Two of Pandora’s musicologists reveal just how much goes into making your Pandora station so personalized

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Presented by Pandora

If you’re like us, you know the value in being able to find quality tunes when you need them. Forget trawling through Internet wormholes: Pandora’s music discovery is much more intuitive and powerful. You don’t realise it until you actually try it yourself.

Founded in 2000, Pandora is a streaming service with a difference – you don’t pick the music. Instead, the intuitive platform selects music for you based on your original song or artist selection. It’s kind of like a radio station, except that you really like every song you hear.

In fact, you can make your music more personalized than you thought was possible, just by using your thumbs. No, your computer isn’t working voodoo magic on you. Pandora knows what you want to hear (before you know what you want to hear) because of its secret weapon: the Music Genome Project. And by thumbing songs up or down you, can teach it more about your particular tastes in music.

Matty working in the Pandora office

Matty Newton

Conceived by Will Glaser and Tim Westergren around the time of Pandora’s inception, the Music Genome Project utilises a team of expert musicologists to classify music according to over 400 attributes. Through user feedback (you provide thumbs up/down for tunes that you are/aren’t digging), Pandora is able to tweak which musical attributes you most like – serving you songs via a complex mathematical algorithm that align with your tastes.

To find out more about the Music Genome Project, we spoke with Pandora’s Australian-based musicologist, Matty Newton, as well as a US-based musicologist, Chris Horgan.

Pandora has a pretty awesome ‘secret sauce’, the Music Genome project, which categorises music by at least 400 musical attributes. What further light can you shed on how this actually works, using a popular song as a reference point?

MATTY: “The Music Genome project is a group of highly skilled musicians who listen very closely to every song that is on Pandora and manually breaks them apart into all of their unique elements; the tonality, the instrumentation and the content of the lyrics.

“For example, if we look at the latest single from The Veronicas – In My Blood – we can see that it features romantic lyrics, repetitive melodic phrasing with subtle vocal harmonies, build ups, breakdowns, extensive vamping, hi-hat upbeats, and so on.

For artists, this means we can share their music with the people most likely to love it.

“We then take all of this information and use it to connect the listener with music they’ll love based on other music they love. For artists, this means we can share their music with the people most likely to love it.”

CHRIS: “Let’s take This Is What You Came For (Feat. Rihanna) by Calvin Harris, a decidedly pop-focused affair with strong electronic influences. Rhythmically, it’s anchored by bright handclaps and a strong 4-on-the-floor kick drum that’s juxtaposed with the hemiola-centric synth riff.

“We’d analyse this highly danceable song by scoring the drums as un-syncopated and the other instruments as significantly syncopated. The harmony is quite simple, to better focus on the build-ups and catchy sampled vocal chorus – a la Lean On by Major Lazer and Let Me Love You by DJ Snake.

“From an analysis perspective, we’d want to lean heavily on our build-up/breakdown and chorus impact genes, and a bit less on sampled vocals, which are mainly present for the chorus.

Matty Newton

“The instrumentation is solidly synthetic, with some nods to the acoustic influences brought in by tropical house – namely the affected piano and heavily delayed marimba layered in the background.

Chris Horgan Drumss

Chris Horgan

“Luckily, the Music Genome Project is so vast we can precisely describe the disparate influences in this EDM track.

“While these are just a few of the hundreds of characteristics we’ve culled from This is What You Came For, we’d also need to make note of the lyrics, which are light-hearted, with a hint of sexuality and hopefulness. After all, every listener is hopeful they’ll get just what they came for – a great tune!”

In terms of acting as a discovery platform, why is it so important for Pandora to filter music by ‘mood’ and ‘musical traits’, as opposed to less esoteric indicators that some other so-called discovery platforms trumpet?

MATTY: “Every listener on the planet has a unique set of musical tastes that extend beyond artists or genres. By focusing on musical traits, we are able to accurately identify music that people will probably like – based on all of the music they’ve told us that they do or don’t like in the past.

“Also, it’s important to note that one in ten songs we play will be a track that they’ve never heard before, so we are really focused on helping people discover great new music.”

CHRIS: “The practice of putting music into simplistic buckets like ‘genre’ is an effective, but un-artful – and rather shallow – method of understanding the extremely diverse world of music. We use genre as a tiny part of our system of music analysis, but I’d say we are more interested in what makes two songs similar, than in what makes them different.

Every listener on the planet has a unique set of musical tastes that extend beyond artists or genres

“Our musicological approach allows us to not only learn about each song’s unique musical identity, but also about the musical preferences of individual listeners in terms of things like instrumentation, rhythmic feel, vocal tone, harmony, and more.

