What do we really think about music? I’ve tried to find some data about how people think about musical genres using the Last FM API.

Ishkur’s strangely compelling guide to electronic music is a map of the relationships between various kinds of music, and a perfect example of the incredibly complex genre structures that music builds up around itself. He lists eighteen different sub-genres of Detroit techno including gloomcore, which I suspect isn’t for me. I wanted to try and create a similar musical map using data from Last FM.

I’ve written a bit before about the way in which the web might change the development of genres – what I didn’t ask was how important the concept of genre would continue to be. It’s difficult to listen to music in a shop, so having a really good system of classification means you have to listen to fewer tracks before you find something you like. Also, in a shop you have to put the CD in a section, so it can only have one genre attributed to it.

But on the web it’s easy to listen lots of 30 second samples of music, so arguably you don’t need to be so assiduous about categorisation. In addition, the fact that music doesn’t have to be physically located in any particular section of a shop also undermines the old system – one track can have two genres (or tags, in internet parlance).

Despite this online music shops like Beatport still separate music into finely differentiated categories, much as you would find in a bricks and mortar record shop. But do they reflect the way people actually think about their musical tastes?

Interestingly, two of the most commonly used tags on Last FM are “seen live” and “female vocalist” (yes, women have been defined as “the other” again), which aren’t traditional genres at all. “Seen live” is obviously personal, and “female singer” isn’t a part of the normal lexicon. Looking through people’s tags other anomalies crop up – “music that makes me cry” and tags based on where a person intends to listen to the music are examples.The more obscure genres from Iskur’s guide are lost in the noise of random tags that people have made for themselves. I would suggest Gloomcore isn’t used in a functional way that ‘metal’ or ‘pop’ are. It’s a classification that people do not naturally use to denote a particular kind of music on Last FM – perhaps it’s a useful term for writing about music, but nobody thinks they’d like to stick on some Gloomcore while they make breakfast.

I searched the Last FM database of top tags – the 5 tags most used by a user, and assumed that there was a link between any two genres that one person liked. For example, if you have ‘gothic’ and ‘industrial’ as top tags then I marked those two tags as linked. In the diagrams below I show the links that occurred between 1000 random Last FM users. If a link between two tags occurred more than about 15 times then it shows up on the diagram below.

Unsurprisingly, indie and rock are things that people often note they have seen live. By contrast, though people might talk of having heard electronic music ‘out’ (ie. not at home), they don’t care enough about it to use define a tag around it.

I was surprised to see tags such as ‘British’ and ‘German’, so I broke the above diagram down by country. Last FM has significant UK, German and Japanese user bases. Here is the result for Germany:


I think it’s very telling that while most of the connections are as you might expect, ‘black metal’ and ‘death metal’ are not connected to the main graph. I’m not particularly aware of these genres, but it certainly seems plausible they are very insular.

Here is the Japanese version:


Yep, plenty of references to Japan. The only nation to feature Jazz too. Here is the British version:

Lost in the noise: what we really think about musical genres

In Japan and Germany a defining feature of music is that it is Japanese or German. In Britain we don’t care. I suspect that’s because our musical tastes aren’t defined against a background of lyrics in a foreign language, as perhaps they are in the other two countries.

Last FM may well have particular ‘subculture’ of user in each country, so its hard to draw any firm conclusions because of this potential skew. As with so many of the insights you can gain from data gleaned from the web, at the moment it’s only possible to tell that one day this kind of tool could be very reveling about our psychology – what it will reveal isn’t very clear yet.

None the less, it will be interesting to see how these diagrams evolve over time – perhaps they will gradually diverge from the old names we’ve used to identify music, or perhaps there will be less and less consensus about what genres are called.

Incidentally, this would have been a post about data from Linked In, looking at the way your professional affects the kind of friendship group you have, but the Linked In API is so restricted that I gave up.

The data is available blow. It’s in the .dot format that creates these not very sexy spider diagrams.


I can provide a better version of this data if anyone wants it – send me a message.

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