Archive for March, 2010


Watch: The Heart Is A Drum Machine

March 29, 2010

What is music?

That’s the central question behind The Heart is a Drum Machine, a feature-length documentary from Lightyear Entertainment (Moog). It’s addressed by a host of interviewees, mostly musicians, with a sound engineer, a couple of scientists, and an author thrown in for color. A discussion of the Voyager Golden Record project bookends the film, in which the creative director on the project, Ann Druyan, talks about the universality of music to humanity, and the hope that it would prove to be able to communicate beyond our species:  “Hey, that’s a cool planet – they’re making some good music.”

The musicians vary widely in how articulate they are about music, with Wayne Coyne, predictably, at the high end, and Isaac Brock at the low—to be fair, musicians have a whole other vocabulary that they use to answer that question every day. And I never, ever want to hear someone unironically use the word ‘synergize’ with reference to art (I’m looking at you, Juliette Lewis). But many of the interviewees are engaging, funny or thought-provoking. One of the more interesting segments in the film is on deaf musicians, who ‘hear’ the music through physical vibrations alone (the short discussion on how they can tell they’re in tune is fascinating).

As a film, it focuses on presenting multiple facets of the experience of music, so it doesn’t really strongly develop an overall theme. But the individual pieces are mostly intriguing, and at a very brief 73 minutes, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Amazon Netflix


Off-topic: Ada Lovelace Day post (kind of)

March 24, 2010

Cambridge-based Science Club for Girls asked a number of women who work in science and technology, including me, to write a letter to our younger selves as part of their celebration of Women’s History Month. Inspired by picking up a soldering iron for the first time in years and making an Atari Punk Console at Music Hack Day last fall, I wrote the following to my 13-year-old self (who, yes, is the dorky kid in the picture), in the summer before I started high school. Note the postscript, which references the first album I remember actively acquiring.

Dear Debbie:

It’s cold and bright here in Boston, and I’m sure it’s hot and bright where you are. Right now, you’re taking Grade 9 math (or, as I’ve learned to say now that I live in the US, 9th grade math) in summer school, before you start high school, so you can get ahead in your math requirements.  It’s a good place to start.

You’ve registered to take auto shop and electrical shop at your new school in the fall. I hate to say this, but the classes are kind of going to suck. You’ll be the only girl in both, and the boys are going to give you a hard time, and the teachers aren’t going to notice or care. And someone is going to steal your notes right before the electrical shop exam. (Don’t worry – you’ll do fine. Just make sure you check your math!).

It’s not going to be the best of experiences, but I want you to hold onto how much you love making stuff. Remember when you were really little, and you spent all your time in the basement with LEGO, Tinker Toys, and puzzles? I know that your favorite free-time activity these days is reading, but I want to encourage you to keep finding ways to create things. Keep writing programs for your Apple IIe. Ask our parents for some of the new LEGO Technic. Look in the phone book for a place to buy model rocketry stuff. Setting off explosions kind of scares you, yes. But I also know that you can do things that scare you – that’s why you learned how to weld in metal shop last year, right?

Because here’s the thing: you’re good at math and physics. Yes, I know you haven’t done any physics yet – I promise you, you’re good at it. And that’ll get you really far – through college (whoops, that’s ‘university’ to you) and graduate school. But no one is really going to give you many opportunities to build things, and you’ll really want to, trust me. There’s a distinctive pleasure to holding something that you’ve made, and you’ll get a tremendous confidence boost from it – it’s the difference between, “I’m not sure,” and “Of course I can.” Figuring out how to solve a physics problem is one thing; figuring out how to put something together is quite another. You’ll get lots of practice with the first, but you’ll need to make your own experiences with the second.

So go out there and start making things. And keep making things.

But let me tell you – the future is pretty awesome. Just one example: you know that new Apple Macintosh computer that Ms. Hamilton, the librarian, got this year to catalog the library? And how cool it was compared to all the Apple IIs in the computer lab? You will not believe what I’m holding in my hand right now…

Much love from the 21st century,


PS: Can I ask you a favor? David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the LP that you have? Would you mind hanging on to it? Your future self thanks you.

[cross-posted from here]


Lady Gaga vs other artists: a graph

March 22, 2010

It’s conventional wisdom that songs need to be heard 5-7 times before they ‘register’ on the listener (hence the motivation for payola).

Thanks to, and commiseration with, Mark, who helped inspire this graph.


Mobile collaborative playlisting (a prototype)

March 19, 2010

One of my colleagues at Olin College, Mark Chang, teaches a course on Mobile Applications Development. Instead of a midterm exam, he runs a design contest. We invited Paul Lamere of Echo Nest to campus to talk about their APIs, and Mark’s students had ten days to build an app for the Android that used those tools – kind of like Music Hack Day. Mark was kind enough to ask me to be a judge, so I got to see all the great prototypes they came up with.

While all of the apps were excellent, the one that I thought had the most interesting concept was the DJMixr (by students Miguel Bejar, Rhan Kim, Hyeontaek Oh, and Poorva Singal), an app to make a collaborative playlist for a party. The app would allow guests to add songs to the playlist directly, and also would scrobble song information from the phone’s music player (it would be backed with a streaming on-demand music player, so it would only transfer the song information, not the songs themselves). The Echo Nest back end would be used to interpolate recommendations based on the seed songs, in order to allow smooth transitions between songs to avoid musical whiplash.

While this app is just a prototype, of course, one of the things I find intriguing about this is that it’s a different social model for the music at a party. Rather than having one person be responsible, or at best having people wandering over to a laptop between drinks to maybe add a song or two or change the Pandora station, an application like this would make it possible to have a truly collaboratively generated soundtrack to an event. It seems like there would be some interesting emergent behaviors, like maybe a metastable equilibrium between music for the people who want to dance and those dedicated to indie rock. What do you think?


Lyrics: how important are they to you?

March 11, 2010

How integral are lyrics to your experience of music? Do you just hear the music unless you are consciously listening for the lyrics? Do you always reach for a lyrics sheet when you get a new album?

After a recent post, in which I discussed the emotional effect of music and lyrics, I’ve talked to a number of people who’ve said, “I don’t really notice the words.” One of my friends remarked that he can’t be trusted to make mix CDs for people who do notice lyrics, like his wife, since he’ll inadvertently include songs on wildly inappropriate topics. I’m in the other camp; for example, I generally prefer instrumentals in techno or electronica, because any words are usually considered as a musical element. Since the meaning itself is usually secondary, they tend to be, for me, distractingly inane.

But this made me wonder: what proportion of people are in each camp? Do you notice and pay attention to the lyrics? Or do you not generally notice them?

So I hereby present a highly unscientific poll:

Feel free to amplify your response in the comments.

MP3: Matias Aguayo – Minimal (DJ Koze Radio Edit)

Image:Singing some Mendelsson tonight:” by Flickr user brownpau, reposted here under its Creative Commons license.


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