Does Mufin Know Music?

It’s hard enough to find relevant content online at times. If you’re a music lover, you know the challenges of finding new bands or artists you’ll actually like is even worse. Search engines that specialize in music use different approaches, often based on what other people who liked the same music also enjoyed. Music search engine mufin, however, eschews opinions in favor of algorithms.

Mufin’s core was developed by a team run by Karlheinz Brandenburg, the “father of the MP3.” When you search for music on mufin (which, appropriately, stands for music finder), it ignores artist, album, genre and everything most humans consider important. Instead, it focuses on 40 different attributes that can be analyzed by a computer. These include percussion, style, speech, sound density, vocals, tempo, sound color, instruments, volume, dynamics and loudness. Therefore, when mufin decides that two songs are similar, it is based only on the SOUND of the music.

A number of reviewers have observed that this can lead to some very strange results. The developers of mufin, however, consider this to be an advantage. They believe it gives you “significantly greater diversity while discovering music than with traditional recommendation techniques.”

According to the walk-through provided on the web site, all one has to do to discover new music with mufin is tell it what you like, and you will get similar tracks you might like as well. You can start with a “seed song,” and mufin will give you an overview of the tracks it finds that are similar. This overview includes cover, song, artist, and album, plus a sound preview for the individual song. And then you select a song which mufin should use to display similar tracks.

There are a plethora of other options, including ones that let you track your search history and share tracks with friends, but this seems sufficient for the moment as far as getting started. So come with me on a musical journey…and we’ll see if we end up taking a long, strange trip in a yellow submarine or wish we were back in the USSR.

{mospagebreak title=Seeding Songs}

Mufin offers up a busy home page by Google standards, but it’s not confusing by a long shot. Here’s an image, reduced to fit:

Okay, anybody who knows me knows that I’m a big fan of the Beach Boys. So I figured this would be an easy way to test mufin; after all, if it can’t come through for the Beach Boys, what hope would I have for it to find matches for, say, Tom Smith, Julia Ecklar, or Leslie Fish? I’m not disappointed; it returns 170 pages of results, at 10 results per page (you can change it to 20 or 30 per page if you wish). I’m going to show you a close up of one of the results on the list, because these aren’t typical kinds of search results; there are things you can do with them.

As you can see, mufin includes the album cover, name of the song, name of the artist, and the name of the album. You can buy it, preview similar tracks, or click for more options. But I’d like to draw your attention to the lower left, next to the album cover. You’ll notice what looks like an interface that will let you play the track. Unfortunately, it’s greyed out in this example. That’s because mufin doesn’t have permission to play a lot of tracks. When you’re fortunate enough to find one that isn’t greyed out and decide to play it, it looks something like this:

“Girls On The Beach” is not my favorite Beach Boys song…which is just as well, since the site only streamed about 30 seconds of it. One reviewer commented that that’s not long enough to tell the real character of a song; at the time, I thought he was being too fussy, but after listening I would have to agree. So instead, I’m going to preview tracks that are similar to “Good Vibrations,” since I know that song pretty well (hey, after a certain commercial hit the airwaves, who doesn’t?). In mufin’s lingo, “Good Vibrations” is my seed song to discovering more.

{mospagebreak title=Picking Up Vibes}

I know I’m already taking tons of images, but mufin does something really cool when you click “Preview Similar Tracks.” With AJAX-like smoothness, it slides more options below your choice in a way that distinguishes them from the other selections in your search results. Let me show you:

Yes, mufin shows how similar each track is, and even gives you the option to buy it (among others). But the frustrating thing for me is that none of these can be played through mufin’s interface! I’m not the only one who ran into this problem. Clicking on “More similar tracks” (lower left) gives you a whole list of results with album covers, rather like the first search.

I can’t speak for most of the results that came up on the first page, except for two. One was “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John. It wasn’t playable, but I know the song. Both it and “Good Vibrations” are fast, upbeat songs, with a lot of instruments. Someone who is more of an audiophile could probably tell you what else they have in common, but I can say this much: I like them both. So score one for mufin.

The other one was “Lover You Don’t Have to Love” by Bright Eyes. I’d never heard of either the song or the artist before, but fortunately it was playable. Mufin scored it as an 84 percent match. Like the other two songs, it seems to have a lot of instruments, a good beat and strong lyrics that can be heard clearly, but the emotional feeling behind the song seems very different. It did at least make me curious…and yes, I was disappointed that I could only listen to 30 seconds of the song, since I didn’t feel that was enough to understand what was going on with it. Still, score two for mufin, for piquing my curiosity.

{mospagebreak title=Hilarity Ensues}

The Beach Boys, I’m sure you’ll agree, isn’t much of a test. Unfortunately, mufin didn’t have any of my favorite filkers in its database…but it did have Christine Lavin. This led to some unintentionally funny matches. When I tried to match Lavin’s “Ain’t Love Grand?” song, one of the top three selections was from Jessica Simpson. And yes, listening to the snippet, I could see how mufin thought those were similar. But I’m not sure any human would have made that match!

It got even funnier when I tried to match one of my favorite Lavin songs, “What Was I Thinking?” If you know that song, you know it’s about a woman who makes hasty decisions and then regrets them. So what can you make of it when one of the top three songs returned as a match was “Put On a Happy Face”? Ummm. Did someone program mufin with a sense of the ironic?

And yet, even there, I have to give mufin credit, because that is also a song I like. In fact, I liked many of the other matches on the first page of results for “What Was I Thinking?” With one exception, they were all female vocalists, most of whom I knew at least by reputation. I was mildly disappointed by one song, by Edith Piaf. It sounded similar, but it was in German. Perhaps it is merely my American provincialism showing, but I wish the site had a way for you to specify that you want to hear only songs in English. The vast majority were in that language, though, so I really don’t have a cause to complain (and the German clip was enjoyable, if incomprehensible to me).

I have another nit to pick. It’s a little embarrassing to admit to a spelling error when you also edit, but I put in the name of a famous classical composer wrong. When mufin couldn’t find an exact match, it offered similar matches to me. Since I was only off by one letter, I thought it would turn up the composer. Instead, it turned up a different musician whose name was off by just one letter. Go figure.

Mufin displayed another interesting behavior. For this, I’ll refer you to the earlier picture that showed three similar tracks. If all of those tracks had been playable, and I clicked the first one, mufin would not only play that one to the end, but it would play the others in order, without my needing to do any further clicking. I haven’t decided if this is a bug or a feature. I will say that it did introduce me to a composer I’d never heard (or heard of) before – and when I clicked on his name on the track, mufin returned complete results for his discography. Very neat! (For you classical music lovers, his name was Skrowaczewski, and one of his pieces matched up with one of Beethoven’s works).

I haven’t used all of mufin’s features by a long shot. Clicking on the shopping cart next to each entry, for example, lets you buy from iTunes or Amazon. And I haven’t touched on mufin’s social aspects at all. I will say, however, that I like the way mufin works. If I were more of an audiophile, I’d probably use it in combination with other music search engines to find tunes I haven’t discovered yet. I could see mufin becoming an option or a feature of Amazon or some other large site where music plays a big role. I certainly wish it the best of luck with its unique, surprisingly successful approach.

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