Tools for Sound Thinking: On Music Tech Narratives

According to composer and journalist Kyle Gann, the musical note ceased to be the basic unit of musical composition sometime in the 1980s. In that decade, the advent of samplers (such as the Akai MPC60) made it possible to build pieces, rather than from notes, from any recorded sound complex. It’s a view Richard Taruskin recapitulates in his Oxford History of Western Music, which takes written notation as the enabling condition and unifying feature of Western art music, but ends with the “advent of postliteracy.” As Taruskin, citing Gann, argues, “the sampler frees composers from the habits inculcated by Western notation.”

Yet the 1980s witnessed the invention not only of digital samplers, but also of MIDI. MIDI – an acronym for Musical Instrument Digital Interface – was designed to enable synthesizers, regardless of manufacturer, to be linked together, primarily so that keyboard playing on one device could activate sound-generating capacities on another. Thanks to the cheapness of MIDI’s implementation, and the fact that its designers opted not to patent it, it was quickly adopted far and wide in digital music devices.

The result, according to technologist and musician Jaron Lanier, runs directly counter to the liberation narrative posited by Gann and Taruskin. “The whole of the human auditory experience has become filled with discrete notes that fit a grid,” Lanier writes. Rather than seeing digital music technologies emancipating musicians from the habits of Western notation, Lanier sees them delimiting and restricting the parameters of the note that notation had left fuzzy and flexible. “Before MIDI, a musical note was a bottomless idea that transcended absolute definition.…After MIDI, a musical note was no longer just an idea, but a rigid, mandatory structure you couldn’t avoid in the aspects of life that had gone digital.” 

Did we become more firmly in thrall to notes than ever before, or more emancipated from their rule? Are our auditory worlds filled with “discrete notes that fit a grid,” or with rich “sound complexes”? Both Gann and Lanier posit a direct relationship between instrumental technologies and the very basis of musical construction. In their mirror-image narratives, Gann and Lanier thus agree on a fundamental. Stepping back, however, we can see that both take one tool as the basis for the whole musical world. (We might think of the cliché that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.)

The issue here is not simply one of parts and wholes. Rather, there is a foundational issue having to do with narratives of technology in relation to musical thought and practice. Rather than think that any one tool becomes the whole musical world, we may find that there is a whole world in any musical tool.

Music in Times of Pestilence

When I see things like “your anti-anxiety playlist,” my mind usually reaches for the critique drawer. I think of things like Paul Allen Anderson’s take on “neo-muzak and the business of mood,” with its suspicions of playlists designed for “mood enhancement…like a regular Prozac or other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) regime, those ubiquitous drugs sold to simultaneously elevate mood (without inducing mania or euphoria) and sedate anxiety (without inducing sleepiness).” For Anderson, the extended pharmacological analogy underscores a critical point: streaming services encourage us to play with moods not in the interests of our well-being but in the interests of capitalism.

But now that things like “your anti-anxiety playlist” are circulating in direct response to a global pandemic that is rippling through communities, taking lives and livelihoods, separating friends and loved ones, turning things upside down, and throwing the future into extreme uncertainty – the critique drawer isn’t seeming so useful. What can music offer us in this time – a time when risk of contagion challenges music’s usual powers to bring people together? Would it be so bad if music were a bit like medicine?

And so instead, I’m reaching for other ways to think about the roles of music in this moment – and finding parallels in earlier times of pestilential crisis. In Music and Plague in the Renaissance (2017), Remi Chiu examines “music’s place in the pestilential pharmacopoeia.” He focuses on a period of recurrent plague outbreaks between 1400 and 1600, which produced a “growing sense of experience and habituation for the professional charged with plague management,” and led to “general routines and patterns of response to plague for this period.” Even though the medical thinking of the period differs in many respects from that of today, many of the management strategies developed – quarantines, embargoes, surveillance, limits on social gatherings – remain standard practice. As Chiu demonstrates, “music and music-making” were also among the period’s “resourceful strategies for surviving plague,” with attention directed to music’s effects on the body, the soul, and the community.

Mood Management

Music was regularly discussed in Renaissance treatises on the plague, in the context of how external phenomena impact the state of one’s body and mind. Doctors focused on the power of joyful, happy music to defend against plague, recommending music-making along with activities such as story-telling and games that could be enjoyed in the safety of intimate, domestic settings. An anonymous author wrote in one of the first plague treatises (1405) that music, along with “good hope and imagination” is “often more useful than a doctor and his instruments.” The German Johannes Salius (1510)  recommended, “play the harp, lute, flutes and other instruments. Let songs be sung , fables be recited, joyful stories be read, and the songs of the lighthearted muse be played.” According to Nicolas Houël (1573), “keeping to yourself and being solitary is not good, but neither is being in a large crowd; find happy people and honest recreation, occasionally sing, play flutes, viols, and other musical instruments.”

