February 13, 2020

Pleasant surprises — the link between exceeded expectations and musical pleasure

A recent study provides evidence that we gain pleasure when music is better than we expected. We take a look at how music gives us pleasure (and just as importantly, how it doesn’t).

How music surprises us

In a study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, researchers used machine learning to quantify the uncertainty and surprise of 80,000 chords in US Billboard pop songs. What they found was that there were high pleasure ratings when they deviated substantially from their expectations of what chords came next, whether the person was relatively or highly uncertain to begin with.

Here are some other important factors behind the study:

  • Memories: to account for memories a participant might have around a song, the song was stripped of its recognizable elements like lyrics and melody.
  • Nucleus Accumbens: this region of the brain plays a big role in processing motivation, aversion and reward (among other things). The MRIs in the study found this area was associated with the uncertainty aspect but not the surprise.
  • Pleasure: the findings suggest the nucleus accumbens might not fully account for why or how we derive pleasure from music and that our expectations play an important role.

If you’re interested to learn more in detail, you can watch a video explaining the study here.

What is Musical Anhedonia?

We’re going to be upfront, this particular Analysis stemmed from one team member that has a pronounced lack of interest in music (though necessarily dislike) but was genuinely moved by a song — perhaps for the first time ever. That song? It was Charlie Puth and Whiz Khalifa’s live rendition of “See You Again,” performed in tribute to the late Kobe Bryant at Staples Center. Given the fact this team member normally doesn’t talk (much less gush) about a musical event in this way, let’s just say it led to some poking around the Internet. Ok let’s just go out and say it, Eugene has musical anhedonia.

Musical Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure from music. It can either be a structural difference (your brain just doesn’t value music that way reward-wise) or as a symptom of something else such as hearing loss with age that deadens the impact of music or even depression where those with it have trouble deriving pleasure from many things in life.

This isn’t to say the eye-opening experience was a reversal of musical anhedonia. After all, it was due to a combination of a popular song, a heartfelt performance, the ambiance of a live event and a tragic emotional context. If you’re interested, Charis and Eugene further discuss musical anhedonia on episode 109 of Making It Up.

The Takeaway

“On one hand, our results could be applied to assist composers or even computers in writing music,” says Vincent K.M Cheung, one of the authors of the study on expectations and music. “On the other, algorithms could be developed to predict musical trends and how well a song would do based on its structure. The possibilities are endless.” For people who don’t create music (or algorithms for that matter), you can rejoice knowing that it’s perfectly fine even if you don’t like music at all. In fact, 3-5% of the world doesn’t. It’s a reminder that there are many pathways to move us emotionally so long as we are open to the experience. So with that, we’ll leave off by saying you should keep seeking out uncertainty if you’re already doing so or better yet, surprise yourself.

January 13, 2020

Small audio big change — the impact of headphones and small speakers on our music

With listening experiences now emphasizing the small and the intimate, how does that factor in how music is produced now? We take a glimpse at how the prevalence of headphones and small speakers have changed music.

The Small Speaker Effect

Nowadays, we bring music with us everywhere we go and it’s not hard to find at least one friend at a gathering who brought a portable Bluetooth speaker. The ubiquity of not just these personal speakers but also the even smaller ones we find in laptops, tablets and smartphones means music production is catering to lower common denominators.

In a Quartz article by Dan Kopf, he notes some of the key technical impacts:

  • Drivers: Drivers are the key component of sound devices that emit audio. Quality varies, but it’s safe to not everyone is an audiophile and therefore uses cheaper headphones with lower quality drivers. Further, integrated speakers in a laptop aren’t usually that great simply because there’s no impetus to improve on them.
  • Highs/Lows: Because of the limitations of lower-quality speakers, they can’t accurately reproduce the treble and bass (high and low frequencies) that were mastered in the studio. The result is unpleasant and harsh sounds.
  • Reduced Dynamic Range: This means songs are mixed with less dynamic range, and that music production involves testing with smaller speakers such as on smartphones to see if the sound is still perceived as loud or present.

The Podcast Effect

The rise of the podcast as well as listening for therapeutic effect has emphasized privacy and a sense of intimacy around our listening habits, which of course, means a greater role for headphone and earbuds. In an article for The New Yorker by Amanda Petrusich, she points out some of the effects on music production, which again, cater to the needs of the listener:

  • Performance: he notes Selena Gomez and Billie Elish’s tendency to sing closer to the mic almost as if whispering (not unlike ASMR, cut less potentially creepy).
  • Lyrics: the cultural emphasis on the personal narrative means songs might be trying to make “one-on-one” connections between artist and listener. Petrusich notes the highly personal, introspective and confessionary lyrics of Drake and Kanye and wonders if headphone-centric listening encourages certain music genres.
  • Privacy: In a similar vein, she references former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (who wrote How Music Works) on how certain music genres encourage headphone usage because well, no one necessarily wants to blast their overly emo, offensive or sensual music tastes for everyone to hear (and judge).

