Just launched in the UK, Shazam is a search engine that plays “Name That Tune.” Cell phone owners dial a number and play a 15-second song clip (presumably from the radio or a club) into the phone’s receiver. After comparing a hash of the clip against their database of 1.2 million songs, Shazam returns their best guess via SMS text message.
The audio recognition algorithm was developed by chief scientist and co-founder Avery Wang. His 1994 thesis on sound separation is available for download, which provides some clues into how they may be extracting music from voice and other background noise. (More information about the service from the BBC, The Guardian, and Red Herring.)
How long before someone (Google, maybe) creates a web-based version that allows you to upload sound clips for identification? And contribute properly-tagged MP3s from your own collection? A truly comprehensive database of music would help people like Alan Taylor and all these other poor souls.