Archive for the ‘future of music’ Category


Media technologies are additive

October 11, 2011

I’ve been watching the debate over Amazon’s e-book rental service, announced a few weeks ago. I can’t help but notice how it recapitulates the debate over streaming music.

Here’s a pretty normal day for me and music: I’ll listen to the radio in my car en route to work. I take my iPod, loaded with MP3s, to the gym. At my desk, I stream music via Spotify, or, or by using for MP3 links, or Hype Machine, or more. Or I stream more radio. On the way home, I listen to CDs (my car is too old to have an auxiliary input). I might stream Spotify to my phone as I walk out to meet friends for dinner. And I’ll put a vinyl record on when I come home.

Similarly, my office is full of text. Textbooks. Large-format coffee-table style books. My Kindle. Hand-bound copies of all of my theses. PDF e-books on my computer. Printouts of manuscripts to review. Bookmarks to online texts in my browser. Novels: hardbound, trade and pocket paperback. On my phone, Kindle and Instapaper.  Workbooks.

I recently downloaded a number of illustrations from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 book, Kunstformen der Natur, from the Wikimedia Commons. They first existed as sketches, then engravings, then the lithographs that went into the book. Someone scanned the pages and uploaded them as high-resolution images, which I downloaded, opened in image-editing software, converted to greyscale and resized, and then downloaded to serve as the screensavers on my Kindle.

It’s a fallacy to think that the existence of one technology supplants another. Sure, technologies become obsolete. But as a user and a lover of the content (the text, or the music, or the images), I’m not interested in hurrying up the process. Different technologies have different affordances, and my primary interest is in being able to reach for the most appropriate one for my purpose.

[photo: lost box of tapes! by Flickr user wayneandwax, used here under its Creative Commons license]


Rethink Music: the structure of revolutions

April 25, 2011

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn famously wrote about science undergoing “paradigm shifts”: that scientific change occurs in sudden upheavals. It’s normally not all that dramatic, even. What I’ve observed to happen is something like this: at a conference, someone will present evidence for an alternative explanation of data. Some people will listen, some will scoff, and some will go off to do more experiments. The next year, more people are on the side of the ‘novel’ explanation. Repeat for another year or two, and everyone is on board with the new idea.

Watching the music industry evolve and struggle and try to reinvent itself, on the other hand, reminds me of what Kuhn wrote about the humanties. “[A] student in the humanities has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately examine for himself.”

The Rethink Music conference, starting today in Boston, aims to give “creators, academics, and industry professionals” a chance to think and discuss some of these solutions for the music industry.  A collaboration between the Berklee College of Music, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and MIDEM, Rethink Music’s goal is to foster a dialogue between the ‘traditional’ music industry and the artists, researchers, and entrepreneurs who are exploring a musical universe that’s not a holdover from moving around shiny silver discs. The high-powered speaker lineup suggests that Rethink Music is on track: it includes artist management, lawyers, researchers (including Lawrence Lessig and Nancy Baym), CEOs of a host of companies including SonicBids and The Echo Nest, Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler, and RIAA head Cary Sherman sharing a stage with Google’s senior copyright counsel Fred Von Lohmann, formerly of the EFF (I have high hopes for a deathmatch).

Rethink Music is quite unusual in how it’s bringing people from across the spectrum together. As a counterexample, at SXSW Interactive this year, I went to two panel discussions around metadata: the first featured researchers from UC Berkeley, and the second was organized by a representative of NARM (the music industry trade organization). Even though both panels were nominally on the same topic, they were worlds apart: one group was talking about things like crowdsourcing taxonomies of musical knowledge, and the other group was talking about linking MP3s with the release dates of albums. So I’m excited to see Larisa Mann, one of the researchers from Berkeley, on the Rethink Music lineup.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is already some evidence of friction in this uneasy alliance of interests. Wayne Marshall, a DJ and a researcher in ethnomusicology at MIT, withdrew from the conference over the boilerplate language of the speaker contract (you can read his letter to the conference organizers here). Articles on Hypebot and Mashable took issue with the planned release of an ‘instant album’ by Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, Ben Folds, and Damien Kulash of OK Go (Palmer’s response is here). But of course, the tensions are likely to be what makes Rethink Music an interesting few days.


