Between Sound and Science

The more I hang out with scientists and engineers—and this seems to happen more and more often these days—the more I feel like an incorrigible composer. No matter how much knowledge and lingo I absorb, it sometimes seems that our goals or areas of concern are fundamentally different. As a staunch proponent of collaboration between the arts and the sciences, this bothers me a great deal, and I’d like to get to the bottom of it if I can.

There are certainly artificial barriers between the two domains, built up over the years by mistakes and misconceptions. I’d like to place most of the blame for this on pop science journalism, usually created by people who seem to know little about science or music. For just a couple of recent examples, here’s one about pop music getting sadder and here’s one about the distribution of chords in more than 1300 popular songs. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to properly deconstruct these. Okay, fine, a couple prompts: 1) Are “Paperback Writer” and “Help!” really happy songs? 2) What kind of insights could be gained from an examination of the distribution of words in more than 1300 popular novels?

I’m being a little flippant here, but the point is that most musicians are probably less dogged and stubborn than me, and have better things to do than nitpick an argument, or look up primary sources to see how they’re misrepresented. So musicians tend to believe that this is representative of how scientists look at music, resulting in a great deal of skepticism and mistrust.

Conversely, researchers in music often ignore music theory on the grounds that it’s not rigorous or verifiable. But many of these researchers have not experienced firsthand the explanatory power of theory for all kinds of musical events, and spend much of their time developing sophisticated methods to reverse-engineer theoretical understanding, occasionally with very strange results. For example, automatic music genre classifiers that do well on certain data sets can be thrown off by small tweaks in equalization, suggesting that they are paying more attention to surface features like production or mastering, and not what we actually hear when we distinguish disco from country. A little music theory here could go a long way; just because it wasn’t created with scientific research in mind doesn’t mean it can’t be incorporated into a scientifically rigorous model or experiment.

Even if we bridged this gap, however, I’m still not sure musicians and researchers would see things the same way. Geraint Wiggins argues persuasively that scientists are in fact creative, but I wonder if they’re a different species of creativity. Put simply, scientists are interested in directed creativity that tackles a particular research problem or goal, whereas artists are interested in exploratory creativity where the destination is much less certain. These are not hard and fast categories, and there’s certainly some bleed-through; it sounds like Wiggins believes that scientists could stand to be a little more broadly imaginative, and artists would never finish anything if they weren’t narrowly focused at least part of the time. (This comes through in writing style, too; I can never seem to get into the idea of stating my thesis up front, preferring for it to develop gradually over the course of several paragraphs.)

Perhaps this is the greatest benefit to be had from collaboration between scientists and artists, this productive clash of perspectives. Even now, though, it’s hard to imagine what this collaboration should ideally look like. Should scientists be technicians, making cool stuff to artists’ specifications? Should artists be subjects, providing data for scientists’ publications? Both of these approaches are valuable and valid, but neither of them builds respect and trust. Should scientists and artists educate each other until we’re all comfortable in both domains? If so, are the end products of these collaborations still research projects and/or works of art? If they are something else instead, what are they? I’d be curious to find out.

6 thoughts on “Between Sound and Science

  1. Kyle Gann

    To add to your list of writings about music that make scientists look really stupid, I offer this hip new article about how we don’t really need composers anymore, because computers can make music based on what people want to hear:

    But as you imply, I don’t really imagine that any self-respecting “scientist” had anything to do with this. (And as though the world needed more composers anyway, right?, computerized or not.) Still, I read the first fifty pages of Daniel Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain on Music” without learning a thing I didn’t already know, and I always seem to find myself predictably unimpressed when scientists start explaining music to me.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      Hi Kyle! I just saw that one too. Again, it’s one of those situations where I can’t tell if the problem is the science itself or if it’s just being represented poorly in the article. Anyway, Leroi’s project is not unique… there’s also WolframTones and probably others I haven’t heard of. I don’t really have an issue with these projects in and of themselves, in fact I think they’re very interesting.

      I do have an issue with them being represented as “composerless composition” as if this is something special or desirable. The article tries to make it sound like the computer does all the work of “evolving” the music, but when people provide the “natural selection,” it’s really an act of collective music creation, and there are plenty of examples of that, from African drumming to rock bands to free improvisation. The answer to the question “Do you need a composer to create music?” is pretty definitively “no” and has been for centuries. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to have a composer in various musical situations. But I feel a bit silly having to state the obvious here.

      1. Kyle Gann

        True enough. I’m sympathetic to both collective creativity and music created by machines. I think the simple question for the “scientist” here is, can one imagine retroactively a computer evolution process that might have resulted in Beethoven’s Op. 111? Or Tristan and Isolde? Or The Rite of Spring? Or the Concord Sonata? And the principle is that a great composer (I apologize for the term) creates music that we didn’t know we wanted to hear until we heard it, and often not until some time after we heard it. As Wordsworth put it, “The authentic poet creates the taste by which he is to be appreciated.” If you start with the assumption that the listener’s existing taste is the final arbiter, you’re not doing creativity. You may be doing something else bass-ackwards from creativity. Sonic wallpaper, perhaps.

  2. j208

    I think the root of this apparent conflict lies in the status of music in contemporary society. Now more than ever we (i.e. the first-world citizenry) are not a listening culture. This in itself is a huge topic (the Internet and short attention spans, numbness to music because it’s playing everywhere, etc. etc. etc.) but without going too deep into it I think most of us who take listening seriously sense this.

    In thinking about the history of art and leisure, it seems that every time period has art forms that anyone with a good education (as judged by the standards of the time) can appreciate at a relatively high level. Literature has always been such an art form, and maybe music might have been too in previous centuries, but for a host of reasons it is not anymore. (Today I think literature has been usurped in this regard by film and television.)

    In this light it’s easy to understand why scientists have a hard time with music. In most respects all of us are average, so even though I have above average listening skills, my scientific knowledge is basic, and vice versa for most scientists. Add to this the chronocentrism (i.e. a kind of pride in being culturally modern, which is only natural since at every moment their fields are progressing) I’ve noticed in most of my scientist friends and you get disdain towards (or at least a complete lack of interest in) focused listening. Visual artists and writers seem to be a little more sympathetic (although frequently they aren’t either), but I think it’s mostly because the nuances of their art forms are often lost on the public too.

    Most educated scientists could sit down and follow with interest a brilliant film, since that medium is culturally positioned to appeal to everyone in contemporary society, but following a brilliant piece of music is culturally foreign and attracts only a minority. The important part of this is not so much the nature of contemporary music but the nature of contemporary listening.

    P.S. Your blog posts are pretty interesting; keep it up :)

    1. Isaac Schankler

      Thanks for your comment! I’d take issue with the idea that we’re no longer a “listening culture” — in fact I think the ubiquitous streaming and sharing indicates a burgeoning interest in and hunger for music — but certainly our listening habits have changed. This is why I think live music is so important, more important than ever, because it’s really the only situation where people willingly subject themselves to uninterrupted listening. But you still have to get people there somehow. When people’s time and brainspace are fragmented it becomes harder and harder to justify them giving you their undivided attention.

  3. j204

    Yeah, the term “listening culture” is a bit loaded, but I just mean that deliberate, attentive listening has become more and more of a rarity in our culture, and given that scientists on the whole are average listeners, they’re in the same boat as any layman. I’ve known one too many chemists and engineers who absolutely insist on not expanding their horizons artistically (too busy; don’t care enough), which I can relate to because I’m too busy to brush up on my chemistry (though I’d like to). You’re right that the concert experience seems to be the last vestige of attentive listening in popular culture, although half the time it seems more like a party with a live soundtrack.


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