Religious leaders, on the other hand, were suspicious of sensory pleasures, which might be among the vices that called down divine punishment in the form of plague. Musical joy might be good for the body, but too much was a danger for the spirit. Chiu shows how composers reconciled these conflicting recommendations through music that juxtaposed contemplative, devotional passages with livelier, more dance-like passages. Such a balancing act can be heard in Guillaume Dufay’s “O beate Sebastiane,” a piece composed in the 1430s and addressed to St. Sebastian, the defender against plague. The piece features serene chords on the name of the saint “Sebastiane” (:34-:52 on the track below), followed by more rhythmically active, flowing singing on the words, “great is your faith: intercede for us with the Lord Jesus Christ so that we may be delivered from the epidemic plague and sickness.” The two styles come together on the concluding “amen” as unified chords combine with a hopefully rising melody (2:25-end), sounding a joy that is good for both body and soul.

Today, the competing health claims of the contemplative and joyful have their counterpart in music recommendations focused on the calming or the energizing. NPR has emphasized music’s calming, anti-anxiety powers, with quiet, introspective, down-tempo songs like Julie Byrne’s “Natural Blue” selected to soothe the nerves and relieve stress. Others have turned to music for uplift, motivation, affirmations that “we got this,” “we can,” or “we will.” Recommending The Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can,” for instance, Danyel Smith remarks, “I’ve got to have the exuberance right now because I’ll spiral.” She also notes the importance of lyrics, due to the dangerous scope instrumental music provides for her own imagination: “I’ll impose too much of my own thoughts onto an instrumental.” In a rare instance of finding the contemplative and joyful in one and the same place, Felix Contreras recommends the music of Cuban instrumentalist Omar Sosa, writing: “His music has always managed to inspire both joy and reverence…This week, I call upon the reverence, joy and calming nature of Omar Sosa’s music to help us all deal with the uncertainty and — for some of us — fear of an unstable immediate future.”

Yet others have sought music not to alter their mood so much as to resonate with their emotional state or situation. As New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica remarks, “It’s hard for me to listen to something that’s far away from where I already am internally, so I find myself in moments like this – I’m in the anxious parts of my catalog.” He suggests that through such listening, he “displaces” his feelings onto the music. Similarly, Matthew Ismael Ruiz faces the chaos by listening to the noisier passages of Merchandise’s “Become What You Are”, while Chris Douridas’s “Quarantine Playlist” features songs that take on new meaning in connection with pandemic-mandated isolation or reclusive intimacy, such as Willie Nelson’s “Hello Walls.” “Chris,” radio host Jeremy Hobson remarked after several such recontextualized songs about staying home, “you’re making me feel a little bit better about this whole quarantine situation.”


The tools of individualized musical mood management are readily adaptable to quarantine conditions – and if we were to adopt Anderson’s critical mode, we would “depict the self-composing neo-Muzak user” as a kind of butterfly who emerges from their listening cocoon to “flutter among their online friends and followers in a semblance of solidarity.” There would be no reason to envision such users confronting the challenge of how to balance the benefits of communal music-making with those of social distancing – as the citizens of Milan did during the plague outbreak of 1576-1578. There, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo instituted what Chiu describes as an “innovative program of public devotion [that] kept Milanese isolated and safe.” Citizens were instructed to sing from their doors and windows, coordinated in call and response. As one observer reported on this musical adaptation to plague conditions, “when the plague began to grow, this practice [of singing the litanies in public] was interrupted, so as not to allow the congregations to provide it more fuel. The orations did not stop, however, because each person stood in his house at the window or door and made them from there…Just think, in walking around Milan, one heard nothing but song, veneration of God, and supplication to the saints…”

It turns out, however, that we too have the capacity and desire for such innovative practices of musical performance to help get through this crisis. In Italy, Spain, New York City, and elsewhere, people have gathered at windows and balconies to cheer, clap, drum, dance, and sing together, in expressions of support for health care workers, as well as of solidarity with one another during lock-down. These acts of public, communal music-making produce togetherness across medically safe distances, performing resistance and resilience against the viral threat. 

Soundscape Management

Where I am in Boston, we have not yet experienced communal music-making from the windows. Nor have we yet experienced the soundscape transformation Lindsay Zoladz describes in Brooklyn, where a once occasional, ignorable sound “has become my and my neighbors’ near constant companion: the sirens. They’re everywhere. They howl, yelp and bleat at all hours…Their persistence has a cumulative effect: I feel their presence in my body as an ever-increasing tightness in my shoulders and neck….And of course, we cannot turn a deaf ear to what we know their escalating numbers signify.” The sirens, Zoladz suggests, are taking a physiological and psychological toll, by means of both their shrieking sonic quality and the tragic hospital scenes they call to mind.

In fourteenth-century Italy, it was the tolling of death bells that proliferated with the plague. There too, there was recognition of the potentially deleterious effects of such sonic intrusions on the living – to the extent that managing the soundscape was part of managing the disease. As one medical writer advised in 1348, “no chimes and bells should toll in case of death because the sick are subject to evil imaginings when they hear the death bells.” In that year, the city of Pistoia put in place an ordinance banning funerary bells, “in order that the sound of bells does not attack or arouse fear amongst the sick.”

