How Does Pandora Work?


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With over 250 million users, Pandora is by far the most popular Internet radio service in the world. However, it works differently than most other online music services, which can be confusing for new users.
Pandora is part of the “Music Genome Project” – a massive undertaking to classify thousands of tracks based on their musical attributes. Each song that Pandora plays has been analyzed by a musician (a process which takes at least 20 minutes per track), and classified using over 400 different “genes.”
For example, let’s take the song “Let It Be,” by The Beatles. The “genes” selected to represent this track include…

  • gospel influences

  • interweaving vocal harmony

  • prominent organ

  • the subtle use of a horn section

  • an electric guitar solo

  • intricate melodic phrasing

  • an emotional male lead vocal performance

…among dozens of others. So when creating a station based off of this song, Pandora isn’t necessarily playing Beatles music. Instead, it’s playing other songs that match this musical genetic profile. (Of course, the Beatles happened to record dozens of songs similar to "Let It Be," so it may seem like Pandora isn’t doing much at first).

Unlike most other online radio stations, the songs Pandora plays for you have nothing to do with what other people have liked. Instead, the “like” and “dislike” buttons on tracks just add to the genome profile of the station you’ve built.
So, let’s say our “Let It Be” station plays “Imagine” by John Lennon next. But we’re not a fan of the song. While the two tracks share many “genes”, here’s a few that “Imagine” doesn’t share with “Let It Be”:

  • mellow rock instrumentation

  • political lyrics

  • folk influences

Disliking the track removes other songs that highlight these attributes. Over time, and with enough feedback, Pandora should be able to fairly accurately pick songs you’ll enjoy.
Of course, this is a very simplified explanation - the Music Genome Project is organized by complex mathematical formulas that remain a trade secret.
Are you a Pandora listener? Has Pandora’s genome system worked for you? Let us know!