Opening Up Pandora’s Box

Opening Up Pandora’s Box

I am having a surreal experience at the moment. I am creating my own radio station of sorts. As I listen, I am being analyzed to find out my musical tastes so that I can have my very own customized play list, void of any musical irritations to my ears.

I am at, a fairly recent invention that is a take-off of the feature of “If you liked this item, may I suggest the following?” Here, with a couple of clicks one can hear a series of selections in a variety of genres: rock, jazz, hip-hop, Latin, electronic, with classical music to come. As each piece plays you can rate it, saying: “Yes I like it” or “No, toss it off!” You can even select a submenu which allows you to organize the song into different stations, read about it, and even buy it from Amazon or iTunes. Besides rating, a listener is asked to provide everything from one’s email address to geographical location, age, and gender. However, your privacy is protected. Also, no in depth description of your taste in styles is asked, as the site does that analysis for you.

How is this done? Here in the Bay Area lies Pandora’s headquarters, where dozens of musicians and music analysists are housed, sitting at their PCs, listening to CD after CD. All have extensive background in their music expertise, and care is taken as to not weigh the employees’ preferences into the categorizations. Instead, they use over 100 parameters to figure out what music you are interested in hearing based on rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, textural, and structural characteristics, where the music is from, what the instrumentation is, and what the general mood of the music is.

This trips me out. The thought of having my special own radio station sounds fantastic. However, the idea that my tastes can be defined by an algorithm based upon an absolute set of parameters does somewhat unsettle me. While things like, harmonic language, tempo, form, and instrumentation are easily defined, just because I love one piece with a certain list of these traits does not necessarily mean I may like another with the same attributes. Right now, Pandora has no “classical” or “contemporary” library. But, it is in the works. With its launch, my music along with that of hundreds more “serious composers” will be available for addition to one’s radio station. Where will I be listed? Only in contemporary? Will that knock out my pieces for Baroque instruments, thus not made available to Baroque enthusiasts, who, in the past have really enjoyed these works? What about my pieces that integrate elements of different styles, from ambient to gospel? Where are they going to go? Will the weight of some analysts’ observations outweigh some others, thus segregating some music from listeners who, in my opinion, may have been a more receptive listener? Even if a work may have multiple listenings, as the composer, I may have a bias to where I wish for my music to be housed, one that cannot be obtained by a set of absolutes. Where will you be, so I can enjoy your music, too? Tune in to see the results of this fascinating view of the future.

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Opening Up Pandora’s Box

  1. Aeterna

    Out of curiosity, I checked the site out, and got profoundly bored after a few songs. I think the trouble is that this program starts from one song, and then tries to find every song that’s exactly like the first one, so you end up with no variety whatsoever.

    I’d prefer the opposite approach. Start with everything, and have the listener decide, “yes, I like it” or “no, it sucks”, and if you don’t like a song, other songs like that would then be less likely to be played (I say less likely because, who knows? you might end up loving a song that’s very similar to another one you hated.)

  2. mryan

    O.K., just for fun I put in “John Cage” and immediately got one of my favorite bits of experimental music: The Opening Credits to Forbidden Planet. This was followed by In Den Garten Pharos, a soundscape by Popol Vuh. Just a thread connects these, but enough to keep my interest. A great way to explore unusual music.

    All the best,
    M. Ryan Taylor


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