The Takeaway

Unsurprisingly, music as a medium is going through shifts directly impacted by the way we experience the world more privately, through smaller personal devices including smartphones. This isn’t too unlike the decision to stay at home and watch certain genres of movies while we’re only willing to go to movie theaters for big epics.

But aside from just being a matter of personal preferences (to which the music needs to adapt, as it always has), there are, of course, negatives that include the real physical dangers of constantly tuning out the rest of the world as well as early hearing loss for both listeners and the people mastering for headphones.

Yet, on the other hand, headphones could simply be a necessary adaptation in an increasingly noisy and distracted world and as mentioned before, can invite us to look inward (which isn’t always a bad thing).

Unless you’re an audiophile, you might not care if the sound of music dramatically shifts as long as it sounds fine and gives you what you need. But just like the risk of going through life wearing rose-colored glasses, there is something to be said about spending too much of your day with a drastically altered soundscape in your ears.

April 4, 2019

Huncho Day 2019 with The Migos and Colin Kaepernick

quavo migos colin kaepernick huncho

Colin Kaepernick has been a dominant cultural force ever since taking a knee at an NFL pre-season game in 2016. His opposition to America’s oppression of the black community sparked intense debate. While Kaepernick ultimately forced his own exile from the NFL, he has had a broader impact across several areas. In 2018, he starred in a powerful Nike ad titled “Just Do It,” which pushed athletes far and wide to take control of their destiny.

Last month, Quavo of The Migos hosted his second annual Huncho Day football event. The casual game has brought together athletes and entertainers alike with a focus on giving back to Quavo’s high school alma mater, Berkmar High School. MAEKAN Community member Gavin Guidry, a Senior Art Director at Havas, was on hand to document the day’s events. No stranger to the solidarity of Atlanta’s black community, Gavin provided his insights into the power and inspiration of Colin Kaepernick.

Colin Kaepernick at Huncho Day 2019 in Atlanta. Photo Credit: Gavin Guidry

Tell us a little bit about the event. What was it was all about.

Huncho Day is a give back event from Quavo of the Migos. He was a quarterback at his high school (Berkmar High School) so his way of giving back is giving his alma matter and kids of the community a full day of fun centered around football. They have a carnival for families, a football camp for kids, and then cap it out with a celebrity game of flag football with some of the world’s biggest celebrities and athletes.

Rapper Gucci Mane and NFL star Julio Jones at Huncho Day 2019 in Atlanta. Photo Credit: Gavin Guidry

Kaepernick has been a big point of discussion over the last few years. How do you see? Athlete? Activist? Something else?

So it’s funny because I have come to see Kaepernick as this larger than life activist who is starting conversations and igniting a movement. But for this day, he was an athlete just having fun throwing the football around with his friends, which I think is probably how he wants to be seen. I don’t think he ever meant to become this huge civil rights figure, just an athlete that uses his platform to talk about things he believes in.

Julio Jones at Huncho Day 2019 in Atlanta. Photo Credit: Gavin Guidry

After all the focus around his most recent campaigns, what’s it like seeing him in the flesh?

Kaepernick? Well I was super shook because I knew he had been in Atlanta but had no idea that he would be there. First off, he’s like 6’6″ so his presence becomes literally larger than life. Seeing him call plays with Quavo and Julio Jones and throwing passes to Saquon Barkley made me smile because you could tell how much he enjoyed playing. He was cracking jokes and laughing basically the whole time, so I could see his love for the game. But the NFL isn’t letting him do the thing he loves right now, so it was kind of bittersweet.

Colin Kaepernick throws a pass at Huncho Day 2019 in Atlanta. Photo Credit: Gavin Guidry

What sort of hope does somebody like Kaepernick give?

He gives hope to people that don’t speak up out of fear. When he first got cut, I think people were viewing him as a cautionary tale, but he’s been able to grow his platform and his influence to keep the conversation going.

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara. Photo Credit: Gavin Guidry

Favorite moments from the day?

Definitely seeing Kaep throw a touchdown to Saquon Barkley. Seeing Von Miller dance before every snap. Or Gucci, Quavo and Julio cracking jokes with Coach K and P from QC. The amount of love and positivity that was there is contagious. It was such an Atlanta thing. All of these celebrities, most of which were black men, came through just to have fun. I think the world needs to see more of that.

A group photo (L-R) featuring Offset of The Migos, Colin Kaepernick, and Quavo of The Migos at Huncho Day 2019 in Atlanta.

