Dev

Music-loving hackers make the ultimate mashups between big data & sound

“Big data” is everywhere you look these days.

As digital information continues to expand exponentially, this affects everything — how much we pay for health insurance, how we predict the weather, how we play the stock market.

The music industry is no exception. Big data is making music a more meaningful and connected part of our lives.

That might sound insane at first. “Music” and “data” feel like polar opposites. Music is intimate, soulful, and organic. Data is cold and impersonal.

But where music and data come together is in understanding the vast and always-growing world of music: new artists, new influences, technology mashups, and discoveries. All of this music ultimately forges common connections between us all.

Big data, in a musical context, forms the backbone of the Music Hack Day series, where music is not only represented as literal data (good old ones and zeroes), but each song, artist, and album is also surrounded by all kinds of context and understanding that open up mind-blowing new ways for us to discover, interact with, and share music.

Music Hack Days bring together APIs from The Echo Nest, Spotify, SoundCloud, and other digital music platforms so that hundreds of software and hardware hackers can build functional music apps and demonstrate them to each other over the course of a single weekend, in cities around the world.

My company, The Echo Nest, has spent seven years building the world’s largest music database, which contains more than five billion individual data points about 30 million songs and more than 2 million artists.

Half of The Echo Nest’s “musical brain” is dedicated to understanding music content — analyzing audio with software to understand it the way a musician does (tempo, key, song structure, etc.). The other half parses what people are saying about music everywhere online (blogs, reviews, news, social media).

Together, this understanding of music allows independent developers to build scalable music apps with major labels and create all sorts of stuff they wouldn’t otherwise be able to build.

Imagine what you could make if you knew the tempo and song structure of every song in the world; if you knew what everyone on the Internet is saying about every artist in the world right now; if you knew the musical collaborations and influences of everyone to ever pick up a guitar.

At Music Hack Day, hundreds of developers have all of this data and millions of songs sitting right in front of them. At the San Francisco Music Hack Day just last week, more than two hundred participants built a total of 62 working music hacks. That is a ridiculous rate of productivity, and the apps show why big data matters to any music fan.

Here are some of the highlights from San Francisco Music Hack Day (in alphabetical order — and keep in mind, these are rough, time-limited hackathon projects that will likely be acquiring several layers of polish before a public release):

  • Automello takes any group of audio samples and groups them by pitch so digital music makers can play them like a piano.
  • Buddhafy lets you build a Spotify playlist with your brain, based on its mood.
  • Coming to Town Rdio lists concerts coming to your area and lets you hear what those bands sound like.
  • Echo Tunes takes a look at your iTunes library, then lets you build playlists with all sorts of smart sliders Apple never thought of including.
  • Frankie’s Organ translates any song into a pipe organ version, played by a virtual Frankenstein.
  • GenRedio makes radio stations based on a combination of moods and musical styles.
  • Hide That Tune is a new twist on the familiar “name that tune” game. One player select an arcane section of a well-known song and challenges the others to identify it.
  • Lyrics Cloud builds “word clouds” based on any song, so you can see which terms pop up most in the lyric.
  • Make Up Recs lets non-techies import playlists from Pandora into the unfamiliar world of the powerful Tomahawk music app, without skipping a beat.
  • Paul vs. Billboard predicted 6 of 13 Grammy Award winners with artificial intelligence.
  • PlayHead plays customized radio stations based on the cities and bands you like.
  • SideTrack, strictly for the geeks, is like a digital Rube Goldberg contraption whose point is to find music through incredibly circuitous routes.
  • SocialSongQ lets people send tweets to the artificially-intelligent “DJ Fail Whale” creating a queue of songs to hear at any event.
  • Sonos+Spotify++ adds smart playlisting and the ability to buy tickets to Sonos’ digital music system for the home.
  • WetheDJ lets you invite friends to build party playlists together.

Music Hack Day is meant to be fun. It’s essentially a jam session for developers held over a weekend. The fact that these talented hackers can put together so many functional apps in 24 hours using The Echo Nest, Soundcloud, Last.fm, and dozens of other great music APIs has major implications for businesses and consumers, for how we will all discover, play, and share music in the future.

Jim Lucchese is CEO of The Echo Nest and has worked in digital music strategy and corporate development for about 10 years. Before The Echo Nest, Jim was a music lawyer at Greenberg Traurig, specializing in music and digital media deals. Jim holds a B.A. from Boston College and a J.D., Magna Cum Laude, from the Georgetown University Law Center. When he’s not at the Nest, Jim plays drums and still represents a few indie artists pro bono for fun.

Image courtesy of Yuri Arcurs, Shutterstock