An Echo Nest project wants to guide you through the musical universe.
Did you know how expansive the “brostep” genre is? Have you ever explored the world of Greek hip-hop or Estonian pop? Ever fallen down a rabbit hole of didgeridoo music? This is how you get lost in Every Noise at Once.
The site is the project of Glenn McDonald, a principal engineer at music discovery site the Echo Nest, which was recently purchased by Spotify. It’s plotted 1 trillion data points about more than 35 million known songs in order to organize genres big and small into a map, and help listeners understand and explore a vast expanse of music in one place.
“This map builds on essentially everything else we do at the Echo Nest,” he explains, “from parsing the contents of scraped web pages to analyzing the psycho-acoustic properties of the actual audio files…I focus on trying to make sense of data, and extract useful insights from it. Besides genres, I work on similarity calculations, personalization, data quality, sanity-checking, emerging-music discovery, contextual playlist generation, audio analysis and whatever else seems to have the potential to help people experience music.”
McDonald put up the first version of ENAO about a year ago, but the number of genres covered has tripled since then. ENAO’s interface is fairly simple: Click on a link on the map to listen to an example of the genre, then click through to hear more artists associated with it, or listen to a Spotify playlist. For those more attuned to lists, McDonald added the list mode yesterday.
The genres range from mainstream (pop, garage rock, electro) to very Spotify-cific categorizations (stomp and holler) to the delightfully fringe (volksmusik, deep orgcore, vaporwave). While you might not notice you’re clicking through a Finnish jazz tag and ending up in the “neo-pagan” cloud, the map is drawing subtle lines between genres that might not be that apparent in our daily Spotify scroll. This blog post from last summer gives a bit more detail about how exactly the Echo Nest understands genres, and how certain subgenres flourish and die.
“I’m continually surprised to find that no matter how obscure some niche genre seems to me at first, there always turn out to be a hundred bands doing that and three more subgenres based on even subtler distinctions,” McDonald says. “The music just doesn’t stop! And some things I had never heard of turn out to make me as happy as things I’ve loved for decades. Australian hip-hop! German oi! Liquid funk, bachata, doomcore, jazz orchestra, warm drone!”
The Echo Nest aims to learn what you want to listen to, and give recommendations, sort of like Aether’s Cone. So does this mean the machines know what we want before we do?
“No, the machines don’t know us better than we do,” McDonald says. “But they can very easily know more than we do. My job is not to tell you what to listen to, or to pass judgment on things or ‘make taste.’ It’s to help you explore and discover. Your taste is your business. Understanding your taste and situating it in some intelligible context is my business.
“I’m trying to map the music universe, and chart some communally shared paths through it, and build exploring machines such that you can either point one down a well-known way on leisurely sight-seeing autopilot, or just as easily grab the wheel and send it plunging into some promising clump of undergrowth.”