Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Mining data for musical tastes

January 26, 2016

This exercise carried out by the BBC is an interesting indication of how data can be used.  It’s based on musical preferences, which are of course easily measurable given that downloading from the Internet has for many become the default channel for listening to recorded music.  And in this case it’s based on use of the music recognition app Shazam, and I would speculate that using data collected through Spotify or iTunes might throw up somewhat different results.  Intriguingly, London’s musical twin city is Kaiapoi in New Zealand (pop around 10,000).  It’s a pity that for London at least the BBC’s data wasn’t able to identify musical tastes associated with particular areas and to generate more specific twin cities for these.

Watch out for the MOOCs

November 20, 2012

David’s question about what a 21st century university might look like arrived, by chance, just at the same time that I saw this from Clay Shirky, who is interested in one particular online player – Udacity – which depends on using a MOOC (massive open online class).

Clay Shirky is a very eminent figure, and his explanation of the MP3 file as an example of how a seemingly obscure technological development can precipitate disruptive change is a powerful one.  So it’s with some trepidation that I take issue with him.  But the Internet thrives on debate, so I’ll do so on a couple of specific points.  His discussion of the role of quality, and the limitations on the sound quality from an MP3 file or the educational quality of participation in a MOOC, is interesting and is relevant to disruptive innovation.  Because it’s a typical characteristic of disruptive innovations that they are ignored because innovative products and services aren’t perceived as being good enough, only for the products and services to improve gradually until they become serious threats.  This is the lesson of observers who might have dismissed Apple in the 1980s as frivolous because they sold personal computers costing several thousand pounds, or who would have ignored Skype because it offered inferior sound quality to a phone line.

But most recorded music isn’t played through expensive equipment in an acoustically perfect environment.  So it’s reasonable to assume a ‘satisficing’ effect, that once the technology to play music had reached a certain sound quality there wouldn’t be much pressure to improve on that.  Which explains partly the success of MP3: it may not be a perfect format but for most listeners it’s good enough.

So, if you were to go back a decade to the start of the digital music revolution, I don’t think that sound quality would have been perceived as the barrier to wider use of MP3s.  Instead, I think you would have found a tacit assumption that, because the previous technologies for recording music, whether they had been phonograph cylinders or CDs, depended on the music being associated with a physical artefact, people who bought music would still have wanted the sense of possessing some such artefact.  Perhaps the ultimate expression of the importance of this artefact was t the interest accorded to the artwork on album covers.  The MP3 was disruptive because it removed the coupling between the recorded music and the artefact.  But when it first became available it wasn’t at all obvious that this would be acceptable to the market.

So what has this to do with MOOCs?  I’d suggest that if we’re looking for a technology that really has the scope to disrupt higher education, we shouldn’t just be looking at quality or engagement.  We shouldn’t just be preoccupied with whether lectures and tutorials offer the sort of interaction and coordination seen among musicians playing a string quartet (or a jazz piece, or a concerto, which I think is a particularly powerful metaphor for a lot of learning).  Instead we should be looking for technologies which can decouple the student experience from the physical university in new ways.

And on this count, I’m not sure if MOOCs are really new.  I think they offer some interesting pedagogic options, and may well open up education to a broader group of students, as did the Open University from the 1960s onwards.  But I also think it reasonable to ask, given that traditional universities have survived the first generation of Internet-based learning from around 2000, the advent of the Open University in the 1960s, and the emergence of correspondence courses in late Victorian times, why MOOCs should be more disruptive than earlier technologies.

Incidentally this shouldn’t be read as an argument for complacency.  One of the lessons of disruptive innovation is that organisations are threatened by sources of competition that they can’t foresee, and they don’t know about.

Finally I’ll pick up on the issues surrounding music.  People do still pay to listen to live music, and, given that string quartets are mentioned by Clay Shirky, it’s worth noting that there’s a long-established series of chamber concerts on Sunday evenings in London that’s been running, with just two changes of venue, for around 100 years.  Unfortunately I don’t have the data, but a determined archivist should be able to find out the price of these concerts over the years, and plot how it has changed in real terms.

Oddly enough ‘cost disease’, as Clay Shirky calls it, did have an effect on the recording of string quartets.  From the 1980s the Naxos record label set out to sell budget recordings of classical music.  This was a period when production costs of CDs were going down because of the same influences that reduced the cost of many electronic and related goods.  Naxos’s idea was to match this with a budget approach to finding artists, by looking for young and little-known performers who would expect lower payments than their more famous equivalents, and would welcome the exposure.

