Your smartphone is a pocket portal to information on just about every song and movie in history, thanks to the internet — and it’s better than you might have realised at matching what’s in the real world to the wealth of data on the web.
Of course, there aren’t going to be too many occasions when you won’t know what you’re listening to or what you’re watching — it’s usually going to be you who has picked the music or movies in the first place — but when the situation comes up, here’s how to quickly and easily identify any song or movie you come across using just your phone.
Identify any song using your phone
The latest Google Pixel phones can identify songs playing in the background without you having to do anything at all — the title and artist just pop up on screen. From Settings, go to Sound and Now playing to turn it on (it’ll even keep a history of the songs it’s heard even if you don’t check right while the track is playing).
You can call the Google Assistant into action to identify a song as well, though oddly it only works on Android and not iOS: Just say or type, “What song is this?” and after a few seconds, you should have a match. If you launch a Google voice search (via the microphone icon on the Google app search bar, for example), you might see a What’s this song? button if Google recognises music is playing, so you can also just tap this to get a result.
Siri works in the same way. If you say, “Hey Siri” (or hold down the side button on your iPhone), then ask, “What song is this?” you should get the right result back fairly promptly. While we didn’t have time for a detailed run of experiments, Siri and Google Assistant seem similar in terms of speed and accuracy when it comes to recognising songs.
Then, of course, there’s Shazam, which is now owned by Apple but still exists as a separate app for Android and iOS. You can identify songs that are playing in your current location by tapping the big S button on the main screen, or use the background listening feature that works a bit like the Now playing option on the Pixels — for the second option, you’ll find an option called Auto Shazam in the app settings, which you need to turn on.
SoundHound for Android and iOS is another great option for identifying tunes: Just tap the S button on the front screen to tell the app to start listening. You can’t have SoundHound listening in the background all the time like you can with Shazam, but what you can do is hum or sing a song to try and get SoundHound to recognise it — this works more often than not, we’ve found, though obviously it depends on the quality of your delivery.
Another option, if you can hear the words to the song, is to type a snippet of the lyrics into your favourite web search engine. Based on our experience, this will often bring you the results you’re looking for, though the more lines of lyrics you can remember and the more unusual the phrasing the better (searching for “I love you lyrics” probably won’t get you directly to the song you’re after, as there are dozens of tracks with that title).
Identify any movie using your phone
Movies are a little tricker: There isn’t really a ‘Shazam for movies,’ as it were, perhaps because it’s less likely that you’re going to be watching something that you don’t know the title of. It can definitely still happen though, if you catch a glimpse of a screen in a bar or a hotel lobby, while you’re channel-surfing or walking through an electronics store, or if you’re watching a movie supercut on YouTube.
If your film knowledge is good enough to recognise one or two of the actors involved, we’ve found that a quick web search for these names together usually throws up the right result. Add in as many extra keywords as you can, including the setting and movie genre if you can identify it, and you’ll usually get the match you’re looking for.
If that’s not an option, try taking a photo of one of the movie scenes and run a web search through Google Images on that instead. Admittedly this can be a bit hit and miss — close-ups of actors or distinctive sets and locations work best — but we’ve found that a lot of the time it can lead you to something related to the film, or at least tell you who one of the stars is.
Google search and Google Assistant are better than you might think at identifying movies from scraps of information, like a character, a scene, a line of dialog. Ask Google Assistant what the film with the big blue man is, and it’ll respond with The Watchmen; ask it about the film with the big space bugs, and it knows you mean Starship Troopers. Siri isn’t yet up to speed on these sorts of questions, so you’ll need to use Google’s app here.
Another Google app, YouTube for Android and iOS, can help you as well, though here you usually have to be more specific about what you’ve seen in a film. A YouTube search for “movie scene woman gets off bus” won’t get you to The Royal Tenenbaums, but “Gwyneth Paltrow gets off bus” will.
The music apps we mentioned above can help identify movies as well — sometimes. You don’t have to wait for a big musical number or the closing credits — they’re very often able to pick up background or instrumental music that appears on a film’s score, giving you another way of figuring out what you’re watching. This depends on the sound being on and you being close enough to record it, of course.