Eppur si muove: Empiricism in Music and other grumblings


Galileo might have said “Eppur si muove!” Maybe. Probably not. But it’s a good quote either way. It’s Italian, and translates to “And yet it moves!” Galileo (might have) uttered it at his trial where the Church forced him to recant his support for Copernicus’s heliocentric for the universe. Like I said, either way it’s a good quote.

Music is soul-crushingly profound. It is a language that has no specific meaning attached to it. Eppur si muove! In other words, we commonly attach metaphysical associations and connotations to the experience of music. Even assessing music is a difficult task.

Individually, we all form opinions about what we like and what we don’t. We do it almost without conscious thought. Some even argue that we either like or dislike everything we hear. (Sorry, thats behind a pay wall but you should be able to read the abstract at least.) There’s no room for mere indifference! I’m not sure I agree, but the argument exists.

However, trying to speak more objectively about music is difficult. The study of art evaluation is called aesthetics. Typically, aesthetics is a branch of philosophy. And while some aesthetic paradigms make my eyes roll or my skin crawl, it’s all fine and well because these arguments are not meant to be absolute. They’re tools that have varying value depending on what your goal is, not unlike a real toolbox full of tools. People that want to argue about what is and isn’t art, or the value of a work of art are welcome to chase this unsolvable puzzles. Sometimes unsolvable puzzles are the best kind. But all too often, these arguments come from people that don’t seem to acknowledge that music exists outside of serious orchestral music or maybe jazz. Can we not talk about the kind of music that most people listen to?

As a musician myself, I’m firmly in the “intent” camp: if someone calls it art, then it’s art in my book. Now it’s just up to me to determine if I like it. Easy. Clean. Simple. Moving on…

But there’s a more sinister creature creeping in the shadows: it’s the empiricist! The empiricist thinks things can be measured and repeated and solved. And I’m one of them. And I understand the appeal of empirical study of aesthetics. How cool would it be to actually, truly define art? In fact, if someone were to take a very broad definition of aesthetics, you accuse me of being an empirical aesthetician because I study music empirically and make statements about people’s preferences. Typically aesthetics is about the ‘ideal’ form of art, not the interpreted. So don’t call me an empirical aesthetician. I’m not sure I’d take it well. Please.



But why am I opposed to empirical aesthetics? Well, because eppur si muove! I feel confident that it’s possible to understand the underlying psychophysiological mechanisms and processes that happen when we experience music. And generally, I think the emotions experienced when we enjoy art of any kind are “real” emotions. The very same ones we experience in everyday life. They might be in novel combinations, but they’re the same overall. But I don’t think there’s a practical way to understand such a complex process as an aesthetic evaluation and resultant emotions, let alone what makes art optimal. I typically shun the metaphysical stuff, but art is something special.

There’s a model, called BRECVEM(A) that identifies the component parts that go into forming an individual aesthetic judgement. It’s massively complex with several overlapping layers. It seems logical, but mostly untestable as a whole. And that just about sums up how I feel about going “too deep” in empirical music work. There’s a practical limit to what is possible in the here and now. I look forward to new methodologies and new models, but for now I feel we’re stuck.

So how do I rationalize the empirical study of an art form when I don’t think the subject can even be described on empirical terms? Carefully. I focus on the communication aspects of mediated music, for one. I’m more interested in the function of music within a medium than the slippery obvious-but-impossible-to-define music. I want to know how people respond to mediated music. Yes, those results could inform how people design and create their mediated music, but don’t confuse the functional aspects with the aesthetic aspects.

Anyway, that’s enough apologizing for studying music in a mass communications setting.

Here’s a song from a particularly thoughtful band: Yellow Magic Orchestra. They’re Japanese, and started in 1977. The name is provocative: it’s a comment on the West’s tokenization of Asian cultures. A fun twist on YMO is that they felt like Japan was becoming infatuated with technology and the West and in turn, losing its cultural identity. So they decided to share this criticism by using brand new musical technology – sequencers and digital synthesizers – and write very Western-friendly pop music. A fair balance of it is in English, even. They certainly carved a unique niche out for themselves. Maybe, in some small way, I can do the same.

They are superb musicians and songwriters. Here’s an incredible instrumental from their 1981 album, Technodelic called “Light In Darkness.” Enjoy that bass solo. It’s old and wildly out of social context… and yet it moves.

Biting off more than I can chew: Songification


So I had a thought: the human voice has been picked over to find sonic commonalities (at least within cultures) of expression. For instance, when someone gets vibrantly angry, they tend to get louder and their muscles tense up all over – including their vocal tract. This translates to a change in how their voice sounds. These changes are relative to a person’s own baseline, but the voice changes predictably.

I had another thought: verbal performance of poetry is awfully close to music. It has a sense of pitch, rhythm, flow, tension, and release. It’s structured differently than most popular music, but the pieces are there.

So then I had an idea: I should build an automated system that could take a recording of any (Western, English-language) meaningful verbal performance of a poem and turn it inso music that reflects or supports the aesthetics and affective nature of the performance. The system would effectively deconstruct not the meaning of the words, but the feeling of the voice performing the poem and turn that into music. Patterns that suggest anger should generate more tense music. Patterns that suggest ennui should generate more detached music. You get the idea.

