Shazam — The truly “magical” app

Futurist Sir Arthur C. Clarke, in his pursuit of defining claims about the future of scientific and technological developments, put together three prediction-related adages that are known as Clarke’s three laws. The most popular one, Clarke’s third law, states the following:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” — Sir Arthur C. Clarke

This is what Shazam, the music identification app, feels like for users: advanced technology that is almost indistinguishable from magic. Shazam, the crystal ball that tells you what music you are listening to with the push of a single button, does feel a lot like magic.

Shazam Music Identification Screens

What does Shazam do?

Before Shazam existed, in order to find the name of a song we’ve heard, we had to either memorize some of the lyrics of the song and Google them or go through a radio’s playlist and listen to hundreds of songs hoping to find the song we were looking for. It wasn’t only a lot of effort, it just didn’t work. Sometimes there were no lyrics in the music we’ve heard or we would forget the lyrics before we could search them, or the radio playlists we found online wouldn’t have the song we were looking for. Shazam changed all this completely when it gave us the magical “Touch to Shazam” button.

Shazam uses a smartphone or computer’s built-in microphone to gather a brief sample of audio. It creates an acoustic fingerprint based on the sample and compares it against a central database for a match (Interesting read on its technical details). If Shazam finds a match, it sends the artist, song title, and album information back to the user. When reporting info about the song, it incorporates relevant links to services such as iTunes, Spotify or YouTube, where users can buy the track / listen via streaming / watch the video clip / read the lyrics.

Even though Shazam also has visual recognition capabilities, allowing it to integrate with cinema, print, TV and retail environments, music identification is what it’s mostly used for. Shazam’s business model is based on generating revenue from advertising within the app, purchases sent to iTunes or Google Play, traffic sent to streaming services like Spotify, and subscriptions to its paid Encore membership which removes the ads within the app. Shazam has 100M monthly active users tagging songs 20M times a day (2014), making it the most widely used audio recognition tool in the market.

Why is it awesome?

Simplicity: Shazam’s UI is designed with extreme simplicity. When you launch the app, you have one flashing “Touch to Shazam” button you can press that covers almost 50% of your mobile screen. Even if you are occupied with doing other tasks and/or using your phone with one hand, it is still almost impossible to make an error in using the app. After the audio recognition step, you very simply get the answer to your question. There is no room for error and no learning required to use the app.

Speed: In my personal experiments, Shazam was able to give me a result in 1.7 seconds on average (Using an Iphone 6S and Shazam app version 9.3.0 while connected to wifi). This is incredibly fast! Remember what Shazam actually does in this amount of time: Records an audio sample, creates an acoustic fingerprint, searches for a match on its database and sends the result back to the mobile device. For comparison, Soundhound, a competitive audio recognition app, gave me results in 2.7 seconds on average with the same experiment setup. If the 1 second difference doesn’t sound like much, in other words, Shazam was 57% faster!

Seamless Integration: I’m an avid Spotify Premium user, I’ve never bought a single piece of music from iTunes or Google Play. I believe I also represent the future of the digital music user. Shazam’s seamless integration with Spotify provides a perfect user experience, specifically because of these 3 integration features:

  1. Being able to listen to a full song I’ve tagged without leaving Shazam.

2. The option to add my shazamed songs to Spotify playlists.

3. Easily find all the sounds that I’ve shazamed in an automatically updated “My Shazam Tracks” playlist in Spotify.

Adding a song to a Spotify playlist on the music identification screen (left) and shazamed tracks automatically managed in “My Shazam Tracks” playlist in Spotify (right)

The Shazam-Spotify integration is great because it improves the user experience in both apps — the way an ideal integration is supposed to work. By connecting Shazam and Spotify, users can add new features only enabled with the integration of these two products, like finding every track that they’ve shazamed in Spotify or playing full songs in Shazam using the Spotify player.

It’s also worth noting here that another reason why Shazam is awesome is that it is one of those very few brands that has actually spawned it’s own verb. Shazaming, just like googling or skyping, has become a verb we use everyday.

What can Shazam do to make it even better?