Moreover Glenn Gould – the famously eccentric Canadian pianist – gave up live performances in the 1960s on the understanding that he believed recorded music to be the future.  Fifty years later, one of the most significant areas of impact of the digitisation of recorded music is on talent scouts, who no longer need to travel to rooms above pubs or to busking pitches to discover new artists, but who instead trawl the more obscure reaches of YouTube.  Nevertheless, live music hasn’t disappeared.

Meanwhile on the other keyboard

September 10, 2012

Just by chance this morning I had a visit at home from a piano tuner, at the same time that I was trying to resolve some problems with a desktop computer that lives in the same room as the piano.  My efforts with the desktop computer, which had lost all connectivity to the Internet despite being on a router, and a broadband connection, which was working perfectly with several other devices, weren’t very successful, as I haven’t even been able to switch it into ‘safe mode’ using the F8 technique recommended for Windows.  The computer in question was infected by some sort of ‘trojan’ virus and while the anti-virus tool has successfully removed the virus, it’s disabled the Internet connection as an element of collateral damage.

Musical instruments with broadband connections definitely have a place in the Internet of things, but ours is a traditional upright piano made by Cramer – which for much of the 20th century appears to have been a very respectable middle-of-the-market British make.  But Johann Cramer was a noted musician and composer, and his company appears to have been influential in agreeing the standards for musical pitch.  Which raises an interesting thought, that standards are as important in music as in electronic communication, and that they have emerged over a very long time.

Cadenza learning

February 17, 2011

Educationalists love jazz bands.  They don’t necessarily enjoy listening to them (although I do) but they are fascinated by the interplay of the musicians, the way that they work as a team with very informal leadership structures, the way that they can share tacit understanding of each others’ actions, and the way that they can often improvise at will, playing something quite spontaneously.  Wolfgang Stark, a professor of organisational and community psychology and, as it happens, a keynote speaker in the meeting that I attended in Berlin a couple of months back, has worked with a jazz musician, Christopher Dell, on what jazz bands can tell us about organisations.

But not everybody is as creative, or innovative, or original as a jazz musician.  And not every task needs creative or original thought on every occasion.  So maybe we should look at other musical styles to give us ideas about learning.  Classical music, in general is very precise and formal, with every detail laid out in the score, and with clear instructions and procedures to follow.  So if we look to jazz bands to understand how to develop original ideas, maybe we should look to classical musicians for ideas on how to follow instructions clearly and competently, but also to do so with style and panache.

Incidentally, it’s tempting to assume that most music from mediaeval days until the 20th century was classical, but that’s clearly untrue.  There were thriving cultures of folk music, in parallel with classical music, for many years.  And while classical music generally depends on music being written, folk traditions are aural in that musicians learn tunes purely by listening to them.  As evidence of the existence of parallel traditions, I’d draw on the work of none other than Elvis Presley.  His greatest hits included wooden heart – originally a German folk song, so non-classical – and I can’t help falling in love with you – based on an eighteenth French song, plaisir d’amour, written very much in the formal, classical tradition.  And I’m sure that the folk traditions would have included plenty of improvisation.

While a symphony orchestra operates on a command and control principle with a conductor at the front, other groups of musicians are more democratic.  A string quartet should be a partnership of equals – if anything, more so than a jazz band – but one aiming for precision in following a score, not improvisation. 

But there is one place that classical musicians can get close to improvisation, and that’s in the cadenza within a concerto, where the soloist demonstrates his or her own virtuosity.  Traditionally, while a composer might write  cadenzas, soloists would also often write their own.  Interestingly, the violinist Nigel Kennedy, who spends time working on both classical music and jazz, has written his own cadenzas.

So maybe the cadenza is a metaphor that we should look at for learning.  It offers a choice to the performer – to use the composer’s cadenza and make the best of it, or to write their own, or even to pick up another cadenza and possibly adapt it.  It allows for originality within a disciplined whole.  And it offers a chance for individuals to show other their strengths.

