Streaming music, made your way

Sitting around my office, I often play streaming music. Sometime last fall, I discovered Pandora, and I’ve been addicted ever since.

Pandora calls itself “a music discovery service designed to help you find and enjoy music that you’ll love,” and that is precisely why it is addictive — it takes information about artists and music you know you like and introduces you to others with similar “musical genomes.” In fact, it is run by something called The Music Genome Project, a group of musicians and technologists who attempt to chart the “genes” of music by analyzing melody, harmony and rhythm, instrumentation, orchestration, lyrics and vocals.

Sounds highly technical, but, blissfully, it isn’t. Start by providing the name of an artist or song. Based on that single input, Pandora creates a “radio station,” following with other songs that are musically similar. You can steer this somewhat by providing feedback on songs you like or do not like. In the process, you will hear some familiar songs and be introduced to others.

My first foray into Pandora was to create a Son Seals radio station. Pandora played Seals’ song, “I Can’t Hold Out,” then told me it was going to start exploring other songs and artists with similar musical qualities. Next up was The Senders, “If Walls Could Talk,” followed by “Some Folks Like to Steal” by The Kentucky Headhunters and “Kansas City” by Albert King. At any point, you can tell it whether or not you like a song or ask it why it chose a song. It picked “Kansas City,” it told me, because of its “blues rock qualities, mild rhythmic syncopation, demanding instrumental part writing, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation and major key tonality.”

Later, I created the Allen Toussaint radio station. From that followed songs from Jerry McCain, The Gap Band, McFadden & Whitehead, The Temptations, Z.Z. Hill, Mary Wells, K.C. & The Sunshine Band, Little Milton, Keb’ Mo’, The Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder and even — much to my surprise — Ruben Studdard. When I asked why it was playing a song by The Contours, Pandora replied: “Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features acoustic rhythm piano, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, a busy horn section, a vocal-centric aesthetic and major key tonality.” Uh-huh.

Once you’ve created a station, you can save it, edit it and even e-mail it to a friend.

What’s it cost? Nada. Zilch. If you opt for the advertising-supported version, it is entirely free. If you prefer to avoid ads, you can opt for the subscription version at $12 for three months or $36 for a year. Except for the ads, the two versions are identical. As David Pogue reported recently, Pandora is also available for Squeezebox.