SURF THIS: Radio Free Me: Opening Pandora’s musical box

Keywords Technology

If you’re a parent of a pre-teen, you’ll both understand and appreciate the following sentiment: I’m really sick of Radio Disney.

This is why I normally listen to talk radio. But there are times when I can’t take any more of the right (Boortz, Beck, etc.) the left (NPR) or the egos (you know who you are.)

That’s when I found Pandora and now that I’ve opened the box, I just can’t see going back.

First, a little background.

Way back in January 2000, a group of musicians and “music-loving technologists” set out to capture the essence of music at its most fundamental level and create the most comprehensive analysis of music ever. Their Music Genome Project involved listening to songs and then cataloging an extraordinary number of attributes about each and every piece of music encountered.

A trained musical analyst analyzes each song in the Music Genome Project using up to 400 distinct musical characteristics. These musical “genes” encompass rhythm, harmony, instrumentation, vocals… essentially, like the human genes that served as the inspiration, everything that makes a song a song. The result turned into a kind of roadmap of attributes that could be used to describe any type or iteration of music.

With this roadmap, they found that they could help determine exactly what it is about certain music that appeals to certain people. For instance, if they know you like “Cats in the Cradle” and “Comfortably Numb,” they could look for like attributes of each to narrow down exactly what you find appealing. And the more they listened, and the more they were able to fine-tune the results, the better they became at predictive modeling. And Pandora was born, with the lofty goal of playing music you’ll love, and nothing else.

Pandora ( is a radio station that you can program. You simply give it a little information to start with (“I like Billy Joel”) and Pandora will create a continuous, commercial-free playlist made of songs with attributes similar to Billy Joel’s music. As it plays, it let’s you fine-tune the results by instantly offering simple thumbs up or down ratings for each song. (In fact, if you give a song an unfavorable rating it instantly stops playing and moves to the next song in the queue. Try that with Radio Disney.)

Interested in why a particular song was chosen? You’ll get a response something like “we’re playing this track because it features a subtle use of vocal harmony, a twelve-eight time signature, a vocal-centric aesthetic and string section beds.” It’s a little creepy, them knowing better than I what type of music I like…

The site offers some other necessary functionality. You can buy music instantly from iTunes or Amazon, get more information about an artist, or fine-tune the controls to help improve the predictive function. It’s such a great way to find new artists and music that you’re likely to like, that you’ll often find yourself checking in just to see who and what you’re listening to.

Just so you don’t feel tethered to your computer, Pandora Mobile is available on the go through a partnership with both AT&T and Sprint, and you can get it piped into your home with either Logitech or Sonos technology.

The problem, in my opinion, is this: if I can create a continuous playlist of new music that I’m probably going to like, why would I buy the music? I’m led to one conclusion: eventually this won’t be free and they’ll need to move to a subscription model to make it work. But for now it is free, and it is unbelievably great.

This is one Pandora’s box you’ll find yourself opening again and again.

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at

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