No longer content to just play Wordle — the free, daily, five-letter word game, independently created by Josh Wardle in 2021, then purchased by the New York Times — many of that app’s daily users with a love for music are quickly becoming acquainted with, and addicted to, Heardle.
Also known as “that daily musical intros game,” the barely-month-old Heardle combines the guessing format of Wordle with the fun of the classic game show “Name That Tune.” Heardle does all this while challenging your aural proximity to the currency of pop, hip-hop, rock and electro. Think Bruno Mars, Childish Gambino, Coldplay and Daft Punk.
The instructions for Heardle are simple: listen to the intro, then guess the correct artist and song title in six tries or less.
Of course, the goal is to guess this in as few notes as possible, so to win bragging rights with your fellow music geeks. Beware, however: Heardle does not make it easy. Even beloved songs such as “Ms. Jackson” from Outkast or “Truth Hurts” from Lizzo, to name two that have popped up in March, weren’t simple to guess, despite their omnipresence in popular culture. You’ll hear a drum snap or a guitar loop that may sound hauntingly familiar, yet every try can be a dizzying ride down the rabbit hole of pop.
Unlike Josh Wardle, the much-publicized creator of Wordle, the man behind Heardle isn’t entirely keen on being found out, quite yet.
“It’s gone massive really quickly, so I’m still figuring out how to stay anonymous,” the London-based web and app designer behind Heardle tells Variety, which spoke with him on the condition of honoring his wish to protect his identity. The man we’ll call “Nigel Heardle” is more used to aiding local British companies “develop and build products and services” than craft instantly beloved games for international pop music heads.
Like some of the.other app-makers who love Wordle and created their own variation of the word game app (Nerdle for mathletes, Lewdle for foul mouths, et al.), he says the decision to create Heardle wasn’t a conscious attempt to come up with something that would go viral on its own.
“I was working for a start-up until December 2021, when they ran out of money, and I was out of a gig,” says Nigel Heardle. “I’m still between jobs at the moment, and like everyone in January, I began playing Wordle and posting my scores on a group chat site where my friends would also talk about their scores.”
After sending that group-site friend a DM joke about creating his own game – “something called Heardle where you’d have to guess songs rather than words” – he was goaded into doing just that, creating an app. “My friend had been a music journalist, and reminded me that I had nothing else going on, so why not.”
The first prototype of Heardle was built within a day of that discussion, was secretly released to that friend-group site immediately (“to all eight of them,” he laughs), then went out to the world on Feb. 26 with the song “Intro” from the British band the XX as the first answer to the first Heardle.
“From there it snowballed and went from being something where I was killing time with friends to this bigger thing,” says the sole programmer behind Heardle. “It’s effectively just me creating, curating and running it all,” he states.
It went from eight friends playing to getting over a million Heardle users a day. On March 15, the day he spoke to Variety, the app creator claims that his Heardle received 1.75 individual views.
On the idea of using SoundCloud as the basis for Heardle’s musical selections, the programmer states that the online audio distribution platform and music sharing website was the easiest to get working within a day.
“The way that SoundCloud allows you to embed a player in a website was the quickest way to get from its idea to its execution,” he says. “This also means that each selection has to come from SoundCloud.” Apple bills SoundCloud as “the world’s largest music and audio streaming platform – 275 million tracks and growing… where you can find the next big artists alongside chart-topping albums, live sets, and mixes,” so there are few limits on what can be selected by its curator.
“The only problem is that, so far, Heardle’s primary audience is predictably Anglophile countries such as the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Canada, so not all songs we choose are available in every country – yet – when it comes to intricacies of music licensing and streaming rights.”
SoundCloud has a strong anti-piracy algorithm to combat the number of illegal music downloads, and is covered by the licensing rights and fees afforded all streaming sites. Licensing music through SoundCloud is similar across all territories, and the promise of it becoming more of a one-stop-shop for all music steams and distribution, a la Spotify, is on the horizon. “It is remarkably convenient to use in every way,” says Nigel Heardle, whose website carries this legend: “Much love, and all relevant copyright, to those featured.”
SoundCloud also claims to be the first music company to introduce fan-powered royalties, “where independent artists can get paid more because of their dedicated fans,” while making copyright automatically granted to artists when they begin creating and publishing their work on SoundCloud. As fresh, small labels and independent artists, especially those in hip-hop, upload their own work onto SoundCloud, the site is a haven for a preponderance of new artists, as well as legacy musicians.
