Wednesday, March 17, 2010


It’s no secret that I like music. Having a house that is wired for sound, we frequently have music playing in the background at home. Technology has only enhanced and increased our listening options. From my first transistor radio (Christmas, 1964), to our stereo turntable “hi-fi” system, to the walkman era, and on and on, we keep fine-tuning our music playing capabilities. We still have a 5-disc CD player and a couple of BOSE Wave Radio/CD players, but now we also have iTunes accounts, mp3 players, and the ability to download and play music right on our computers. My newest technology passion, though, is Pandora radio.

Recently discovered through a friend, this internet based “radio” option has broadened and enhanced my music options almost exponentially. For the uninitiated, let me explain the basics. First, you sign up for a free account at Easy. And did I mention, free! This free membership allows you to listen to 40 hours of music per month. If you think you might listen to more hours than that, you can pay $3 per month for a more premium service and get unlimited hours. Or (and I like this option), if you hit your 40 hour limit prior to the end of the month, you can choose to pay $0.99 (that’s 99 cents) to get unlimited hours for the rest of that month. The premium service does offer a few more benefits, but none that I really care about.

When you log on to Pandora, you’ll find a broad array of “radio” stations, all designed to play a certain genre of music. I’ve tried a couple of the Oldies options, a few from Classical music, one of the Christian stations, and several others. I’ve been very impressed with the music choices. I enjoy the fact that I am only exposed to infrequent (2-3 per hour) very brief and unobtrusive commercials. With the premium service, you have no advertising whatsoever.

Behind the scenes (and I think this is impressive), Pandora radio is like having a huge music library at your fingertips. While you are unable to play or repeat a specific song on demand (like you can with music you own), Pandora’s logic finds music you like. The complex model behind Pandora was developed by a group of computer savvy music majors at a large university. Based on input you provide as music plays, your “stations” get refined to play more and more of what you like, and less and less of what you don’t care for. As music plays, you can choose to give a particular song the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”. Through this process, you can begin to customize what you like to listen to. Thumbs down blocks that song from ever being played again on that station. Thumbs up causes the model to look for other music with similar attributes that you may like. Over time, you wind up with some very personalized stations to listen to.

One feature I particularly like is the ability to create a custom station from scratch. Start by naming a song or artist, and the model goes to work finding music by the named artist or similar to the named song. As you continue to name songs and artists for your station, Pandora will also make suggestions of other artists to add. I spent some time reading about the logic behind the Pandora model, and it’s really impressive. Sometimes it selects music that I don’t care for, but most often I get to listen to artists and songs I never would have thought about, or perhaps never heard of.

On those days when I don’t want to listen to just one kind of music, I can set up a “Quick Mix” which allows me to select several stations at once and blend the music choices from all of them, for a more eclectic music mix for the day. And while the music is playing, you have access to all kinds of information about the song and the artist. I’ve had some fun learning more about music and artists that I’ve enjoyed for years, yet actually knew very little about.

Over the years, we’ve bought hundreds of CD’s, and I suspect we’ll continue purchasing music we like, either a song at a time on iTunes, or the actual CD’s. But I have to say that listening to and refining these custom stations on Pandora Radio has been a huge enhancement to my music listening choices. I recommend that you give it a try.