It’s particularly relevant because of the dichotomy that I’ve observed in higher education, that students are keen (and increasingly so) to carry out their own research, but they need and expect a lot of scaffolding to do so.  And that this dichotomy is particularly marked with the current generation.  Moreover, the cadenza idea fits well with the current generation’s interest in individuality and identity.  So we shouldn’t necessarily expect students to go off and improvise jazz, unless they are really comfortable with the idea.  But we could ask them to do the equivalent of writing a cadenza, a short piece which fits into a larger whole, and which can be adapted to make best use of a particular student’s individual strengths.

I should, of course, point out that I’m not the first person to have thought about this.  There’s a business coaching company in Newcastle called Cadenza Associates, and in 2009 Rebecca Front wrote a piece in the Guardian, which applies the cadenza metaphor to her own memories of schooldays.  And those were both revealed by a quick Google search without even looking outside the UK.  But I still think it’s a powerful analogy, and in the spirit of encouraging comment and dialogue I would be interested in hearing from anybody who would like to pursue it further, particularly in connection with higher education.

Rediscovering the desktop computer

February 3, 2011

I spotted this blog post way back in December, but didn’t get round to linking to it at the time.  It raises the interesting question of what the future might be for desktop computers once the laptop becomes the norm for PCs.  It took me a while to think about what BendDesk reminds me of most, and then I realised that it’s a bit like an upright piano – ironically at home we have a piano and a desktop PC on opposite sides of the same room.  It’s the way that you can put each finger on a different button of the BendDesk (4th photo down in the DesignBoom blog) that convinced me of the piano analogy.

Of course the piano isn’t (yet) connected directly to the Internet, though it does depend on standards, at least for what pitch represents what note.

HTML5 and the future

October 21, 2010

This is a guest post by Peter Chmielewski who is attending my virtual organisation class – I should point out that any views expressed are Peter’s, though I can assure you that the Wilderness Downtown looks great with the postcode in Wimbledon where I grew up as an addrss!  I’d also encourage any of my other students past or presents who might consider contributing a guest post to do so…

There has recently been a lot of buzz surrounding the topic of HTML5. This next major revision of HTML includes great new elements that will certainly benefit developers and Internet users – it incorporates features such as video, canvas, geolocation and offline web applications. But really, the one I am most excited about is video. Nothing new, you might say. Well have a look at The Wilderness Downtown (, a new collaborative project between The Arcade Fire, Chris Milk and Google. The film follows a character running the streets of the neighbourhood where YOU grew up (provided you can give an address with Street View coverage). The pictures of very familiar streets and buildings take centre stage, and you essentially get to watch a completely personalised (and deeply personal) video set to The Arcade Fire’s fantastic new single, “We Used To Wait”. I am not going to lie, I was simply blown away, but what excites me even more is the possibilities that the film represents. I will forever worship a person who can create a portal where users get personalised music videos to every song – give it 5, 10, 15 years? HTML5 will be great competition for Adobe Flash, after all it’s much cheaper and doesn’t require stupid plug-ins, making it far more universal.

One major drawback to The Wilderness Downtown – the folks at Google decided not to make it work well in any browser other than Chrome. Call it selfish, but after all, this and all other projects are Chrome Experiments ( that would require more effort to implement for other browsers. You can forget about HTML5 in Internet Explorer – I can only hope that as the new language becomes more popular, people will finally abandon this archaic browser – or Microsoft will finally get to work. (


Have a look at the film – I can’t recommend it enough. Open Chrome, close everything else, sit back and enjoy looking at the future of Internet.

From Venezuela with music

October 21, 2010

Most of my Wednesday mornings this autumn are devoted to teaching, but I’ve managed to arrange two mornings off where I can do things in connection with my family.  One of them was last week, which coincided with the visit of the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra to London.  This is one of the Venezuelan orchestras coming out of the scheme – el sistema – which offers opportunities to young people from deprived backgrounds to learn to play classical music.  As mentioned for example in this Telegraph piece, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra is the most internationally famous group resulting from the scheme, but its members are now in their late 20s and early 30s.  And in the spirit of bringing young people into music, they invited a large group of children from London, including my daughter, to spend a little time playing along them.  It’s worth stressing that this was an event for London schoolchildren who happened to be learning to play musical instruments, not particularly for those who aspired to be musical prodigies.   After playing alongside the chidren from London, the Venezuelans then did an informal performance, in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, alongside the young violinist Nicola Benedetti.

