Archive for February, 2010

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Music infographics: two sets to explore

February 27, 2010

Visualizing the Beatles: Graphic designer Michael Deal is heading up a collaborative project of Beatles-related infographics, Charting the Beatles. Some stunning examples are on his site (the one above, for example, is a visualization of the keys of songs in Revolver; click here for the full graphic and key) and many more, in a wide array of styles, can be found at the Flickr group. [via Visualizing Music, which you should be reading if this stuff turns you on.]

Sample Maps: Author and musician Ethan Hein is currently writing a book titled Cold Technology, Hot Beats: The Soul of Electronic Music. As part of this project, he’s been preparing ‘sample maps,’ graphics that show the relationships between songs and artists via samples (the one above is for Bjork – click for a larger version – and you can see the full set here).

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Music and mood

February 20, 2010

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen this tweet about a week ago:

Warning: Listening to @TheMagFields‘ “All the Umbrellas” can induce psychosomatic cardiac fracture, even in asymptomatic individuals.

followed a day or so later by this:

I am declaring a temporary moratorium on the Magnetic Fields, the National, and the Mountain Goats for the sake of my emotional health.

One of the reasons why I love pop music is the perfect fusion of lyrics and music to create an enormous emotional impact. And these three artists are absolute masters: the cello strokes underlining the chorus in the aforementioned “All the Umbrellas in London,” the way John Darnielle’s voice reaches for and breaks on the high notes in “Woke Up New,” the world-weary timbre of Matt Berninger’s baritone in “Slow Show.” But my decision to take a break from three of my favourite artists was prompted by these words by that other aficionado of the three-minute pop song, Nick Hornby:

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

(Some of you may remember this as the opening soliloquy in the film version of High Fidelity.)

I decided that, much as I love these three artists, I was on track to test out that second hypothesis. And I figured it wasn’t the kind of experiment that would get ethical approval.

In terms of music and mood (‘affect regulation’), there are two general approaches: to listen to music that aligns with your mood, or to listen to music to distract you or change your mood. There’s some evidence of gender differences: women may be more likely to listen to music that allows them to focus on their negative mood, while men may be more likely to choose music that lets them overcome it.  But it doesn’t seem to be terribly well-understood right now. A new iPhone app, MoodAgent, classifies your music and allows you to create playlists based on mood. It’s only been out for a month or so, and already a psychology professor has announced that he’s planning on using it as a tool to examine these relationships between music and emotions.

(focus) MP3: The Magnetic Fields – All the Umbrellas in London [buy]

(distraction) MP3: Mission of Burma – 1, 2 ,3, Partyy! [buy]

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Why do we love the songs that we love?

February 9, 2010

I love the movie Zero Effect. I’d recommend it to you, but I’m not sure you’d like it. It’s not the best movie out there, but something about it just speaks to me.  It’s my favourite example of how my regard for something has both a component that is a recognition of technical proficiency (how good something is—in the case of Zero Effect, Jake Kasdan‘s debut feature film, decent but not amazing) and a component that’s just, well, how much I like it.

I thought of this film recently as I got sucked into the exercise of creating  a list of my hypothetical personal top 20 songs (I say ‘hypothetical’ because  I don’t know how many will end up in the list. I’m not a listmaker by nature; I’m always impressed by the singlemindedness of someone like John Peel, who can say “This is my favourite song ever.“) Collating the songs I loved turned out to be an interesting exercise because of, not to be overly solipsistic,  what it says about myself. I’m incredibly lyrics-focused (if you’re reading this, that presumably comes as no surprise) but I was also struck by how all of the songs engendered such a strong emotional response from me.

With an essentially infinite number of songs out there, what distinguishes the ones we love from those that we merely like? I suspect that, for most of us, it’s not going to be the technical proficiency. It’s going to be the songs that just speak to us, that resonate with us emotionally. Since we all have different personalities and experiences, we’re necessarily going to have highly idiosyncratic and individualized response to music.

If emotional resonance is a significant factor in how we feel about a given piece of music, then how we get exposed to new music is likely to affect how much we like it. Think about the music in these situations:

  • something you hear on the PA in a store
  • a new song that comes up on your Pandora station
  • an artist you check out based on a positive review
  • an album recommended by a trusted friend
  • a mix CD made for you by a new lover

It’s pretty easy to surmise that the latter few situations will give the music in question a big boost on the emotional resonance front.

What do you think? Why are your favourite songs your favourite songs?

MP3: The Undertones – Teenage Kicks [buy]

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Crowdsourcing the “I Hate [City]” playlist

February 3, 2010

Despite being dedicated urban dwellers, a couple of my friends and I started talking about songs that express an antipathy toward cities; in particular, songs that expressed a dislike for a specific city. We have a starter set (see below), but I thought I’d crowdsource it a bit – can you think of songs that fit the description? Suggestions in the comments, please!

EDIT: Quinn adds: “Bonus points for songs that hate on SF!”

MP3: (Winnipeg) The Weakerthans – One Great City! [buy]

MP3: (New York) LCD Soundsystem – New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down [buy]

MP3: (Boston) Dismemberment Plan – Ice of Boston (live) [buy]

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