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Playing Music on Pandora

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Pandora is one of the largest streaming music services on the Internet, with more than 250 million users. In this article, best-selling technology writer Michael Miller shows you how Pandora works and helps you get the most of this popular service on your computer and on your mobile device.
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Want to listen to your favorite music? Don't want to purchase a CD or pay to download a track from iTunes? Then tune into Pandora Radio with your computer or mobile device, and dial in the type of music you want to hear. Pandora does the rest, creating a custom station based on your tastes and streaming it to you, for free, over the Internet.

How Pandora Works

When it comes to listening to music online, there are two primary types of delivery services. The first model, typified by Spotify, lets you specify which songs you want to listen to; we call these on-demand services, and you typically pay a monthly subscription price to listen.

In contrast with on-demand streaming music services, the second type of service, typified by Pandora, doesn't let you call up specific songs. Instead, you have to listen to whatever the service beams out—like listening to traditional AM or FM radio.

That said, Pandora (http://www.pandora.com) gives you some degree of control over what you listen to. Although you can't dial up specific songs, you can create your own personalized music stations, based on songs or artists you specify. (Figure 1 shows a personalized station on Pandora.)

Figure 1 Listening to a personalized music station on Pandora

So, for example, if you like James Taylor, Pandora lets you create a station based on the music of James Taylor. You'll get some James Taylor tunes along with additional tracks by artists who are similar to Mr. Taylor.

Similarly, you can create stations based on specific tracks or broader genres. Select a track like "Cruise" by Florida Georgia Line, and Pandora creates a station with other bro-country tunes. Select a genre, such as cool jazz, and Pandora serves up a station full of cool jazz tracks.

How does Pandora decide which songs to include in a new personalized station? It's a sophisticated process. Pandora is the gatekeeper for the Music Genome Project, what the company calls "the most sophisticated taxonomy of musical information ever collected." Every song in the project's database is analyzed by a trained musicologist and assigned up to 450 unique musical attributes. These attributes are combined into larger groups called focus traits, of which there are 2,000 possible combinations, such as rhythm syncopation, key tonality, vocal harmonies, and the like. Pandora considers these attributes and focus traits when creating a new station from an existing artist or song, and in determining which song to play next. That's how you get a station full of songs that, although different, have a similar sound and feel.

You can further fine-tune your stations by giving each track a thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating. Thumbs-up a track, and Pandora will play more music like that one. Give it a thumbs-down, and Pandora skips the remainder of the song, deletes the song from further playback on that station, and tweaks the station to include fewer songs like that one.

It gets better. Give two thumbs down to the same artist and Pandora will ban that artist from the selected station—unless you've previously given that artist a thumbs up. And if you don't give any thumb response, Pandora takes that as a tacit positive, but not a strong one.

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