“This is an invaluable tool in our pursuit of providing an excellent, personalised experience for all of our listeners, and it’s something unique that really sets us apart from our competition.”

How deep does your own musical knowledge need to run to be able to do this job effectively? All genres? All eras? How did you become versed enough in music to work for Pandora as a musicologist?

MATTY: “We’re agnostic in regards to genre at Pandora – we don’t mind if it’s soft jazz or death metal. We believe that there is an audience for every kind of music, so it’s important for me to have a broad understanding of all musical genres and the history of music.

Headphone cable

Matty Newton

“It’s also very important for me to have a good knowledge of the musical ‘climate’ – what’s happening in the music scene, and what trends are rising or falling.

“A good song is always going to be a good song, but sometimes the context can change and that makes a particular song super relevant at a particular time.

“I’ve always been fascinated by music, bands and artists. I’ve also been reading street press and album reviews, and making mix-tapes for my friends since I was a little kid. So I guess I’ve ended up in the right spot.”

CHRIS: “Every Pandora music analyst is also a working musician in some capacity. The team is a multi-faceted cast of characters, most of whom specialise in a set of musical genres.

A good song is always going to be a good song, but sometimes the context can change and that makes a particular song super relevant at a particular time

“Many of us have some tangible credential like a degree in music performance, theory, history, or pedagogy, but I think the most common denominator among us is that we are musicians who habitually listen with an analytical ear because of a life-long avocational love affair with music.

“When we listen to a piece of music, we want to know exactly what is going on. How do I play the part on my instrument? How is the drum part fitting to the meter? How many vocal harmony parts are there? How does this fit into the evolutionary timeline of music history?

“I think every Pandora music analyst is a person who has spent a great deal of their own time working through this listening process.”

Matty Newton Smiling

Matty Newton

Walk us through a typical day as a Pandora Musicologist?

MATTY: “Wake up and immediately make a very strong coffee. Review Australian Music press and blogs. Review emails from all the record labels with current priority/feature tracks. Listen to new Australian/New Zealand (ANZ) music and sort it into genres for playlisting. Work on mixtapes/stations for various purposes, adding new Australian/New Zealand music where possible. Meet with a band or manager and share some information about AMP – our Artist Marketing Platform. Head out to a show.”

CHRIS: “Wash off the grunge from last night’s gig. Sit down with a laptop and don my headphones. Select a group of songs to analyse. This could be new releases, independent submissions, and so on. Start analysing! Needle drops give us a birds-eye-view of instrumentation, rhythmic feel, vocal character, and more. Next, I listen through the song completely, several times, to precisely track details like melodic arc, exact harmonic progression, and nuances of form. Then I fit in several minutes to review QA results and other administrative tasks that I use to ensure high accuracy. Close the laptop and head out to rehearsal!”

Matty Newton

What does Pandora do for up and coming Australian artists? How do you try and break them overseas using Pandora?

MATTY: “My entire focus as Australian and New Zealand Music Editor is to assist Australian and New Zealand-based artists in making sure that their music is available on Pandora and streaming to our combined audience of 81 million listeners.

“We review all new Australian music and distribute priority songs to our larger team of American-based curators and musicologists. We also make sure that all important new Australian music is flagged as a priority with the company as a whole.”

CHRIS: “Once added to Pandora’s library, up-and-coming Australian artists are heard alongside musically similar artists in all territories where Pandora operates and by listeners everywhere who have demonstrated an affinity for similar music.

“One of the principle goals of our Music Genome Project is to level the playing field for the long tail of artists who are trying to find an audience, wherever they’re from.

This type of democratic radio experience is something new to the music industry

“Through our process of music analysis, we gain an understanding of the objective and audible musical traits of each song, which allows us to present it to the most relevant audience no matter the popularity.

“Pandora doesn’t promote one artist over another, and we don’t promise success to all artists, but we can promise a level playing field and a chance to be heard.

Pandora Notebook

“Ultimately it’s up to our listeners to decide what they hear by voting with their thumbs up and thumbs down. This type of democratic radio experience is something new to the music industry.

“There is no way for an artist to buy success on Pandora. Instead, the way to succeed is to make great music that resonates with people – which is not an easy task by any means!”

In order to help you discover some new music, we’ve invited four inspiring Australian creatives to put some Pandora stations together for you. Keep an eye out for them as they hit Lost At E Minor over the coming weeks. But in the meantime, are you ready to make your perfect station now? Give it a try now here or check out a sneak peak of a custom one created for us by Aussie songwriter, Lenka.

Photos of Matty Newton by James Daly