Best of 2010: debcha’s tops in [Boston music] tech

December 23, 2010


Cross-posted from Boston’s best local music blog, Boston Band Crush.


Boston is a music town. And Boston is a tech town. So it’s hardly surprising that Boston and Camberville produce an enormous amount of interesting stuff at the intersection of music and technology. Here are five of my favorite examples from this year:

1. Mashup Breakdown

Benjamin Rahn, of Cambridge, created an addictive site that visualizes the use of samples in songs, and launched it with (of course) Girl Talk’s new album, All Day. As you play tracks from the album, each of the samples used is highlighted and identified. The best part? It’s an ongoing project. So if there’s a song that you’ve always been curious about, go to the site and find out how you can participate.

2. The Swinger

It’s been a great year for Somerville’s The Echo Nest, a music intelligence company. They closed on a major round of funding, and provided the brainpower behind a host of great projects, like MTV’s phenomenal Music Meter site (yes, I know you’re thinking “MTV? Doing something worthwhile with music. Really?” Yes, really. Check it out.) And they had a viral hit on their hands with The Swinger, a bit of computer code that can make any song swing by automagically time-stretching the first half of each beat and shortening the second. Check out some examples here.

3. The Toscanini Gestural Interface

Boston hackers Lindsey Mysse and Robby Grodin showed off the Toscanini Gestural Interface (named after the conductor, not the ice cream) at the most recent Boston Music Hack Day. It’s a watch that turns movement into music (via Max/MSP commands). See it in action in the video here.

4. Dance Central and Rock Band 3

Across from the Middle East, an unremarkable office building houses the giant of music games, Harmonix. While they face an uncertain future, they released not one, but two incredible games this year. You’re probably already spending your evenings rocking out or getting down in your living room.

5. Another Green World (33 1/3 Books)

What possible relationship can a book about a 35-year-old Brian Eno album have with the Boston music/tech scene? Geeta Dayal, a Boston-based arts critic and MIT grad, wrote a short but brilliant book that investigates Eno’s 1975 album, which is deeply rooted in technology and technical concepts, especially in the field of cybernetics (defined and named by MIT professor Norbert Weiner in 1948). Even if you’re not a techie, it’s worth a read for how it illuminates one artist’s creative process.



Deb Chachra (debcha) writes zed equals zee, a Cambridge-based blog about music and technology, and curates the associated Tumblr. You can catch up with her at shows around the city, or you can just follow her on Twitter.

Wanted: a way to aggregate streaming tracks

December 3, 2010

I’ve decided that I really want a mashup of and delicious, with a dash of smart playlisting thrown in.

Here’s the problem: Every day I find cool streaming music in lots of different places. Soundcloud. YouTube. Tumblr. (that’s a piece of my Tumblr dashboard, above). But for most of it, I listen to it once. At most. Because listening to streaming music in an atomized form is a pain. Having to choose and click on a new song every three minutes might be fine for an ADD teenager, but I don’t want my music listening to be completely interrupt-driven. I just want a continuous stream of music I like (and judging by the continuing popularity of online and terrestrial radio, and the love for Shuffler, I’m not alone).

In an MP3-centric world, I’ve dealt with the increasingly decentralized creation and distribution of music by, in essence, centralizing it: by downloading MP3s into my library, and using that as an aggregator. And exfm, which I just started using, is pretty good at getting around the downloading issue. But as more and more music is straight-up streaming, how do we make those tracks into part of our ‘virtual library,’ so that we can find them, embed them into playlists, and otherwise listen at will?

What I really want to be able to do is this: Every time I find a streaming track I’m interested in (whether in Tumblr, YouTube, SoundCloud or anywhere else), I flag it as part of my ‘library’, like delicious does for bookmarks or exfm does for MP3s. Note that, unlike delicious, I don’t want to manually tag it. Because, well, I’m lazy. But also because I either know the song, and I can classify it ways I can’t easily articulate into a folksonomy, or I don’t know it, and can’t classify it at all. So I’d really like some tools to automagically organize it into playlists in a range of ways. And then I’d like to just be able to listen to a Shuffler-like continuous stream that pulls together my flagged streaming tracks, my own MP3s, tracks from streaming services like, and more.

Oh, and I’d also like a pony. Or maybe a unicorn.

What do you think?

This post is the result of a conversation this morning with Jason Herskowitz, prompted by a question from Mark Mulligan.


