You know that song? On the radio? By that band? What’s it called? You know, the one with the guitars? That really catchy one?
An app for the iPhone purports to answer questions like that. It’s called Shazam. You’ve undoubtedly heard of it. Apple featured the app in one of its cute TV spots touting the iPhone: “You know when you don’t know what song is playing? And it’s driving you crazy? With the Shazam app from the App Store, you just hold your iPhone to the song and in seconds you’ll know who sings it and where to get it.”
That’s about half right. Shazam Entertainment’s app will sometimes tell you what a song is and who sings or performs it. Sometimes Shazam will surprise you. Often, though, it will drive you crazier than you were to start with.
Briefly, here is how Shazam works: You launch the app and tap the “tag” button at the top right of the screen. Then hold your device close to the source of the song you would like identified. Take utmost care not to cover the microphone! (Because it requires a mic to work, Shazam isn’t compatible with the original iPod touch; second-generation models are supported.) Shazam will take a short sample of the track, “analyze” it, and spit back an answer a few seconds later. About a quarter of the time, the answer is “Sorry, we can’t tag this music.”
Shazam handles some music better than others. Shazam loves current Top 40 hits, most classic rock, and indie favorites. Shazam doesn’t particularly care for movie scores, obscure indie rock, surf music, or ’90s vintage hardcore, and is often confused by electronica—among other things. I didn’t even bother to see if Shazam could distinguish early Beethoven from late Mozart—too many recordings, I suspect, for Shazam’s galley slaves to wrap their collective mind around.
Stumping Shazam is easy and fun. When I took my first pass at Shazam, I selected soundtracks and scores from my iTunes library to test Shazam’s magic. I didn’t set out to choose obscure cues or snippets from even more obscure movies. I simply went down the list of albums and selected a representative track or two from each. Of 60 selections, Shazam identified 42 titles correctly. Of those titles, Shazam identified just 33 of the artists correctly or at all.
The app does better with straight-ahead popular music, although sometimes Shazam’s hearing can be a little bit off. I sampled around 150 more or less well-known songs from a few iTunes Genius playlists that I’ve saved. Shazam’s success rate was closer to 85 percent, with some surprising stumbles. Shazam first misidentified The Clash’s “London Calling” as “Ball O’ Fire” by the Skatalites, then couldn’t identify the song at all. Shazam got it right on the third attempt. This happens a lot with Shazam. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Shazam is error-prone in other ways. If you do successfully tag a track or an artist, Shazam lets you purchase the track from the iTunes Music Store or peruse the artist’s biography and discography. If the song is associated with a YouTube video, Shazam gives you a link—often to pirated material or, in one notable instance, to a video of a pair of teenage girls dancing along to Bono and the Secret Machines. The discographies link to albums, and the albums link to songs samples that do not play. Shazam is full of mysteries.
When you read a biography of an artist, it helps to know something about the artist before hand. Sometimes, Shazam’s information is correct. Sometimes the information is laughably wrong.
For what it’s worth, you can sort your tags in Shazam by song title, artist and date. There is also a way to sort out your untagged samples. Shazam requires a Wi-Fi, EDGE, or 3G connection to work, so if you take a song sample someplace where you don’t have a strong signal, the app will save the tags to send later—delayed frustration, as it were.
Shazam wants you to share your tags and encourage your friends to buy more music. (“Dude! Check out this cool song I just heard by a band called The Skatalites! They sound exactly like The Clash!”) Tap on a song in your tag list and scroll down to “Share tag.” Shazam will launch your device’s Mail app with an automatically generated e-mail. The recipient can then buy the song from iTunes, if there is a link—but no guarantees. That’s another one of Shazam’s mysteries.
There is apparently no way for an informed user to contribute to the sum of the app’s shallow pool of knowledge. Shazam is adequate at telling you, as if by magic, the name of that catchy song by this week’s hot band that is likely to be next week’s one-hit wonder, if remembered at all.
Too bad. What Shazam doesn’t know could fill many excellent record collections.
Shazam is compatible with any iPhone or second-generation iPod touch running the iPhone 2.1 software update.
[Ben Boychuk doesn’t mean to brag, but he can name that tune in two notes. He’s a freelance writer and columnist in Rialto, Calif.]
This article was update at 2:27 p.m. PT to add EDGE to the list of network connections Shazam works with.