Shazam is truly a great product with a great technology. However, there are opportunities Shazam can explore by improving on its existing technology even further:

Make it easier and faster for users to tag songs with mobile devices

  • The problem: Users hear songs that they would love to tag at moments where they don’t have a lot of time to do so. Even though the Shazam app is fast at recognizing songs, the time it takes to complete the steps to tag a song (unlocking the phone, launching the app and tapping the “Touch to Shazam” button) can cause users to miss the opportunity to capture a useful audio sample and tag the song they like.
  • The solution: Working with mobile OS manufacturers to add a Shazam button on the lock screen of phones in order to reduce the number of clicks and amount of time required to tag a song with Shazam.
Example mock-up of what the Shazam button could look like on the iPhone lock screen control center
  • Desired user outcome: Ben gets in a cab and hears a song that he really likes playing on the radio, but the song is coming to an end. He gets the phone out of his pocket, turns Shazam on with 1 click on the lock screen and manages to catch the last 3–4 seconds of the song on the radio with Shazam. He skips unlocking his phone, opening the Shazam app and pressing the “Touch to Shazam” button, and manages to tag the song he liked before it ends.

Link music-related visual content in the physical world to digital music

  • The problem: Users often see a poster, billboard, print ad or TV ad for a new artist/type of music they might be interested in listening to. In order to listen to this artist/music, they will have to go through the process of searching online (possibly forget the name they saw if they didn’t note it down) and manually look for the artist’s songs on services like Youtube or Spotify. Even then, users will have to go through a decent number of examples to figure out the popular songs from this artist/genre. This inefficiency leads to a drop off in various stages because this manual process requires unnecessary time and effort to connect with the music they might enjoy.
  • The solution: Recognizing text and visuals that have artist names, song names, music genres in the physical world and link users to related smart content. After recognition, delivering tailored results based on the user request, like most shazamed songs of an artist, artist’s concert information, video clips etc.
Example mock-up of visually shazaming a poster with music genre info
  • Desired User Outcome: Jenny, while walking on the street, sees a poster for a bassa nova concert. She is intrigued by the genre name, but doesn’t know what it is. She launches the Shazam app, taps on the camera icon for visual recognition and Shazam gives her a list with the most shazamed bassa nova songs. She listens to a few songs in Shazam in full using her Spotify integration and gets a good understanding of bassa nova in only a few clicks and buys concert tickets through the link in Shazam.

Expand Shazam’s magical capabilities to solve a very different problem: Restaurant menus

  • The problem: When diners go to a new restaurant, they have a hard time imagining what an actual dish would look like reading from the descriptions. Often, they go to their phones for apps like Yelp or Foursquare or do a Google search to find photos of the dishes that they are interested in. This leads the users to spend a decent amount time scrolling through different photos to find the photos of the dish they are interested in. Even after all this effort, there is a good chance that they can’t find any photos or the photos they find are low quality and unappealing.
  • The solution: Making restaurant menus Shazamable using Shazam’s visual recognition capabilities. Whenever a user scans a physical restaurant menu with Shazam, opening up an interactive restaurant menu in Shazam with photos, videos and detailed information.
  • Desired User Outcome: Rob goes to a new restaurant to try it out for the first time. He reads the menu but he can’t make a choice by reading the dish labels, he needs more info. He launches the Shazam app, points the phone camera at the menu, scans it using visual recognition and Shazam gives Rob an interactive restaurant menu. In the interactive menu, Rob can browse through different dishes, look at photos, read detailed descriptions of the ingredients and see nutrition info. He examines the details and makes an informed meal choice.

The Future for Shazam

Shazam has the potential to become the recognition platform for everything. With audio and visual recognition capabilities improving everyday, Shazam is taking important steps towards its mission of making the world “Shazamable”. We should be ready for the day when Shazam becomes the platform that eliminates the friction that exists between the physical and digital world completely: Giving us answers and connecting these answers with all of our digital tools with only a single tap, eliminating the need to type or speak. Continuing this trajectory of innovation, 100 million monthly active users will only be the beginning for Shazam. It will be very exciting to see how Shazam continues to deliver magic for users.