Having recently gone through an extensive process — well, thirty minutes or so of searching — to find a piece of music, I wanted to document the approaches I know of for this process.
Here, for "music", I'm primarily thinking about relatively modern Western dance music from the 1970s to the present day — disco to dubstep, and beyond. Some ideas detailed here may well apply to other genres and time periods.
Take a recording
What if you're listening to something right now and want to track it down? Record it. There's a lot to be said about the ubiquity of phones. Here though, having a portable recording device in your pocket is really useful. Someone you want to ask or some tool you want to use will have a much easier time with a real recording, even if imperfect, over merely a description or your best guess at humming or singing the music.
There are several music recognition applications that are very effective and well-known these days. These typically work by submitting an audio fingerprint to the application owner's servers and searching for that in their databases. I don't personally use these applications, though I have tried them occasionally in the past.
It is possible to use these applications live while the music is playing. But you still might favour taking a recording first so that you can easily share that elsewhere. Audio recognition applications may not cover every piece of music ever recorded, but they are potentially a useful first look. As these applications often run on mobile devices, there is a privacy-related caveat1, however.
With an audio clip of interest — whether by recording it yourself, or snipping it from an existing piece of digital audio — an alternative is to upload the audio to a site that detects content, e.g. SoundCloud, Mixcloud, YouTube etc. Primarily the reason is for these services to detect copyrighted content and either block your submission, or at least monetise it for the copyright owner. But you can repurpose this to identify the audio for you.
This is also useful if you want to identify lots of tracks from one source, e.g. a DJ mix, in one go. Often, I've listened to things on YouTube and spotted the video description details several of the tracks in there.
And what to do if recording isn't possible, the recording fails or is not clear enough to be useful? If there are lyrics or a vocal sample, then remembering the most frequent lyric and/or distinctive lyrics is helpful. A frequently repeated lyric, or a modification of it, may well be the music's title. Lyric fragments are easily searched for.
Searching for the text used in lyrics or repeated vocal samples can be a good start. Because vocals are often sampled from elsewhere, you may end up first locating the original sample source. If you do, that's a lead: you can next try and search for which tracks sampled that vocal. Especially in early 90s tracks, certain acapellas that were used many, many times.2
You can also search for the name of the genre, along with the lyric snippet. This might also help get you to some place on the web. That might be where the release is indexed in some kind of database, e.g. Discogs. It might occasionally be some place where someone else is asking the same question as you, possibly with a helpful reply.
Try restricting a search to some of the bigger music-related databases
online. You can try using the
site: operator on search engines that
support it to narrow your search. Looking for a combination of the
artist and name of original track, optionally with a genre on Discogs,
site:discogs.com, might help.
If it's a mix with a dated year, you can probably narrow down your search to a year or two; the release may well be from that same year or previous years. It does roughly narrow it down, but not precisely. If the recording is from towards the end of a year, the release might have been the next year (or even later) if it has been shared with DJs ahead of release. If there are commercial issues, e.g. trouble with sample clearance or labels, it might never have been officially released, or may have been released considerably later.
If it's a genre you know well and particularly for Western electronic dance music, especially historically, you can probably have some kind of guess as to when a piece of music was produced to the nearest couple of years. Even for today's dance music, where there might not be the same huge difference in recording techniques as there was from the 1980s to 2000s, there may certainly be trends, common production styles or popular sounds or samples. That said, there's also a fashion for making things sound like they used to — producers can use the same techniques and equipment that were popular during a certain period to replicate it — so don't always assume your guess is correct.
Another approach that might work if others don't and the track was in a DJ set is finding more sets by the same DJ from around the same time period. Narrow down by looking for sets with tracklistings and then skim through to see if the same track appears. This requires some luck, but might just work.
Getting help from others
If you hear the music at an event you're actually attending and a DJ is playing, or played the track, well, you can try asking them either at the event, or after the fact online. This is more likely to be successful at small events. You can always try this if it's a bigger show or the DJ in question is a bigger name, though that may be less successful.
If it's a recorded DJ mix, there may well be a tracklisting somewhere. That goes especially if it's a commercial mix, or if it was a radio broadcast (where stations often list show details on their websites).
If the mix is on SoundCloud or YouTube, you can look at the description or the comments. Sometimes, particularly on SoundCloud, you might get the DJ themselves, the artist or someone else who follows that DJ or genre naming some or all of the tracks.
If all that fails, you could always try asking somewhere online. If it's a mix that's already posted online, you could ask in the comments of that mix. If it's audio that you've recorded elsewhere, you can upload it somewhere, or describe it as best you can. Find a suitable place to then post that question. That could be somewhere more general, like the Discogs forums, or more specific where certain music genres are the focus.
The caveat is that there are possible privacy issues with using these types of applications. These applications may request permissions to record audio, as well as locating you via GPS or to a lesser extent, IP address. Incidentally, Shazam were bought by Apple, and Apple seem to place some priority on user privacy. Having not used Shazam much, if at all, I'm not necessarily advocating it though. ↩
A good question, that I can't answer right now, is why certain vocals were reused so much. Was it because of the availability of the original acapella? Was it because the vocal has a particular sound? Was it a deliberate reference to the existing popular reuse? ↩