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November 21, 2008

Pandora's (Music) Box

This Extra Ink was written by our intern, Betsy C.

Every once in a while, I come across a website that changes the way I operate. At this particular moment, that website is Pandora, a completely customizable online radio station of behemoth proportions.

If you go making assumptions based on your knowledge of Greek mythology (and I certainly applaud you if you can make those assumptions!), I should tell you that I believe Pandora is appropriately named: just opening an account here will open the musical floodgates and will introduce you to an unlimited number of musicians- some you know and love and others picked out especially for you.

I understood the site mechanics right away--I set up my account (which is totally free and easy) and entered the names of a few of my favorite bands. Pandora then created custom 'radio stations' based on each band or song, playing those artists specifically but also added other musicians who are similar to my favorites in some way.

What I didn't get at first was how a computer program could be so miraculously good at figuring out what kind of music I would like. I've entered about a dozen bands and musicians into my profile and, just based on that data, it's came up with some of my other favorite bands AND introduced me to some new, obscure, completely fabulous music too. As a college DJ, I don't know how I lived without Pandora up until now. It's like my own personal, musically-minded Yoda.

After a little digging I discovered that Pandora is the child prodigy of a much larger effort: the Music Genome Project. A few years ago the project began when a bunch of musicians, mathematicians, and other people whom I now consider supremely smart and super cool got together to try and better understand the way music is understood and categorized. They came up with a plethora of music 'genes' like "major tonality" or "vocal-centric aesthetic" and those musical genes were used to code the 'DNA' of each individual band or song. That's what makes Pandora seem almost psychic: they code each user's musical DNA, too, and use it to find your favorite bands' long-lost relatives. Who knew that Mike Doughty's Band and The Decemberists were cousins? I could have told you I like both those groups, but the Music Genome project lets me know exactly why and how they're related.

There's one more reason why Pandora is such an appropriate name for this genius project, and I bet you can guess what it is. You'll find the same thing that waited at the bottom of Pandora's box at this site, just in a slightly catchier, almost frighteningly intuitive form. And maybe minus the wings.

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