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The Genius of iTunes 8 learns slowly

Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.

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Back in September I posted my experience with the Genius feature of iTunes 8. My admittedly eccentric library proved something of a challenge to the then-new application, and I promised to retest Genius in a few months.

For those not familiar with this iTunes option, Genius takes a song you select and creates a playlist of related songs from your library. Over time Genius learns how you use your library, and therefore what your preferences are. And when you update Genius, it uploads this information anonymously to iTunes where - drawing from the information of millions of Genius user preference uploads - it can make intelligent recommendations for music purchase.

When I first tried it, Genius didn't know me very well, nor was the collective database as big as it is now. It did all right on common selections, but really missed the mark when I strayed from the top forty.

The Song Remains the Same
For this round I started with the same track I did before - "The Song Remains the Same," by Led Zeppelin. From my library, it created a Genius playlist of 25 tunes, the top five being:

"Bargain" - The Who

"Streetfighting Man" - Rolling Stones

"Aqualung" - Jethro Tull

"Tales of Brave Ulysses" - Cream

"Empty Pages" - Traffic (this showed up on the September test list, too)

The rest of the list included tracks by Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Yes, Pink Floyd, and Steve Miller. All definitely related to the Led Zeppelin track in general style.

I then opened the Genius Sidebar for iTunes store recommendations. It once again offered two Led Zeppelin albums I didn't have, five Zeppelin tunes that were also missing, and some offerings by related artists: "5:15" - The Who (which I already have in my library), "Mean Streets" - Rolling Stones, "Fool For the City" - Foghat; and "Space Truckin'" - Deep Purple. With the one exception, solid choices all around.

Here Comes Trouble
As I did before, I then selected "Here Comes The Sun" by the Beatles. The Fab Four's recordings aren't available on iTunes, and last time Genius was completely stumped and offered no recommendations. This time it did. The top five songs in the Genius playlist created from my library were:

 "My Generation" - The Who

"No Rain" - Blind Melon

"Wild World" - Cat Stevens

"Stairway to Heaven" - Led Zeppelin

"One Week" - Bare-Naked Ladies

It looks like Genius has learned a thing or two since September. Of course, when I opened the Genius sidebar, there were no Beatles tracks available through iTunes, so I got just a generic list of top songs and albums in the iTunes store.

Accept No Substitutes
Last time I selected "Another Time, Another World" by the obscure UK girl-group from the 1960's, the Chantelles. Even though I have several songs by them from different albums I've loaded into my library, Genius couldn't make any recommendation. So it still has something to learn.

And when I tried the Genius sidebar, it did recommend an album by the Chantels, but it was the American R&B group rather than the British band.

On the whole, Genius has improved. I tested a number of other songs, and its recommendations were generally very good, and occasionally had some nice surprises. But there are still gaps in its knowledge, and a fair number of tracks yielded no results at all.

I'll try these same tracks again in a few months. I anticipate I'll see some progress. The big question will be how much.

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