March 23, 2019

Music AI systems may take over the music creation process from musicians

music AI system computer

Music truly has a way of unlocking our senses and deeper selves. From hyping you up at a rave and gym to helping you study and focus during work, it plays a key role in the everyday lives of many. It’s also a USD 130 billion industry, depending on which sources you rely on. However, music is about to be turned upside down by, you guessed it, AI systems.

Music in the age of AI systems

Wait, music is core to the human experience: how could a machine replace us? We invented it to begin with, right? Unfortunately, we’re already past that point. Ed Newton-Rex founded Jukedex, a musical AI designed to create instrumentals for various end goals. Looking for a new movie score? Look no further. The system is incredibly prolific: it cranked out over 1 million (not a typo) songs since its inception and shows no signs of stopping. New brands have joined since then, likely hoping to get a share of the background music industry which hit USD 660 million in 2017. As systems continue to improve, it’s only a matter of time until we start bumping AI-created music. If that sounds far fetched, Warner Music Group just signed Edel which creates custom mood-boosting sounds. The future is now (old man).

A cause for concern?

It’s no secret that AI systems might take everything over. They’re already terrifying governments with mass unemployment, to the point where we are now seriously considering Universal Basic Income (UBI). AI systems can already make art, so these further developments should not come as a shock. However, all this begs a much deeper and tougher question: are seemingly “creative” fields no longer a haven for humans? Machines already outperform us at a myriad of tasks, but surely they cannot take away what makes us truly unique: our ability to think and execute broadly. In many ways, time will tell just how far these systems will evolve. We’d venture to say that it’ll be far beyond what we imagine.

Taking a step back

Perhaps we assume that our innate creative abilities are beyond where they actually are. If we stick to pop music, many of your favorite hit songs were made using just four chords. The Axis of Awesome brilliantly illustrated this a few years ago with their now-viral video. This should not be surprising: music relies on simple and subtle mathematical formulae that best please our brains. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (the one with that pesky theorem you couldn’t remember in high school) figured this out a long time ago. Turns out it doesn’t take all that much to please our brains with a nice tune. Given how seemingly simple it all feels, it may be no surprise that we can code this into a neat algorithm altogether. Should this put into question our core creative skills? Not all craft is the same, which is probably why we don’t compare Mozart to Nickleback.

Human history: a silver lining

It pays to know how machine learning systems work. To over-simplify, these programs rely on massive datasets to draw conclusions and hone their skills. Jukedex is the next iteration and uses deep-learning instead. However, music datasets require existing musicians’ work, begging new questions around copyright and royalties. If scientists feed “Crank Dat” into an AI system, Soulja Boy should get rewarded for his contribution.  Therefore, every prior musical piece ever created may play a pivotal role in these system’s development, opening new potential avenues of monetization for artists. More importantly, these systems exist because of human contributions, not the other way around. Humans should feel deep pride in their ability to generate meaningful things over generations. Music continues to stand the test of time, often blooming in our darkest times.

The larger picture

If we’re honest, AI systems will make great music within a few short years, but musicians should not worry altogether. Often times, music relies on great personalities that drive cultures forward. No computer can replace a human being, even though we do love our digital lives and identities. Even if it’s a hologram, seeing Tupac owning a stage feels more meaningful than watching HAL 9000 do the same. Tupac’s music tells a larger narrative of Tupac’s life and his environment (which people can latch on from a storytelling standpoint). Even if a computer were to write relatable lyrics, audiences would need to somehow empathize with a cold machine’s teenage angst. This seems like a stretch at best, but not entirely out of the question. Creatives should also rejoice at the idea that computers can speed up their workflow without impeding on their style. Computers can easily create, but they cannot easily connect. Time will tell if this continues.

House music will never die

Computerized music isn’t anything new. From synth tracks to Daft Punk and Kraftwerk, man and machine have worked intimately together for years. Your favorite trap beats were made on a really crummy sounding drum machine (yes, they meant to imitate those drums). In hindsight, this new wave of machines should not scare us, but rather give us hope to create better and deeper music. Tools remain just that: tools to improve a workflow. Humans will ultimately validate what is “good” compared to what is “bad.” If man and machine already work seamlessly, then (house) music will never die.

Look forward to more great tunes in the future. You can even go buy or steam our very own Delf’s new tracks here and unwind this weekend and enjoy it with beautiful imagery here.

February 20, 2019

Mastercard launches its new sonic logo

Mastercard has new audio sonic branding

Mastercard is once again evolving its branding. Contrary to what you might think, the brand is not changing its logo, which it did not so long ago by removing its own name from it’s famous orange and red circles. Instead, the credit card company is pushing further into branding by creating a new and evolving audio identity. The sound will permeate the brands’ different facets and will feature whenever one transacts with the card. Mastercard developed the jingle in partnership with a group of artists which includes Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda.


