that is similar in sound to what they have enjoyed in the past.

This approach upends the 20th-century assumptions of genre. For example, a genre such as classic rock can become monolithic and exclusionary. Subjective decisions about what is and isn’t “rock” have historically been sexist and racist.

With Pandora, the sound of a recording becomes much more influential. Genre is only one of 450 pieces of information that’s being used to classify a song, so if it sounds like 75 percent of rock songs, then it likely counts as rock.

Meanwhile, Shazam began as an idea that turned sound into data. The smartphone app takes an acoustic fingerprint of song’s sound to reveal the artist, song title and album title of the recording. When a user holds his phone toward a speaker playing a recording, he quickly learns what he is hearing.

The listening habits of Shazam’s 120 million active users can be viewed in real time, by geographic location. The music industry now can learn how many people, when they heard a particular song, wanted to know the name of the singer and artist. It gives real-time data that can shape decisions about how – and to whom – songs are marketed, using the preferences of the listeners. Derek Thompson, a journalist who has examined data’s affects on the music industry, has suggested that Shazam has shifted the power of deciding hits from the industry to the wisdom of a crowd.