It was a wonderfully uplifting experience, and I guess there are some universal lessons about pedagogy in it.  One is the power of music to unite people from very different backgrounds.  Another is the extent to which in music, or sport, or even management, learning is partly about taking the time and effort to practise.  And of course enthusiasm and commitment are infectious, and there was certainly a sense of the schoolchildren from London picking up some of the Venezuelans’ magic.

Incidentally I’m taking this opportunity to add a new category (music) since there is at least one other music-related post to this blog in the pipeline, and quite a few others in the past.

Getting to know the iPod

December 23, 2009

One of my birthday presents this year was an iPod nano, and I’ve just been having some fun setting it up.  Mine is an attractive metallic green, and when you plug it into my home PC, the iTunes software starts up with a picture of a green iPod.  It’s a small thing, but the attention to detail is typical of Apple.  It also has a few neat new features, such as a pedometer which should work out how many steps I take, and how many calories I use up walking, during a day.

It’s already tempted me to the iTunes store – I’ve started to load an eclectic set of CDs,  including some which had been lying around my office for a while.  One of them is a recording of Haydn’s seven last words – my CD has been scratched so that I can neither transfer it to an iTunes library nor play it as an audio CD: a quick search of iTunes and I’ve downloaded a classic recording of the piece – recently reissued – by the Amadeus Quartet (I know – this is really a piece of Easter music, but I’m planning ahead).

An intellectual property fable

November 5, 2009

This has a tenuous connection with the previous post to the extent that both concern music.  Over the summer, in the French speaking part of Switzerland, I heard a recording from Claude Francois , who was a hugely successful French popular musician in the 1970s.  According to (despite my reservations about Wikipedia as a scholarly resource, it’s great as a source of trivia) he died in 1978 trying to straighten a light bulb in a bathroom – hardly the most glamorous or dissolute of pop star deaths.

He tended to sing cover versions of well-known songs, many of which had originated in English.  in some cases, he adopted completely new words, so Les Filles et les Fleurs was sung to the tune more usually associated with You Can’t Hurry Love.  Sometimes he’d go for something closer to a direct translation, so I Can See Clearly Now became, in French, nous n’aurons plus jamais un jour de pluie/ tous les nuages se sont dissipes .

But one song in the Claude Francois repertoire is not what it seems.  Comme D’habitude is a number that he and another French musician, Jacques Revaux wrote themselves.  If the tune sounds familiar, it’s because a Canadian, Paul Anka, is said to have heard it in a hotel room in Paris.  He then wrote new English lyrics, which were recorded by Frank Sinatra as My Way.  (If you’re an undergraduate you might need to ask your grandparents about this one).

And why is it a fable?  Partly because, when I first heard Comme D’habitude, I assumed that Claude Francois had adapted a song made popular by Sinatra.  And partly because, although it doesn’t give a citation, suggests that Paul Anka paid nothing for the rights to the song.  So you never know what valuable intellectual property you might be giving away

Clarinets and WikiHow

November 5, 2009

My daughter is participating in a programme where everybody in her class gets to learn a musical instrument: in her case, they are all doing wind instruments and she’s learning the clarinet.  A clarinet divides into a number of pieces for storage and transport.  This has the advantage (especially for schoolchildren) that it’s very compact to transport and can fit into a hard, robust, case, but has the disadvantage that, if you have difficulties assembling the clarinet, you can get dispirited before you’ve played a note.  Incidentally, this is probably obvious to woodwind players, but you quickly learn that the cloth in the clarinet case isn’t there just because somebody else left their handkerchief there.

Anyway, we’ve had occasional problems assembling the clarinet, and unfortunately the only wind instrument that I’ve played was the recorder, when I was at primary school, and, as the excellent pay the piper website notes, that isn’t very effective at preparing you to play any other instrument.  The problem, incidentally, is that the ligature holding the reed in place tends to pop out when you try and tighten it, and I can’t figure out whether there’s actually something wrong with it, or whether we are just missing some important piece of technique.

It turns out that WikiHow has a potentially useful page about how to assemble the clarinet.  The bad news is that (1) it doesn’t quite answer the question of whether the ligature is really working as it should, and (2) the YouTube video that somebody helpfully embedded in the page has been removed.  It’s still an interesting application of Web 2.  And if you’re reading this and think you can improve the WikiHow page, don’t just tell me.  Edit the page: that’s the point of a wiki.