Pandora’s musical curation is a big reason the site still stands out among competition from Spotify, Google, Apple, and YouTube. Professional music analysts listen to tracks and identify common elements, building the Music Genome Project that powers Pandora’s customised user stations.
As a Senior Music Analyst, Hannah Glass is deciding what you listen to next. We talked to her about her work at Pandora, her musical background, and her own projects as a performer.
Location: Oakland, CA
Current gig: Senior Music Analyst
Current Computer: MacBook Air
Current Mobile Device: iPhone 5C
One word that best describes how you work: Flexible
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in a musical family. My mum is a piano teacher and my dad is a bass player, so my brother and I were raised on many different genres and took classical training. Music followed me to UC Berkeley where I studied music and rhetoric.
Most of my college experience was spent performing, arranging and directing for a cappella, as well as volunteering at KALX, the student-run FM radio station, and playing Baroque violin. After graduating I worked at Rasputin Music off of Telegraph Avenue near campus.
All of these experiences helped me get to my current role as a Music Analyst for Pandora. Growing up listening to a lot of varying music styles as a child, as well as having the practical experience as I got older, has helped my ear tremendously.
Take us through a recent workday.
What I do: Wake up, browse my phone, make coffee, water plants, play a crossword puzzle. I usually work from home, so I cut out the prep and commute time.
What I hear: Alarm (Cloud by Sia), meme videos, boiling water, chirping birds, dogs barking, maybe some early jazz.
What I do: I pound out analysis using Pandora’s Music Genome Project interface. The music is ingested like that of any radio station, and then after we analyse it, the music can spin on any station with similar musical characteristics. I don’t do the curation; I just enter data using harmonic analysis and other critical listening skills. Every song has its own fingerprint, so to speak, and I map that out.
What I hear: Email notifications, then 15-25 tracks of new rap and hip hop: Usually male voices sing-rapping over electronic trap beats. Once in a while I listen to traditional Celtic tracks for a change of pace. For breaks, I sit at my piano and sight read Romantic or Classical pieces.
What I do: Often I will have a rehearsal or performance, so when I come home late, that’s when I catch up on work, prep for the next day, and eat dinner. I like to keep my musical interests diverse: on Monday it’s a 12-person a cappella practice. Tuesday is a stadium pop-rock band. Wednesday is a face-melting rock trio. Thursday is a bluegrass string band. Saturday is a string quartet. Sunday is an Argentine milonga ensemble. Then I analyse a bit more music before going to bed.
What I hear: My Pandora app as I drive to rehearsal. Tuning, laughter, drum kits, FX pedals, amp feedback, constructive feedback, alto sectionals, metronomes, pages turning, cursing, and a lot of “1, 2, 3, 4,” “Turn up the violin,” “This one’s in D,” and “Where are we starting?” Back home, a few hours of analysis. I unwind to LoFi hip hop. Then burning of a candle. Finally, silence.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
For work, simple wifi connection does the trick! For gigs, I can’t live without Lyft. A metronome is always helpful (I use a free app on my phone).
What’s your workspace setup like?
My workspace is pretty non-existent. I have my laptop, my isolating, comfortable collapsible headphones, and a travel-size numerical keyboard. I’ve worked at cafes in Paris and on a tour bus on the highway, but I mainly work at my kitchen table. One of my favourite places to work is outside in the sun at my house in Oakland.
What are your music listening habits? How has your work affected them?
My listening habits change often, but I appreciate silence once in a while to reset my ears. I’m certainly not sick of music after analysing it for a living. I do have a very professional relationship with rap, as I spend most of my time listening to it for work, so I tend to listen to other genres when relaxing. As a music academic, I’ve listened to songs analytically for years, so I know how to turn it on and off.
What’s your best life hack?
Keep snacks in your purse at all times! As a musician, I’m often pressed for time driving from one place to another, especially around dinner time. My purse is always full of snacks.
Take us through an interesting process you have in place at work.
One of the more interesting parts of my job, because it can be repetitive, is attending monthly group meetings where Pandora analysts discuss different genes of the Music Genome Project. In the rap and hip hop meetings, we talk about lyrics and musical discrepancies that we have to unpack, because it’s just part of our job. A lot of the material is NSFW, which makes for an inherently entertaining work space.
Another rewarding aspect is that every piece of the Music Genome Project—even after 15 years of algorithms—is open for discussion and revision. Every analyst coworker of mine has a valid perspective on the music. It’s amazing to have all of these rockstars and true music geeks in a Skype session get fired up about the interpretation of a song’s harmonic, instrumental or lyrical elements.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
My job is mostly straightforward, listening to a new song every ten minutes. But my manager helps me improve the quality of my analysis and makes sure I don’t burn out. Any length of analysis past six hours can definitely turn a brain to mush.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
Old school: a CVS planner. Sometimes I even use gel pens.
How do you recharge or take a break?
Some analysts work in blocks, others work in between other gigs. After a few hours of analysis, I play the piano, lay out in the sun, or eat a snack.
What’s your favourite side project?
I love performing in general, and my musical instruments are my favourite side projects.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
At the moment I’m reading Ray Bradbury’s The Day it Rained Forever, a compilation of short stories. I’d also recommend the fiction writing of Jonathan Lethem. It’s fantastic.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Besides reading what my mum and dad would have to say, I’d love to Lifehack Thomas Newman. He’s the film composer behind American Beauty, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Skyfall to name a few.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t compare yourself to other people. It’s not a race — trust your own process. This is super helpful to remember as a songwriter. There are so many artists in the world, only some of whom are big, but we’re all on our own track. Life is not a race.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
Time management and prioritisation. It’s been a fun challenge juggling all of my extracurricular activities since elementary school, and now I’m mindful of making time to be who I want to be. I’ve found that taking a step back, re-calibrating, and establishing what I need to accomplish helps a lot.