How Somerville's Echo Nest Is Changing the Way We Hear Music

July 19, 2012

There was a time when MTV was the place where millions of music fans discovered new music and musical artists. Acts like Madonna, the Beastie Boys, even Nirvana were launched into super-stardom at least in part because of the exposure they got on MTV. When the cable channel recently decided to get back into the music discovery business — this time online — they didn't turn to taste-maker VJs, industry insiders or music writers. They turned to two big brains in Somerville. 

Tristan Jehan and Brian Whitman are the co-founders and co-CTOs of the Echo Nest. If “the Echo Nest" sounds suspiciously like one of the scores of area companies founded by graduates of the MIT Media Lab, well, that’s because it is. But don’t be fooled. What they are working on is unique. Deep inside their lair in Davis Square, Jehan and Whitman are developing the world’s biggest, most comprehensive "musical brain." And their creation is changing the way we discover new music.

“The musical brain is probably the largest collection of data about music in the world," said Whitman. "We collected it all completely automatically by listening to music and reading about it all over the internet."

It’s that two-pronged attack — listening to and reading about music — that has firmly established the Echo Nest on the leading edge of the emerging field of musical intelligence.

Jehan specializes in the listening. He’s developed a complex software solution that listens to and analyzes every song it can get its proverbial ears on. It identifies thousands of characteristics unique to each song, from musical key to loudness to beats-per-minute.

"We built a piece of software mimicking music perception," said Jehan. "So, it’s kind of building up psychoacoustics, and hierarchically trying to understand different levels of musical structures."

Then Whitman comes in. His software scours every blog post, magazine and news site on the internet, analyzing everything people are saying about a particular piece of music or artist.

"We have a database for every single artist," said Whitman. "We now track almost 3 million artists in the world right now. We have hundreds of thousands of words right now that describe all these musicians."

The combined data paints a multifaceted and unique profile for every single song that has been fed into the musical brain. It’s that data that has already helped several high-profile music companies improve their services.

"We power guys like Spotify and Clear Channel’s iHeart Radio, and MTV uses it," said Whitman. "We power things like playlist generation software to get a nice playlist to listen to based on an artist name or a mood or simple recommendation.  Even things like, ‘I’m jogging, play me a list of songs in the right tempo.’"

And according to Whitman, the musical brain is still in its infancy.

"Tris and I have been doing this for 15 years each I think and we are just beginning," said Whitman. "This is a totally new field, we’re doing really well at it right now, but there is so much potential for what we’re working on.”

WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top