It’s nearly impossible to overstate the role that music plays in the life of the average person. It influences how we view the people and the world around us, sonically and emotionally. In many ways, our lives are structured around the music we absorb and love. In short, music means A LOT.
As the web grows in size and influence, it provides us with new ways to find, understand and consume music, providing users with a host of new applications and platforms – Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio – by which to listen.
Each of these systems allows listeners a different way to discover and interact with the sounds that shape their lives. But to do that, these sites must organize and understand music.
Enter The Echo Nest: a Dyn client that works with online music providers (the aforementioned Spotify and iHeartRadio to name just a few) to help them organize their vast collections and present them to users in a fluid, intuitive manner.
Founded in 2005 by friends and MIT alums Brian Whitman and Tristan Jehan, The Echo Nest, while very behind the scenes, is incredibly important and influential to the way in which you listen to songs online.
“We came up with the idea for the company while doing music retrieval research and working on our PhD’s,” Whitman said. “We had a lot of time on our hands so we chose to pursue it.”
Both men were musicians (Whitman focusing in electronic composition and Jehan specializing in Brazilian piano) and found themselves drawn to the concept of how people discovered and interacted with the music they loved.
They were also frustrated by how difficult it was to reach people as up and coming composers and performers.
“It was very frustrating,” Whitman admits, “to not be able to get your music out to people. The industry had a very top down power structure then, which prevented new artists and music from being widely heard. That’s changing now because of sites like Spotify, but back then it was nearly impossible to become popular without being attached to a label.”
Understanding this difficulty played a large role in the mission of The Echo Nest for Whitman and Jehan, and certainly influenced the sort of services and platforms that the company currently works with.
So what does The Echo Nest do exactly?
When you’re using a program like Spotify, you see that the application, in addition to letting you hunt down specific songs and artists to listen to, provides you with recommendations for similar or related artists. The Echo Nest helps Spotify and other companies make the connections that are needed to enable such recommendations.
The Echo Nest is in possession of a database of over 35 million songs, which it has organized according to a wide host of different criteria. From a purely musical prospective, the database makes connections between songs based on pitch of notes, sonic progressions and other similar criteria.
“The system ingests and analyzes the mp3, working to understand every single event in the song, such as a note in a guitar solo or the way in which two notes are connected,” Whitman said. “The average song has about 2000 of these ‘events’ for the system to analyze. It then makes connections between that song and other song with similar progressions or structures.”
But that’s not all.
In addition, The Echo Nest database draws connections between artists as a whole, based on comments made about the artist by critics and analysts, as well as biographical and genre information that can be found online. From the data that The Echo Nest compiles, their platform makes note of key words found in descriptions of the music and its creator and links them to other artists of whom similar key words and phrases are commonly used.
The sum of all these connections facilitates a web of musical knowledge based not on the popularity of the artist but on the style of the music and the fundamental composition of their songs. This allows programs like Spotify or iHeartRadio to provide a more fluid listening experience that evolves organically from the music, rather than artificially from the Billboard Top 40.
In addition to simply providing song data for sites, the company also creates applications that help devise playlists depending on what the customer needs.
“We’re all about the music around here.” Whitman said. “It’s very fundamental both to our service and to the office culture and absolutely essential when we’re hiring.”
Want a job at The Echo Nest? You better be prepared to tell them who your least favorite band is.
Even with their already impressive methods for music analysis, The Echo Nest has hopes for an even more refined system in the future.
“We really want to better understand people and how they interact with music and incorporate that into the process, so that it’s as much about the listener as it is the music they listen to,” Whitman said. “We really want to expand people’s musical horizons but, also, we don’t just want to provide them with a stream of stuff.”