Brian Whitman, “Music in the Time of Data”

November 23, 2010

Brian Whitman, the co-founder and CTO of The Echo Nest, gave a great talk at Olin College in Needham, MA last week, as part of the Technology and Culture Seminar Series.* His talk was a combination of personal narrative, a recent history of computer-generated music, and a look into the future of the interaction of music and technology.

*For those of you who only know me through this blog or Twitter: I’m on the faculty of Olin College and an organizer of the seminar series, and that’s me doing the intro. And yes, I have the best job ever.


Engineering and music at the Frontiers of Engineering

October 4, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend the National Academy of Engineering’s Frontiers of Engineering symposium on behalf of my day job. One of the sessions focused on Engineering and Music, organized by Daniel Ellis of Columbia University and Youngmoo Kim of Drexel University, and some of my notes are below. (Links in the titles go to PDFs of short papers by each speaker.)

Brian Whitman, The Echo Nest: Very Large-Scale Music Understanding

What does it mean to “teach computers to listen to music“? Whitman, co-founder and CTO of The Echo Nest, talked about the path to founding the company as well as some of its guiding principles. Whitman discussed the company’s approach to learning about music, which mixes acoustic analysis of the music itself with information gleaned by applying natural language processing techniques to what people are writing on the Internet about the songs, artists or albums. He shared their three precepts: “Know everything about music and listeners. Give (and sell) great data to everyone. Do it automatically, with no bias, on everything.” Finally, he ended on a carefully optimistic note: “Be cautious what you believe a computer can do…but data is the future of music.” Earlier this year, Whitman gave a related but longer talk at the Music and Bits conference, which you can watch here. [A disclosure: Regular readers of z=z will be aware that The Echo Nest is a friend of the blog.]

Douglas Repetto, Columbia University: Doing It Wrong

I felt a little for Repetto, who presented a short primer on experimental music for an audience of not-very-sympathetic engineers. He started with Alvin Lucier‘s well-known piece, “I am sitting in a room” and then played a homage made by one of his students, Stina Hasse. In Lucier’s original, he iteratively re-records himself speaking, until eventually the resonance takes over and only the rhythms of his speech are discernible (more info). For Hasse’s take, she did the re-recording in an anechoic chamber; the absence of echo damped her voice and her words evolved into staticky sibilant chirps, probably as a result of the digital recording technology. Repetto presented several other works of music, making the case to the audience that there was a commonality of experimental mindset: for both the artists whose work he was presenting and the researchers in the room, the basic strategy was to interrogate the world and see what you find out. Creativity, he argued, stems from a “let’s see what happens” attitude: “creative acts require deviations from the norm, and that creative progress is born not of optimization, but of variance.”

Daniel Trueman, Princeton University: Digital Instrument Building and the Laptop Orchestra

Trueman, a professor of music, started off by talking about traditional acoustic instruments and the ‘fetishism’ of mechanics. Instruments are not, he stressed, neutral tools for expression: the physical constraints and connections of instruments shapes how musicians think, the kind of music they play, and how they express themselves (for example, since many artists compose on the piano, the peculiarities of the instrument colour the music they create). But in digital instruments, there is nothing connecting the body to the sound; as Trueman put it, “It has to be invented. This is both terrifying and exhilarating.” Typically, the user performs some actions, which are transduced by sensors of some sort, and then converted into sound. But the mapping between the sensor inputs and the resultant audible output is pretty much under the control of the creator. Trueman presented some examples of novel instruments and techniques for this mapping, as well as some challenges and opportunities: for example, the physical interfaces of digital instruments tend to be a little ‘impoverished’ (consider how responsive an electric guitar is, for example), but these instruments can also communicate wirelessly with each other, for which there is no acoustic analog.

Elaine Chew, University of Southern California: Demystifying Music and its Performance

Chew, with a background in both music and operations research, presented a number of her projects which use visualization and interaction to engage non-musicians with music. The MuSA.RT project visualizes music in real-time on a spiral model of tonality (see image above), and she demonstrated it for us by playing a piece by the spoof composer PDQ Bach on a keyboard and showing us how its musical humour derived in part from ‘unexpected’ jumps in the notes, which were clearly visible. She also showed us her Expression Synthesis Project, which uses an interactive driving metaphor to demonstrate musical expressiveness. The participant sits at what looks like a driving video game, with an accelerator, brake, steering wheel and a first-person view of the road. The twist is that the speed of the car controls the tempo of the music: straightaways encourage higher speed and therefore a faster tempo, and tight curves slow the driver down. As well as giving non-musicians a chance to ‘play’ music expressively, the road map is itself an interesting visualization of the different tempi in a piece.

