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Shazam gets the recognition it deserves

By Jean-Claude Elias - Dec 14,2017 - Last updated at Dec 14,2017

Its job is to recognise music. Now it is the app’s turn to get fully recognised.

Shazam may soon get even more popular than it is already, now that Apple is said to go after the mobile application to acquire it. The price tag announced on December 12 was $400 million.

For those who have never used the app, Shazam is a music identification software. It was first only available on mobile devices but then a Windows version was also made to run on full-size computers and laptops.

Play a tune through any speaker available, launch Shazam on your device, bring the microphone close to the sound source or just play the music loud enough, and in the overwhelming number of cases the app will recognise the tune. It will display its title and often the name of the performing artist, on the screen of your device, all this in a second or two, sometimes even less.

The word Shazam, as defined by the online urban dictionary is an “exclamation… used to introduce an extraordinary deed, story, or transformation”. It comes from the world of American comics.

There are a couple of things that are absolutely amazing about Shazam and then there are another couple of imperfections, albeit minor ones. On the truly great side is the speed at which the application is able to recognise the music.

With the years we have become accustomed to the incredible search speed of the Google engine. You hardly finish typing your question in your web browser that already several answers or suggestions pop up before your very eyes. But these are typed words and we can more or less understand that the power of computers and networks today, combined with the genius of Google’s engineers, can do the trick. But how does Shazam manage to do it so quickly with music, with sound? It is impressive, by any standard.

The mere fact that Apple is buying Shazam says a lot about its importance. It reminds us of when Microsoft found Skype so significant that it had to buy it. This took place in 2011, for a trifle $8.5 billion. At some point all great applications started by small companies end up duly recognised and are bought by a giant in the IT industry.

Now, why is Shazam so important as an application? After all, it only recognises music!

There are two good reasons. The first is that recognising music is not a minor achievement, it should not be taken lightly. With the incredible coverage music has in the world, being able to put a name on a tune has become part of the entertainment business. Moreover, once you put a name on a song or piece of music, you may go after it and buy it. Or you may go and view the video on Youtube and, therefore, see the paid ads that are displayed there.

The second reason is that engineers are working on adding image or object recognition to Shazam capability. Point the device camera to whatever you are seeing and Shazam will tell you what it is, where it is, and so forth.

On the not-so-perfect side are the errors in recognition that happen, or even the non-recognition at all. Errors confusing a tune with another almost never happen, but it is sometimes the name of the performing artist that is mistaken for another artist who also has performed the same piece in another recording. Shazam may be excused for that, though again, it remains a shortcoming. For using Shazam frequently, I would say this happens very rarely, perhaps one in 50 times.

More frequent are the cases where Shazam is helpless. This would happen if you are playing jazz, and even more frequently if it is classical. With pop songs Shazam almost never fails.

Here again, one can understand how the world is going. Pop music, in all its various forms, is what the world listens to before any other genre. Jazz and classical come after. This is perhaps why the music recognition power of Shazam is more focused on pop songs. Perhaps Apple geniuses will take it to the next level one day!


Still, I am frustrated at Shazam’s inability to recognise this beautiful “Classics in Jazz” recording I have of a live concert that took place circa 1975. I had it on an audio cassette tape that I later digitised and saved on my computers’ hard disk. I do not know the name of the performing band. All I know is the date of the concert and that it took place in Germany. Despite countless attempts Shazam could not tell me more about it!

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