Music Search: Exploration or Lookup?

TechCrunch is reporting a new Google Music service, purportedly to be released in about a week here in the U.S.:

Matt Ghering, a product marketing manager at Google, has been one of the people talking to the big four music labels about the new service, we’ve heard from one of our sources. And he has supposedly sent these screenshots of the look and feel of Google Music search to various rights holders and potential partners. The first screenshot shows how a search result might look on Google for a search for “U2.” A picture of the band is to the left of four streaming options for various songs, and the user has the option of listening via either iLike or LaLa. Click on one of the results, and a player pops up from the services that streams the song, along with an option to purchase the song for download.

I suppose the ability to find/stream a particular, known song is nice.  But that is not what music search / music retrieval is about.  Music retrieval is a fundamentally exploratory domain.  When you are looking for music to accompany a photo slideshow, or music to create a playlist at a party, or music to DJ at a social dance event (e.g. salsa or waltz), or simply want to discover new and interesting bands, genres, etc. a known item search is not very helpful.  You have to already know exactly what song (or band) you want in order to ask for exactly that song (or band).

With exploratory search, on the other hand, you don’t know what you don’t know.  When you want to find that perfect song for your photo slideshow, you may have never heard the song before, much less even heard of the artist that wrote/performed it.  How are you going to navigate the space of all recorded music to find your song, if all you have is a single line text input box?

You can’t.

Simple user interfaces are nice, until they become so simple and focused that they become unusable for your information need.  The metaphor that has been so successful for years in Web search does not apply to music search.  We will have to wait until next week to see if the leaked screenshots are indeed what the service will look like.  But if those turn out to be accurate, I have to seriously question the decision-making process that led to this conflation of Web Search user experience and Music Search user experience.  The goals are often so fundamentally different that I have a hard time understanding why the former got applied to the latter.

See also some of my previous posts:

UPDATE: Don’t forget that ISMIR 2009, held in Kobe, Japan, starts next week!

UPDATE 2: Looks like the new Google Music service is being released today 28 October 2009 (see here and here).  Right in the middle of the ISMIR conference. Classy.  Despite the fact that the name of the launch event is “Google Discover Music”, the screenshots make it abundantly clear that there is nothing being offered beyond basic, known-item song or artist lookup.  There do not appear to be any real discovery tools, any exploratory interfaces.  In fact, the thing that strikes me most about the reports that I am seeing is this line:

If you search for an artist or album name, the OneBox will include a set of four songs that are chosen algorithmically by the partner music site, not by Google. Each song will be linked to an audio clip that will play in a Flash-based pop-up window provided by the partner site. In some cases, the partner may provide one full play of the song before defaulting to a 30-second preview.

Not only is this lookup, rather than discovery, but by popping up a flash-based audio window, rather than taking the user to the partner music site, Google is going against its long-held creed of getting the user off of its properties as quickly as possible.  Instead, this interface encourages users to linger on Google, rather than begin exploring music elsewhere.  That does not seem very Googly to me.

UPDATE 3: If you read the liveblogs of the event (links above), you’ll see that Google is saying that right now they are not planning to commercialize this service.  However, should that situation change, they are free to use my suggestion from April 2006 on how they might inject advertising into music: 🙂

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3 Responses to Music Search: Exploration or Lookup?

  1. Jonathan says:

    You’re right that the most interesting music searches aren’t known item searches. If I want an mp3 of something I already know, then text search is fine. Even if I don’t know the song, but have a recording of it, acoustic fingerprinting (apparently) works well enough.

    I often want new music, which is by definition an unknown/exploratory search problem. Recommender systems like Pandora sometimes work, but I’ve found (at least with Pandora) they suffer from lack of diversity or sometimes just put correlated musicians together that don’t actually sound anything alike. (Right now Pandora suggested the Silversun Pickups on my TV on the Radio station. Both bands I enjoy immensely, but I wouldn’t characterize them as similar.) Trying to direct your search with a recommender is like playing blind man’s bluff. If I thumb up a song, I’m saying I like the song, which I might, but I’m also saying “show me more of this,” which isn’t necessarily what I’m looking for. When I thumb one down, I’m saying “don’t show me this,” but what if I do like the song, it’s just not what I’m looking for right now?

    It would be nicer if instead of just text search and recommender systems, we had a system that took text search as a starting point (say a song title, artist, or genre) and then let user explore not only the social/historical connections among the musicians but also navigate the style information (the “music genome” in Pandora-speak). Not even necessarily in music theory language (I have no idea what “vamping” is, but Pandora says I like it.), but just “lighter,” “darker,” or perhaps expressing (dis)similarity with respect to other musicians.

  2. jeremy says:


    I totally agree. In fact, I should have also put this link, above:

    See also Paul’s blog, for lots more discussion in this area.


  3. Pingback: Information Retrieval Gupf » Doing to Music What They Did to the Web

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