It began with Korean pop star PSY’s "Gangnam Style," a song so eminently viral, so inescapable, one could conceivably listen to it infinitely. And while the Repeat Song function has been around since the days of clunky Walkman CD players, when companies like Echo Nest are specifically dedicated to music intelligence, why not aim a little higher?
At last weekend’s Music Hack Day—a recurring gathering where tech-savvy music lovers "build stuff"—at MIT, Echo Nest’s director of developer platform Paul Lamere fashioned the Infinite Jukebox. It was an expansion of another Music Hack Day project, where, in Iceland, Lamere built Infinite "Gangnam Style." "It stems from a very selfish thing: A lot of times I’m listening to a song and I just wish it were longer," Lamere tells Co.Create. "I figured we could try to make that work. There were a lot of people who said, 'Hey, this would be great if it worked with any song,' so I figured I would try to do that."
Echo Nest is in the business of harnessing data about music including "signal processing and machine learning" to document the features of individual songs. "We also break the songs down into lots of very detailed data including where the beats are, where the bars are, and also a detailed map of the temporal and harmonic content," explains Lamere. This type of data has helped engineer well-known services like iTunes Genius and Pandora’s wizardly radio algorithm. (Echo Nest recently helped launch an artist radio feature for streaming service Rdio.) "The value I added was to then take this map of the song, look for all the similar beats and try to build a graph on top of that," Lamere says.
The graph turned into an organic, circular visualization for the Infinite Jukebox. Rather than mimicking a music program’s visualizer—more of a screensaver-like parlor trick that tends to bump and fold vaguely along with the groove—the Infinite Jukebox’s colorful visuals display what’s happening behind the scenes. Instead of listening to an endless song and being mystified, users can detect how it works. "I wanted to show what the program was thinking as it was playing the song, so you could see where it might transition," Lamere says. "The side effect is that different types of music have very different visualizations." In tandem with the visualization, users can control the tempo with their keyboards as well as hold the song on a single beat.
The page has notched more than 1 million page views in less than a week. Visitors can upload their own songs or choose from ready-loaded tracks like Michael Jackson’s "Billie Jean," Adele’s "Rolling in the Deep," Rick Astley’s "Never Gonna Give You Up" and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme. Lamere, an avid video gamer, chose to display a beat counter and time counter, giving the experience a distinctly game-like feel of progress. "People were tweeting about how long they were able to last listening to "Gangnam Style" last month, so I added the timer so that people could have their bragging rights," he says. What was the longest "Gangnam Style" play he saw floating around? "I think someone played it at their work for 10 hours."
Is modern pop and its cut-and-paste, hook-heavy tendencies best suited for the gizmo? "The program looks for this acoustic similarity in the beat level, and certain types of music—especially dance music, dubstep, pop music—those are really easy," Lamere says. "But surprisingly enough, very acoustic music works well. Some tracks don’t work as well, but I think for the most part you get something pleasing out of it." One of his favorite Infinite tracks is by jazz-fusion guitarist Al Di Meola.
Perhaps more thrilling than the project itself is its reminder of the technology’s growing capabilities in the realm of music. "A big part of the next five or 10 years of music is going on here," Lamere says of the music intelligence industry. "People are walking around now with 10 million songs in their pocket, so helping people find music, make interesting playlists, or giving them all sorts of different ways of experiencing music is going to be a big part of listening. You could imagine a music player sometime in the future having an infinite button that would let you generate an infinite version of any song."
And yes, this article was composed to the maximally pleasant strains of an endless "Call Me Maybe."