Some quotes from the panel discussion:

Repetto on trying to build physicality/viscerality into digital instruments: “Animals understand that when you hit something harder, it’s louder. But when you hit your computer harder, it stops working.”

Trueman on muscle memory: “You can build a typing instrument that leverages your typing skills to make meaningful music.”

Chew on Rock Band and other music games: “It’s not very expressive: the timing is fixed, with no room for expression. You have to hit the target—you don’t get to manipulate the music.” More generally, the panelists agreed that the democratization of the music experience and communal music experiences were a social good, regardless of the means.

Things I never expected to write on this blog: I am grateful to the National Academy of Engineering, IBM, and Olin College for sponsoring this post, however inadvertently.


Thinking about playlists

September 5, 2010

I love playlists. I live and die by them, and make new ones almost daily. My car doesn’t have an MP3 input and I have a daily commute, so a good chunk of my music listening is in the form of burned CDs—de facto sub-75-min playlists. And I realize it’s antediluvian, but I still trade mix CDs with many of my friends (via snail mail, no less; I think we all love the charm of the hand-made packages in the post), and those CDs are one of my favourite modes of music discovery.

Almost all the playlists I make are custom, largely by necessity: the songs are usually hand-selected, and they are frequently also hand-ordered. In time for this weekend’s London Music Hack Day, The Echo Nest debuted a powerful and flexible set of tools to algorithmically generate playlists, and I did a little gedanken experiment to compare the playlists you can currently generate with these tools with the kinds of playlists that I make.

Here are some examples of playlists I’ve made or updated recently, ordered roughly from least to most amenable to automating:

New music: I have a playlist called ‘Current’ where I throw recently downloaded music for further listening.

Albums: If I download an entire album, I’ll keep it together, at least for the first few listens (and then I decide that I really only like “Sprawl II” off the new Arcade Fire album).

Artists: Today I will listen to every Elliott Smith song I own.

Playlists by geography: I have a playlist called ‘CanCon‘ that I made for a friend of mine who just moved to Canada. Amazingly, this looks reasonably easy to do with Echo Nest’s new APIs, although it might require a bit of careful tweaking to include my hometown of Toronto, since it’s well south of the 49th parallel.

Workout playlists: Recently, I’ve been doing musical sprint intervals: moderately-high tempo songs intermixed with short, loud, fast songs by punk bands like the Ramones or Pansy Division.

Playlists of bands with upcoming shows: Boston-based concert tracking service, Tourfilter, has a monthly residency at a local bar, at which I DJ’ed a few months ago. All of the songs are by artists that are playing in the Boston-area in the next month or so.

Songs I can play on bass: Sadly, a very short and slowly-growing list right now (“Green Onions,” “Seven-Nation Army,” and a handful more).

My friends’ bands: A playlist of music by people I know.

Playlists for other people: Playlists or mix CDs made I’ve made for friends of music that I think they’ll like, based on what I know of their tastes.

Playlists by mood: Usually not just ‘happy’ or ‘sad,’ though. I have a recent playlist I made as a soundtrack when I was feeling melancholy and restless (lots of Waterboys, Sea Wolf, Frightened Rabbit).

Playlists by theme: As an example, I made a playlist of ‘embarrassing’ music for a friend of mine, which was mostly songs at the intersection of nerdy, funny and bawdy (think The Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch”).

‘Best of’ lists: Like most music geeks, I like making lists of the stuff that I like best (although I guess if I was a real music geek, I’d describe it as ‘the best music’)

What do I feel like?: Quasi-random concatenations of whatever I feel like listening to on a given day.

The first half are pretty straightforward. The second half get a little tougher—some of them are nearly algorithmic, but only if you happen to be me. The thought processes behind the last two are opaque even if you are me. Coming up with those last few seems very close to a musical Turing Test;  not that I’d put that beyond the ability of people like the Echo Nesters, although there might be a few existential crises along the way.


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