Miraculous Musical Madness
Comparing Free Music Recommendation Sites
By Amy Vecchione, dMLIS

One of the greatest aspects of the World Wide Web has been the seemingly unlimited access to music. Yes, music. No, not information (am I really in the iSchool?).

Music is good for you. It increases your quality of life. But how often do we find ourselves listening to the same music because we can’t find anything new that is “good?” Meaning, we can’t find new music that we like.

Music recommendation sites acquire intelligence about what you, the listener, like and do not like based on your choices and uses that to inform its next recommendations. Another bonus is that musicians and listeners readily tag their own music, making deciphering “good” music from “bad” music somewhat easy for the untrained eye.

Below is my analysis of several of these sites geared to help you, the reader, find more music compatible with your tastes. I chose the sites based on price; they had to be free because, well, we’re all college students, right? Some of these sites give you the whole song, or just ten seconds of the song. You usually have to register, which is free, but both listening and registration is free for all of those I reviewed. I mention Rhapsody because it is totally fee based, but provides on-demand access to entire albums for that cost, and is more similar to iTunes in that way, but it also provides excellent recommendations.

These web sites work by making use of some fancy database programming, which if you feel like nerding out, you might enjoy investigating. They work similarly to the way the readers’ advisory database NoveList works, except you don’t then need to go out and find the music to see if you like it.

For some sites, the music is added into the database, but each web site does this differently. (See more about this below.) And also unlike NoveList—I’m going to give away the ending of this article: I chose to be the best music recommendation site.

The sites that I enjoyed the least are the ones where you have to really, really choose which ones you like and dislike so much that you lose track of listening to good music. That’s part of why Pandora lost the number one slot—I had to click “dislike” so many times that I stopped enjoying myself, and I wound up hearing repeated songs or The Dave Matthews Band (a band I don’t really like much).

About me: I like independent, world, rock, rap and country music. I don’t like Britney Spears, but I like Madonna. I like Ludacris, and sometimes Eminem. I like Justin Timberlake, but not his boy band beginnings. I like Erase Errata, Low, Lightning Bolt and Neil Young. I’m very varied so my tastes will showcase these sites pretty well.

And onto the sites!!! Explore away!!!

Music Strands

  • Complex interface with too many options and tabs to comprehend at first use. You choose an artist you like and then are presented with a list of artists that are similar.
  • Only plays snippets of songs, so it’s only previews. For previews, AllMusic is much better, and the interface is far more navigable.
  • There are some features that aren’t really about recommending music.
  • Does not stream.
  • Has a networked community where you can add friends or people with similar musical tastes, which might help expand one’s horizons.
  • Don’t have to download a new interface as everything is in Flash in the website.


  • Find out everything an artist has done, which bands they’ve been in, which bands they started, which bands they inspired, which bands inspired them.
  • Awesome fact-checking tool!
  • Plus, snippets of hit songs.
  • Perfect when trying to find a song, but you only know how it goes, the tune, the lyrics, or both, and you think you might know the name of the artist, but can’t really remember.
  • No networked community.
  • Incredible and accurate history.
  • Easy to use with simple search bar and advanced search options.
  • Incredible database.


  • Pandora has a huge library and is part of the Music Genome Project, an incredible project founded by Tim Westergren: “Over the past six years, we've carefully listened to the songs of over 10,000 different artists - ranging from popular to obscure - and analyzed the musical qualities of each song one attribute at a time.”
  • Pandora does not require downloading of new software; the interface is easy to use and online with a Flash system.
  • By building your own custom radio station, Pandora learns your taste in music.
  • Search by artist name or song title. Recommendations are made based on the song attributes that you choose and like.
  • Recommendations depend on whether you like or dislike a song (or do nothing, so three choices).
  • Pandora tends to descend into newer, indie rock that I don’t like. More of that jock-rock. Since it’s not based on user tags, it’s difficult to know how the decisions are made.
  • Obscure artists are represented because they can submit their own music to Pandora.
  • You start by picking a song or artist that you like, and the recommendations follow. Recommendations do sound similar to the music that you choose, but sometimes lack a certain edge or emotional quality of music.
  • Pandora tends to present some of the best specific mood selections and variety.
  • You can only skip three songs per hour, so if you dislike more than three songs, you have to sit through the others.
  • I have no clue what the algorithm might be for determining recommendations.
  • No networked community of friends.
  • It is seemingly near impossible to get Pandora to stick to a sub-genre.
  • Streaming is terrific, and recommendations are generally of an incredible variety.

  • You have to download new software, but it’s quick, fast, and doesn’t occupy a huge portion of your desktop like some downloads.
  • Recommendations are based off of user tags and band tags.
  • Like Pandora, creates “radio stations,” but skip as many songs as you want and store a track listing of every song listened to. Declare your “love” with a heart icon for certain songs, instead of just plain “like.”
  • Calculates your favorite or most listened to band based on number of listens.
  • Tracks all the music you listen to and stores it on a website.
  • Search based on tags or on artist name.
  • Has very obscure artists.
  • It's fast and simple to upload songs.
  • See what music your friends are listening to.
  • Easy to use. The interface is user friendly with a simple search bar.
  • Networking community.
  • Option of skipping songs without saying you don’t like it. Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for a certain song, but you like it.


  • Need to install a plug in.
  • Listen to full songs on demand.
  • Has networking community.
  • Become a Mercora DJ.
  • Clearly a Pandora rip-off project, but is based on P2P software.
  • Since you can demand whatever song you want, the predictability takes away from of the charm. Not knowing what will be suggested next—what makes Pandora and both so outstanding—is what makes the listening experience a real adventure.


Rhapsody is probably the best, but wasn’t rated for this survey because it costs money to sign up. Download entire albums at a time, and listen to them over and over. Rhapsody, like, makes quality recommendations, has an unlimited library, and brings you the ultimate in control.

Well, that’s all for now. Hopefully you guys can get some entertaining done in between papers, group projects, and discussions. And remember…. Listen to music! Life will be better if you do!!


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Page last updated: February 7, 2007