Saturday, July 01, 2006

Is Your Favorite Music Selected By A Computer?

When, almost thirty years ago, Glenn Danzig wrote a couple of songs attacking the boob tube ('we're all blue from projection tubes..."), he might have picked the wrong technology to rail against. And while I'm sure the arch-daemon of rock would be smiling in his grave (I know Glenn's not dead, but I like to pretend everything that occurred after How The Gods Kill, including Michael Graves and the "new" Misfits, never happened) to know that while we have become a culture of mindless television watching zombies, he might not be too pleased to find that computers are now determining what music we listen to.
Although we may differ in our individual musical tastes (I love Otis Redding, you can't get enough Will Smith), music is more or less universal, ingrained into our common genetic heritage. Archeologists have uncovered primitive flutes dating back thousands of years that span the very same 8-note octave range that we know and love today. Considering how big of a business music has become, it's no surprise that some enterprising scientists have analyzed the musical features common to the most beloved songs of our species, fed these parameters into a computer, and developed software that helps the major labels decide where to put their money.
By looking at qualities such as cadence, chord progression, timber, and frequency range, "music intelligence" software can predict whether a new song will be more likely to be a hit. As Mike McCready, founder of a music intelligence company, says "Songs conform to a limited number of mathematical equations." Stirring. For evidence, McCready's company, Platinum Blue, has determined that some of U2's hits share a striking sonic similarity with certain Beethoven pieces. The software is not foolproof however; apparently it is unable to account for Bono's popularity.
The major labels are increasingly using music intelligence software to help decide which songs to aggressively market. So far, the program has successfully predicted such hits as "Candy Shop" by 50 cent, "Be The Girl" by Aslyn, and "She Says" by Howie Day (full disclosure: I've never heard any of those songs. Isn't Aslyn the lion in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe?). Apparently, the program is used by Capitol, Universal, Sony, and EMI, but they don't want their customers to know it. Sometimes the artists themselves don't even know that their otherwise raw and passionate major label release is being fed into a soulless computer to figure out if it's any good.
It might bear mentioning that in George Orwell's dystopia 1984, he made mention of a machine called the versificator that generated soothing tones to satisfy the populace and keep them docile. So the next time you tune to your favorite Clear Channel radio affiliate and bob along to the sweet tones of Howie Day, you may be an unwitting victim of the eventual corporate takeover of the entire world. Think about it.

Source: The Economist, June 10th 2006

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