I’ve spent more time on this than I really should, so I’m going to share my failures with you and move on. Actually, that’s too harsh and I should give myself a little more credit. Besides, who doesn’t like reading a blog post where the author talks about how great they are?

Here’s where I’ve succeeded:

  • making some objectively creepy music (Happy Halloween?)
  • the system does respond reasonably well to building tension
  • recording of a poem goes in, unique music comes out

Here’s where I’ve failed:

  • I wanted the system to be fully automated. I’m not sure if fully automated is possible, but I do believe that nearly fully automated is possible.
  • While the music is unique, there’s too much homogeny between the poems
  • I used a between-poems design, when maybe I should have used a within-poems design.

I think my biggest stumbling block here is that I got so lost in my proof-of-concept stage while using a typical DAW (Logic 9), I never got into using more specialized and arguably more suited tools like MaxMSP. I went through several iterations of the prototype before I decided to cut my losses and move on. Perhaps the problem is that I am using the wrong tools.

So as I mentioned, I wanted this system to be fully automated. With no user input other than the source poem, I wanted meaningful musical output. My system ended up needing massaging, kind of like Brian Eno & Peter Chilver’s Bloom app. I had to set the musical scales used for each poem instead of this choice being driven from data in the sound file. This is a technological constraint of Logic, or at least it is a constraint of my understanding of Logic. I couldn’t figure out how to get plugins to send control data to each other (with a few exceptions). MaxMSP can do this.

The homogeny is a also a product of the system not being able to manipulate itself, or to have the pieces interrelate other than a simple A -> B fashion. Data flowed from one plugin the next, then through a series of busses to be routed and mixed. Some interesting evens still happen, and the music is emotive, but it’s more like baby’s first steps than functioning elegantly. Additionally, I chose poems with speakers that have similar voices. This was a choice I debated but stuck with. I didn’t want to risk the aesthetic responses to be caused by vastly different voices, but by vastly different poems.

What I meant above about a “between-poems” and “within-poems” design is that I’m starting to wonder if I should have done my proof-of-concept on multiple different performances of a single poem. That way I could have learned if the system could generate meaningful output in that setting, before expecting it to work on several different poems. I think I not only dove in the deep end, but I decided to do it at midnight. In a quarry. With a new moon.

Anyway, enough running myself down. Have I got you excited to listen to these recordings yet? Yeesh. The three poems I chose are “Ursonate” by Kurt Scwitters, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, and “May I feel said he” by EE Cummings. Jaap Blonk performed “Ursonate,” Anthony Hopkins performed “Do Not Go Gentle…,” and Tom Hiddleston performed “May I feel said he.”

I envisioned “Ursonate” as my control – the poem contains no words, just mouth sounds. Blonk gives a stirring, bizarre, and emphatic performance. It’s vocal olympics. Amazing stuff! Definite thanks to Norbert Herber for suggesting this poem and performance. In a sort of backwards way, this proves my system works to some degree. The music does not sound like the poem outright, but it has the flow of the energy of Blonk’s performance.

Here’s the version of “Ursonate” I used as input:

And here is the output my system generated:

I chose this Dylan Thomas poem partially because it is a favorite of mine, but also because of its quiet rage and it’s understated climatic moments. Here is Hopkins’ performance of Dylan Thomas:

Here is the output my system generated:

I chose EE Cummings because I feel like his poems lend themselves to being spoken aloud. Also, it is gentle, playful, and sweet. Hiddleston’s performance is muted, much like Hopkins’, but there’s menaing and feeling that I wanted to tease apart. Finally, here is the EE Cummings poem performed by Hiddleston. (Do ignore the video content, please):

And last but not least, my system’s output:

I feel like “Ursonate” demonstrates that this is a responsive system, but perhaps I went too fine-grained for my stimuli and should have instead focused on some broader strokes instead of nuanced performances. More Shatner, and less uh, Shatner. Or maybe this is as far as it’ll ever get. All I know is that I’ll go crazy if I don’t put some distance between myself and this project for a while!

Peter Gabriel knows what’s up


I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but Peter Gabriel’s music is on Spotify US now. I was pleasantly surprised to find this because he’d been making noise for recently about specifically not using Spotify. And I suppose I understand the arguments, but I disagree with him and David Byrne, as much as that hurts to type. Though I guess Spotify is a topic for another day, or even another blog. Just don’t believe that viral infographic from a few years back. Turns out it’s total crap and you shouldn’t believe everything you read.


I was so happy to see Peter Gabriel’s music on Spotify that I promptly pulled up my favorite album of his – Peter Gabriel 3: Melt. Brilliant album in a lot of ways, with lots of quirks. Definitely well received. The most notable one, at least in audio production circles, is that there are absolutely no cymbals, rides, or high-hats of any type on the album. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t register as wrong if you don’t know it’s missing, but it leaves you feeling odd.

So the above song in particular really struck me in a new way. It’s part of what I love about music: a song I know in and out gives me a new experience because I’m different now. I knew the lyrics before, but now they mean something new. “And Through The Wire” is now a song about media psychology to me. It’s about communicating through media, and how that alters the impact and processing of the messages. Give the lyrics a read while listening and I think you’ll see what I’m going on about. We do, in fact, get so strange across the border of media.

Am I reading into it a bit? Sure.