Pandora Rocks Your World and Ours: Silicon Valley Rocks’s 2009 Music All-Star

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You know Pandora: developers of the Music Genome Project and personalized radio stations that play only music you like.  But what you might not know is how committed Pandora is to music education. From its founding, Pandora has been fostering the next generation of rockers as one of only a handful of companies to recognize the important role that music instruction plays in childhood development.

Pandora (originally Savage Beast) emerged on the scene beginning with the Music Genome Project in 2000 and is now the #1 music application on the iPhone.

On December 9, Silicon Valley Rocks will honor Pandora Radio for its contribution to music, technology innovation, and education. We talked to Pandora CTO Tom Conrad about this exciting application and the company’s commitment to keeping music in schools.

SVR: Tell us about the Music Genome Project.

TC: It’s the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken. Together our team of fifty musician-analysts has been listening to music, one song at a time, studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every song. It takes 20-30 minutes per song to capture all of the little details that give each recording its magical sound — melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics… and more — close to 400 attributes! We continue this work every day to keep up with the incredible flow of great new music coming from studios, stadiums and garages around the country.

SVR: How does Pandora Radio work?

TC: Just drop the name of one of your favorite songs or artists into Pandora and let the Genome Project go. It will quickly scan its entire world of analyzed music, almost a century of popular recordings — new and old, well known and completely obscure — to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice. Then sit back and enjoy as it creates a listening experience full of current and soon-to-be favorite songs for you. You can create up to 100 unique “stations.” And you can even refine them. If it’s not quite right you can tell it so and it will get better for you.

SVR: How does Pandora differ from other music recommendation and Internet radio programs?

TC: A few things: Pandora is really focused on delivering a personalized experience. When a listener comes to us, we always start by asking, “What music do *you* love?” That’s different than a service programmed by DJs. Both have their place but ours is focused on personalization — it’s all about the kind of music you love.

Second, since Music Genome Project is at the heart of what we do, we’re building stations based on musical building blocks rather than popularity or taste-making.

SVR: Over the last two years, Pandora has raised more than $40,000 in support of music education. Why do you think it’s important to keep music in schools?

TC: There’s an intrinsic connection that some students have with music — the same way that some kids are natural athletes. By investing in music education, we give those kids an outlet for those skills. To be able to nurture that is a great opportunity.

SVR: Pandora volunteers monthly at a local Oakland school that doesn’t have music education. Tell us more about that.

TC: For the last several years we have been working with Lockwood Elementary in Oakland. Our team has developed a music curriculum for the 5th grade class, and a large group from Pandora go to Lockwood one day per month to lead the class. We do work with instruments and explore how music works. It’s very hands-on, and it gives us a chance to connect with the students on many levels.

SVR: What other organizations do you support that use music to make a difference?

TC: So far, we’ve teamed up with GlobalGiving to support three organizations: Education Through Music-LA empowers low-income kids through quality music instruction as part of a well-rounded education. Students demonstrate personal, academic, and creative growth, and the arts are fostered in the community. Little Kids Rock brings free musical instruments and music instruction to public school children. And the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation donates instruments to school and after-school music programs that are often a motivating factor for a child to stay in school.

SVR: Did you take music lessons as a kid?  What kind of an impact did it have on the person you are today?

TC: I played a bunch of instruments: trumpet, piano, guitar — none of them terribly well. In 5th grade, I got a lead part in a musical, and it was an opportunity to be good at something that was completely outside of my experience. I fell in love with singing and sang in choirs throughout high school and college. [Aside: “Glee” hits a little too close to home.]

Also, in high school and college, I really got into collecting and sharing music. There was nothing better than sitting someone down in front of my stereo and introducing them to unfamiliar artists. Just like Pandora but for one person instead of millions.