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How they know what you like before you do

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ChoiceStream makes recommendations based on about 25 attributes, such as "macho," "romantic," "mainstream," and "obscure." Eight editors monitor the technology to make sure that when new music or movies arrive, the automated system places them in the appropriate category. Then algorithms create recommendations for users based on their previous choices.

MusicStrands, a free online music service based in Corvallis, Ore., launched last year and is working to make "music discovery" a social activity. Last week, the company rolled out a new version that lets users see what their friends are listening to in real time.

"They don't want to sit down and listen to what other people are programming for them," says Gabriel Aldamiz-echevarria, MusicStrands vice president, in a telephone interview.

With a library of more than 5 million songs, MusicStrands provides instant recommendations based on what someone is listening to at that moment. Listeners can build and share playlists and "tag" music with terms such as "contemplative" or "driving."

This kind of social interaction, the Berkman Center study predicts, will help democratize musical tastes. "Instead of primarily disc jockeys and music videos shaping how we view music, we have a greater opportunity to hear from each other.... These tools allow people to play a greater role in shaping culture, which, in turn, shapes themselves," the study states.

The Berkman study found that 58 percent of participants said they were exposed to "a wider variety of music since using any online music service."

That kind of discovery is what Pandora is banking on. "People are so hungry to get reconnected with music," says Pandora founder Tim Westergren. "When you get into your 20s, music's just going to play a smaller role in your life.... You become another person who hasn't bought an album in - you name it - number of years."

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