What’s all the fuss about? 

Mastercard’s sonic rebranding comes at a time where audio has never been so prevalent. Companies like Google and Amazon are already empowering shoppers to buy using voice, so much so that the market is set to hit a staggering US$40 billion by 2020. Amazon broke holiday records recently, due in no small part by its Alexa voice assistant system. Brands are aware of these trends and are rapidly adopting new sounds that listeners recognize subconsciously and become part of daily life.  Beyond branding, audio plays an important role in purchasing behaviour. Economists and scientists have known this for a long time, but these trends will become even more apparent in the coming years due to sonic branding.


Audio branding: the next frontier

Whether its Mastercard or Visa, brands will continue to push their offering in new and exciting ways. Audio players across the world are paying attention, including Spotify which recently acquired Gimlet Media and Anchor to bolster its podcast offering. As global brands and players consolidate, we expect to see more Mastercard-like branding in partnership with large audio distributors. Perhaps Apple Music vs Spotify won’t be so much about artists; instead, platforms will compete on who can help brands best pitch their sounds to listeners. As an audio-focused platform ourselves, we look forward to seeing how brands and partners use audio and sound to push their missions further.

February 8, 2019

Independent radio stations have long provided a platform for true musical exploration, and we need them now more than ever

Times are unpredictable for independent radio: with arts funding in low supply, and the looming competition of streaming sites like Spotify and Apple Music, the future of independent radio stations is uncertain at best. Under this pressure, indie radio stations have been dropping like flies, stalwarts like Berlin Community radio are closing their doors: “We reached a dead end and spirits have fallen low after losing all funding in 2018. We realize for many this comes as a shock and surprise but unfortunately, as it is, BCR is not a sustainable model.” While streaming platforms clearly take the top spot when it comes to music discovery, Jeff Ihaza theorizes that independent radio may be the way forward.

Music discovery beyond the algorithim
However, even under this pressure, enthusiasm for online radio and the potential for listeners seems huge. Stations like NTS based in London, and Brooklyn’s Half Moon Radio garner up to a quarter of a million listeners every month. Away from the input of algorithms, DJs can play a massive variety of music, and this may be the future of music discovery.

The historical context behind indie radio
Independent radio surfaced at a time when official–and legal–radio wouldn’t play less-known genres. Pirate radio can be credited with the rise of techno, grime, garage and more. It seems that in 2019, alongside the seemingly ubiquitous use of algorithms that narrow the possibilities of true exploration, the desire for independent radio could see a resurrection.

See more of Jeff Ihaza’s thoughts over at Pitchfork.

January 31, 2019

Exploring the mysterious world of "tapers"

Tapers are music fanatics that go along to performances with enough extra time to get to the middle of the front row. This is not, as Wired’s Jarnow notes, to get their hands on exclusive merch or even a fist bump off the artist. It’s in order to get a high-quality recording of the performance. Using a selection of rare and professional audio equipment, “tapers” capture high-fidelity recordings of live performances before uploading it to sites like NYCTaper.com. Regardless of what genre you choose to listen to, somewhere on the Internet exists a library of exclusive performances and recordings of them, all made available by the mysterious community of tapers.

It all sounds illegal, but it’s not–most of the time. Jarnow’s article focuses on a taper called Eric Pier-Hocking, who’s a proud taper and does most of it completely legally. Before a performance, he greets the artists—many of whom know him through his taping—and make sure to get their permission to record before beginning. For an artist such as Daniel Bachman, a guitarist who features in the article after having had a recording taped by Pier-Hicking, taping actually helps him. High-quality recordings of his performances act like adverts for Bachman, who admits that he regularly records other artists’ shows for his own use. That said, other tapers record illegally, using a multitude of technology often developed within the taping community itself. Some of this technology allows tapers to tap into the in-ear monitor systems of artists which can be combined with audience recordings to create immersive (or invasive) experiences.

In an age when our music listening habits are being changed drastically by streaming sites, tapers are sticking to their guns wholeheartedly. As opposed to the average to poor quality afforded by the likes of Apple Music and Spotify, tapers produce recordings for audiophiles. Combating the widespread lack of artist information available on streaming sites—which rarely include songwriting, for example—tapers note every last detail, “often posting obsessive data about mic placement, signal chain, tape lineage, song performances, audio imperfections, and other ephemeral and contextual information.”

Recordings are hard to find, filtering through a network of audiophiles, each as obsessed by detail as the others. The process is entirely decentralized and noncommercial; the antithesis of discovering a song by an artist you know nothing about completely by chance through Spotify’s ‘new music’ playlist. It’s encouraging to see that regardless of how simple and quick technology makes our lives, some will not let it dilute their culture. The passion for quality and detail shown by tapers is far from being broken by the ease of technology.

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