Sunday, January 19, 2014

Google Releases a Music Timeline Tool

Fig. 1 - The Music Timeline overview (CLICK HERE to expand)
     There is a “Music Timeline” tool available at Like any tool, particularly ones that are offered without any cost, there are limitations. Google is honest about that fact. The reality is that the most significant limitation may be the fault of its users – namely, our limited imagination as to how to use the tool.
     The best approach to understanding the tool is to consider the first two FAQs provided by Google, which are pasted below.
What is the Music Timeline?
     The Music Timeline shows genres of music waxing and waning, based on how many Google Play Music users have an artist or album in their music library, and other data (such as album release dates). Each stripe on the graph represents a genre; the thickness of the stripe tells you roughly the popularity of music released in a given year in that genre. (For example, the "jazz" stripe is thick in the 1950s since many users' libraries contain jazz albums released in the '50s.) Click on the stripes to zoom into more specialized genres. 
Where does the data come from?
     The Music Timeline is based on album and artist statistics aggregated from Google Play Music — we define popularity by how many users have an artist or album in their music library.

     From the two questions and their answers, our understanding is:
     1. The information reflects the tastes of a limited audience – those people who have Google Play music libraries. Assuming those people accurately represent music listeners as a whole, it’s all good.
     2. It is easy to fall into a trap of concluding that the Music Timeline, as captured at the top of this post, is a history of music appreciation since 1950. Actually, the Music Timeline shows the current appreciation of music dating back as far as 1950. Historical data is used to create the timeline, but the height of a genre's area at a particular time is based upon information collected from Google Play libraries, which haven’t been around for very long. Let’s consider jazz. A quick look at the timeline would lead to the conclusion that in 1955, the vast majority of music listeners or purchasers were fans of the jazz genre. But the timeline actually shows that music that was released in 1955 and that is still of interest to listeners (or at least Google Play users) is most likely to be jazz music. Considered from a different angle, if a jazz artist who released albums in the early 1980s were to suddenly become very popular, the height of the jazz genre within the early 1980s would likely increase. The increase would reflect a change in 2014, not a change in the 1980s.
     3. In our estimation, the only significant flaw in the Music Timeline is more of benefit than it is a liability. Namely, it furthers the perception that “Indie” is a genre. INDIE REPRESENTS AN ECONOMIC SITUATION – a band is “Indie” if it independent of corporate influence, such as influence from a major record label. Indie bands may produce music that is Indie Rock or Indie Folk. So, the Music Timeline doesn’t actually show the full interest in the Rock genre. Still, because we are Indie Obsessive, we are pleased that separate data mining for Indie music is a possibility.

     That said, it's time to do some data mining and show some screen captures. 
Fig. 2 - The Alternative/Indie region of Fig. 1 (CLICK HERE to expand)
     This is a screen capture of the Music Timeline after “clicking” the Alternative/Indie region. Because the major record labels dominated the music scene for so long, there is very little from which to choose until about 1975. After recording equipment became more accessible, either by choice or necessity, bands released music outside the labels.  

Fig. 3 - The 00's region of Fig. 2, with a particular interest in the Black Keys (CLICK HERE to expand)
     Next, we “clicked” the 00’s region of Fig. 2 and “moused over” the Black Keys region. Cover art of the albums appears and the albums are mapped to their respective release dates.
Fig. 4 - The Black Keys region of Fig. 3 (CLICK HERE to expand)
     Finally, we “clicked” the Black Keys region of Fig. 3. In addition to the library information, a bio of the band appeared. 

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