Clio: the algorithmic Music Genome Project

Ronny Kerr · May 18, 2011 · Short URL:

Orpheus Media Research working on a music discovery platform based in machine learning

If you’re even a little tech-savvy, you’ve probably heard of the Music Genome Project, the technology that powers all of Pandora’s radio stations. The Project aims to break music down to its basic “genes,” an effort intended to find those fundamental elements that make a pop song sound like pop and a jazz tune sound like jazz.

What you probably didn’t know, however, is that the Music Genome Project requires literal manpower to classify all those tracks in Pandora’s library. That’s right: “seasoned, highly-trained analysts” sit down with every single song, one by one, categorizing them by way of hundreds of different musical attributes, from structure and composition to lyrical content.

As you can imagine, having real, live human musicologists analyzing music might be a great way of building an intelligent music recommendation system, but it’s not really scalable. Consider that Pandora currently has 850,000 songs in its system, versus the 10 million songs on Rhapsody, a music subscription service.

In direct contrast to Pandora’s approach, let me introduce Orpheus Media Research (OMR), a Brooklyn-based music research and development company responsible for Clio Music, a music discovery platform that sounds a lot more like IBM’s Watson but for music.

Last week, I got a chance to talk on the phone with two people leading the charge at OMR: Greg Wilder, founder and Chief Science Officer (amazing title), and Alison Conard, COO.

“We’re talking about machine learning and algorithms,” says Wilder, who describes himself as a Pianist/Composer/Theorist-Turned-Entrepreneur/Technologist.

Naturally, I had to ask whether Pandora maybe had an advantage in using people to classify songs in its library. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a person, not a computer, recommend a song to you?

Wilder, however, insists that the brilliance of Clio is that it actually “listens to elements in a song that a person would listen to. There are limitations in our own brain that help us listen to music and distinguish different artists,” and Clio’s technology exploits those limitations.

What is the melody doing? What are the melodic hooks that make the music recognizable? What is the bass player doing? How is the drum machine or drummer affecting the mood? What specific grooves does the rhythm section use?

And on and on.

“We haven't been able to trust computers yet because it hasn't worked yet,” said Conard. “We have a system we believe people will be able to trust.”

Clio just launched, but it builds on Myna Music, a platform that beta launched in the fall. In terms of application, OMR is first looking to the production music industry, a “shadowy world” that Wilder tells me accounts for approximately a third of the entire music industry. Think music in TV commercials, sitcoms, movie trailers and advertising, and you instantly know what he’s talking about.

Right now, finding the right song involves matching a search with manually-entered keywords, like “romance” or “drama.” Clio is much more intelligent than that.

The potential use for Clio, though, is unlimited. Though it isn’t a consumer-facing service itself, tons of emerging Web music services--MOG, Rdio, Slacker, Google Music, even Pandora--might all be using Clio’s music discovery technology some day.

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Ronny Kerr

I am a professional writer with a decade of experience in the technology industry. At VatorNews, I cover the zero-waste economy, venture capital, and cannabis. I'm also available for freelance hire.

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Pandora, the leading internet radio service, gives people music they love
anytime, anywhere, through a wide variety of connected devices: laptop and
desktop computers, smartphones, connected BluRay players, connected TVs,
etc. Personalized stations launch instantly with the input of a single “seed” –
a favorite artist, song or genre. The Music Genome Project®, a deeply
detailed, hand-built musical taxonomy, powers the personalization or
Pandora. Using this musicological “DNA” and constant listener feedback
Pandora crafts personalized stations from the more than 800,000 songs that
have been analyzed since the project began in January 2000.
More than 75 million people throughout the United States listen to
personalized radio stations for free on Pandora through their PCs, mobile
phones and devices such as the iPad, and connected in-house devices
ranging from TVs to set-top boxes to Blu-Ray players. Mobile technology has
been a significant factor in the growth and popularity of Pandora, starting
with the introduction of the Apple app store for the iPhone in the summer of
2008. Pandora instantly became one of the most top downloaded apps and
today, according to Nielsen, is one of the top five most popular apps across
all smartphone platforms.

Pandora is free, simple and, thanks to connectivity, available everywhere
consumers are – at the office, at home, in the car and all points in between.
In 2009 the Company announced that Pandora would be incorporated into
the dashboard in Ford cars via SYNC technology; GM has already followed in
announcing plans to integrate Pandora into its vehicles and Mercedes-Benz
introduced their Media Interface Plus device that works with the
free Pandora iPhone app to provide direct control of Pandora from in-dash
stereo controls. This was all great news for the millions of Pandora listeners
who had been plugging their smartphones into car dashboards to listen to
personalized stations while driving. More than 50 percent of radio listening
happens in the car, making it a crucial arena for Pandora.

Today tens of millions of people have a deeply personal connection with
Pandora based on the delight of personalized radio listening and discovery.
These highly engaged listeners reinforce the value Pandora provides to: 1)
musicians, who have found in Pandora a level playing field on which their
music has a greater chance of being played than ever before; 2) advertisers,
who benefit from the multi-platform reach of Pandora, as well as its best
practices in targeting consumers for specific campaigns; 3) the music
industry, which has found in Pandora a highly effective distribution channel;
and 4) automobile and consumer electronics device manufacturers, who have
noted that incorporating Pandora into their product makes it more valuable
to consumers.

Pandora continues to focus on its business in the United States. The radio
arena has never been hotter, thanks to technology that enables radio to be
personalized to the individual and more accessible than ever before. Right
now millions of people listen to Pandora in the United States and we hope
someday to bring Pandora to billions of people around the world.

• 2000 – Tim Westergren’s Music Genome Project begins.
• 2005 – Pandora launches on the web.
• 2008 – Pandora app becomes one of the most consistently downloaded
apps in the Apple store.
• 2009 – Ford announces Pandora will be incorporated into car
dashboard. Alpine and Pioneer begin selling aftermarket radios that
connect to consumers’ iPhones and puts the control and command of
Pandora into the car dashboard.
• 2010 – Pandora is present on more than 200 connected consumer
electronics devices ranging from smartphones to TVs to set-top boxes
to Blu-ray players and is able to stream visual, audio, and interactive
advertising to computers, smartphones, iPads, and in-home connected