And it is mostly artists of the 21st century, so far, where Heardle’s creator “semi-randomly plucks” his daily selection.
“Initially it was at random from, say, lists of the most streamed songs of the moment or the era,” says Heardle’s anonymous creator. “I did find, however, that not all of them necessarily had intros that were well suited to the game. So, now it’s more curated, and I’m picking more from popular songs and curating a bit to choose those songs with interesting and iconic intros. Plus, some of my friends from that chat group advise me to the effectiveness of each track. Beyond that, it’s all me.”
As Heardle grew in popularity, its inventor moved from more current “modern” tracks to songs that were older in vintage, “as long as they work within the stages of an interesting intro with one second for the first choice, two seconds for the next choice, and so on.”
So far, that has meant Ariana Grande and her “7 Rings” Rodgers & Hammerstein interpolation, Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” (and its leading Marilyn Manson sample from “The Beautiful People”), Lil Nas X’s “That’s What I Want,” Kings of Leon’ “Use Somebody,” and songs from Benny Blanco (feat. Halsey and Khalid), Wheatus and more. It has also meant older tracks such as those from Blur, Nirvana, Rihanna, Al Green and Whitney Houston.
The challenge of a difficult track, and giving Heardlers a “serotonin rush” when they’re victorious, is thrilling for the game’s curator. “We’re hearing on social media how thrilled people are to get an Ariana Grande song on the first note and that we inspire a good feeling,” says Heardle. “Sometimes we try to stump people, like with the Kayne/Marilyn Manson possibilities, and to question the idea of what genre is, and what Kanye’s music is about period.”
As a “website with an app domain,” rather than app you can download currently from a store, the anonymous Heardle curator made his game free, like Wordle, as a low barrier for entry. “I don’t think Wordle would have had as much impact or immediacy had it not been free,” the Heardler surmises. “Also, it’s just quicker to have made it a website.”
And while there was great consternation among players when Josh Wardle sold Wordle to the New York Times corporation (so far, it still remains free), the man behind Heardle would be open to selling his music game app if, for no other reason than to make a living. “It’s still very early, and I’m just getting my head around the impact of what this thing is. But for the last few weeks, it really is all me treading water and keeping Heardle going and fun for everyone. So far, people have been nice, donating money to the site to help me keep it running. Eventually, however, if this becomes long-lasting and bigger than me – if I could get resources to make the site better and support what players are asking for, which is a bigger responsibility – I think I would consider any outside financial possibility. Look, I started Heardle for eight people, and now it has millions of players, so anything is possible.”
As for growing beyond eight friends and 2 million fans, the Heardle curator says that he witnessed several musicians coming out as the game’s most avid fans, including Questlove from the Roots.
“He’s been playing and posting about it on Twitter,” remarks the curator. “I’m a big fan of Questlove; his knowledge of music is extensive and having a self-titled ‘music geek’ onboard is exciting. That he’s doing this every day is a real highlight for me.”
Hrishikesh Hirway – the man behind the Song Exploder podcast and the Netflix series of the same name – took time from his current tour to express his love for Heardle, even if it is fleeting. “I have played it exactly once – the answer was ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac – and it was fun, but I forgot to keep playing it.”
Then there is Mike Hadreas, the singer and songwriter known as Perfume Genius.
Currently on tour after playing SXSW, Hadreas is a very enthusiastic Wordle player who has also given Heardle an enthusiastic turn. “I tried several days in a row, and like the idea, but it had mostly Top 40 songs that I don’t know,” he says. “I just don’t know Ariana Grande and stuff like that. Or the songs that even sound like her. Now all the children will come for me for saying that.”
The brain behind Heardle may not want people to know his name, but he realizes that, like Wordle, his creation has become iconic, and part of people’s daily routine. Heardle is as necessary to some as coffee in the morning, an exercise routine or a favorite television program.
“I love hearing that, but right now, if you put a gun to my head, I’d say that Heardle is stressful and fun,” he says with a laugh.
“Imagine you were a DJ for millions of people every day, but you’re only allowed to play one song,” he says. “There’s a lot of pressure around that one song choice. The feedback is usually generational, where the young people want more new songs, and the older people want songs from their generation. I’m hoping that both sides can be open to music of all ages, that we all have fun, and that we music we use on Heardle of course conjures memories of a time you loved, but also opens you up to great artists you may not know. If I can do that, trigger a good memory or remind everyone how powerful music can be, every minute of Heardle will be worth it all.”