I had Pandora playing on my iPad while showering and getting dressed this morning, and I marveled at this sequence:
On Pandora, my Radiohead station just played “Paint It Black,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “The Wind Cries Mary.” Interesting…
— Brad Warthen (@BradWarthen) November 15, 2014
What did those tracks have to do with Radiohead? When I listen to Pandora on my laptop, there’s a place where I can click to answer the question, “Why was this track selected?” I don’t see how to do that on the iPad app, though.
After that Tweet, I continued to be mystified by Dylan’s “Temporarily Like Achilles.” What really blew my mind, though, was that it was followed by Leon Russell’s “Shootout On the Plantation.
Dylan, maybe. Beatles, OK. Even the Stones. But Leon Russell?
Even when I can check, the answer to the question doesn’t help me much. Here are songs I heard later on the same station on my laptop, together with the “explanations:”
A Salty Dog by Procol Harum
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features acoustic rock instrumentation, folk influences, mild rhythmic syncopation, thru composed melodic style and acoustic rhythm piano.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Live) by George Harrison
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features electric rock instrumentation, blues influences, gospel influences, intricate melodic phrasing and thru composed melodic style.
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall by Leon Russell
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features basic rock song structures, blues influences, gospel influences, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation and acoustic rhythm piano.
Under The Bridge by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features a subtle use of vocal harmony, repetitive melodic phrasing, major key tonality, electric rhythm guitars and a dynamic male vocalist.
For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield
Based on what you’ve told us so far, we’re playing this track because it features acoustic rock instrumentation, folk influences, call and answer vocal harmony (antiphony), demanding instrumental part writing and repetitive melodic phrasing.
To me, these explanations are non-explanations. The commonalities are just so generic, in pop music. What matters to me, though, is that I like all the songs. Pandora is able to go, “You, Brad Warthen, like this, so we think you’ll like this other, too.” And they’re so often right.
But Netflix, which has thousands of ratings from me to go by, is still befuddled as to what I’ll really like. Almost never does it suggest something I haven’t seen before, and then when I watch it, I think, “Wow, that was awesome; I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. Thanks, Netflix!”
Almost never. And yet, it happens all the time with Pandora.
What is it — is musical taste easier to predict, because of fewer variables? I don’t know…
Obviously, though, Pandora doesn’t get me in EVERY way. It keeps showing me Viagra and Cialis ads, and inviting me to date women over 50. Oh, and by the way, the women in those ads are NOT over 50…
Both of their recommendation engines are “secret sauce” so they’re a bit opaque. One interesting component is that every (or, at least, nearly every) song Pandora plays has been scored along 450 different axes, or “genes” (which are the sorts of things it tells you like “gospel influences”). As you rate music, the algorithm figures out which of those 450 genes you actually like based on your ratings of other songs and what their genes are. Pandora calls it the Music Genome Project and it seems to work fairly well.
Netflix does a similar degree of classification but, as you’ve noticed, it doesn’t work nearly as well.
My guess is that their film library is simply a lot smaller than Pandora’s song library so the classification ends up being too narrow. There just aren’t that many “British Movies about Royalty based on Books” so once you’ve seen all of them, knowing that you like that category stops being useful. You’re a lot more likely to want to hear “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” again some day than you are to ever want to re-watch both Dangerous Exile and The Return of the Muskateers” over and over.
Thanks for the great explanation, James!
For music,try Spotify.
I like this a little more than,A Whiter Shade of Pale,probably because I haven’t heard it as often,and this is a great version-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHnLwSIwhzM
I bet you rate your Netflix watches with the same quirkiness you pride yourself on in other areas of life. You confound their algorithm.
PS, don’t waste your time on The Politician’s Husband. The first episode is five stars, with each successive one losing a a star, in our book. It ends up more Lifetime than House of Cards…