Before, banning bells might have seemed a silly or misguided response to the plague, driven by magical thinking about the effects of imagination on biological health. Now, however, it seems like one of many sensible responses arrived at through all-too-much experience with the ravages of pestilential crisis. Learning about music and plague in the Renaissance, I feel reassured that “anti-anxiety playlists” are not simply tools of escapism, complacency, or self-management for optimum productivity under capitalism, but rather that they belong to a set of resourceful strategies for getting through the pandemic crisis as best we can – and that music is one of our most tried and true means of managing the conflicting needs to maintain both our isolation and our togetherness in the service of health.

Spawn Songs: How AIs Find Their Voices

If you, like me, follow news about AI in music, you’ve probably seen an image like this:

Or this:

No humans here. Just AI, in robotic form, ready to take full control of the creative tasks of producer and composer. In fact, images intimating such a future have been circulating since the early 20th century. Compare the following image from 1930, from a campaign by a musicians’ union against the substitution of recorded music for live musicians in theaters:

deathofmusic robot_at_the_helm

It’s easy retrospectively to laugh at worries that mechanical reproduction would bring the destruction of art. But we should not be so blasé as to think that it all turned out ok. Yes, the substitution of recorded music for live musicians in theaters threatened the livelihood of countless instrumentalists across the nation. But the representation of recorded music as a robot wresting control of musical culture ignored the many people and new kinds of creative labor involved in producing recorded music. We are left to wonder “what if”: what if the energy poured into a simplified, sensationalist image of mechanical substitution had instead been directed to fueling a more robust public discourse about recording’s new configurations of people and tools, and their implications for musical authorship, ownership, and compensation? Perhaps what some now regard as among the greatest injustices in the history of recorded music – the shadow status of session musicians whose creative contributions were integral to the iconic sound of hit songs, for instance, or the infamous Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films 2005 blanket ruling against unlicensed sampling, which failed to fathom the creative labor of hip hop musicians – might have played out differently.

Similarly, today’s robot representations do not capture the realities of AI. As Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri demonstrate in their new book Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass, the AI systems in our lives depend on many largely hidden human workers. Think of search engine results, social media feeds, recommender systems – these “rely on a shared pool of on-demand workers amassed by on-demand platforms” (xvii), and these on-demand platforms “allow humans to power many of the websites, apps, online services, and algorithms most consumers think are automated” (170). By selling their services as powered by the magic of AI, companies (and the media hype surrounding them) conceal an underlying dynamic: that as we ask AI to do more, we are generating “new needs and different types of human labor to fill those needs” (xviii).

Recognizing the human labor involved in AI systems, the “humans in the loop” as Gray and Suri put it, calls for fundamentally reimagining what AI is – conjuring not autonomous robots that eliminate humans from the picture, but rather networked systems in which people play a constant, dynamic, essential part. It calls, in other words, for changing the image of AI in popular consciousness.

Re-enter music. Although music has long been shadowed by fears of robot take-over, musicians are also adept at taking in the world around them and reflecting it back in ways that can wake us up to new (and old) realities, helping us apprehend our world differently not just at intellectual but also at emotional, visceral levels.

This past summer, Holly Herndon released PROTO, an album made in collaboration with other human musicians and Spawn, her name for a collection of vocal models created using machine learning techniques. Herndon also calls Spawn her “AI baby,” and the use of AI in creating the album has driven its media coverage. But Herndon’s work resists reduction to “now AI can compose music too!”-style headlines. When asked by Jezebel’s Hazel Cills how to think about the people behind AI, Herndon responded:

That’s one of the biggest problems of AI; it’s this kind of opaque, black box technology, and when we have this glossy press release where it’s like “the machine just wrote this song” you’re totally discounting all the human labor that went into the training set that the thing learns on. That was a really important part of how we set up the project and the way that we did. We wanted the people training Spawn to be visible, to be audible, to be named, to be compensated, because I think that’s a huge part of what we’re facing with this thing today.

The track “Evening Shades (Live Training)” illustrates this desire for public recognition of the people and labor required to make Spawn work. Through the alternation of a full-voiced human choir with Spawn’s oddly filtered and stuttering efforts to repeat back the same phrase, the track makes audible some of the process – some of the human labor – involved in training Spawn to “sing”:

Rather than picture AI as a robot, then, listening to PROTO can help us imagine AI as a gathering of people and machines – a collective endeavor in which many humans work together with algorithmic systems. What if we were to start our discussions of AI from such an understanding – might we better grapple with the implications for authorship, ownership, compensation, with how to recognize and value the many “humans in the loop?” What if…?


Further reading:

David Turner, “AI isn’t going to replace your favorite band,” Penny Fractions newsletter, November 6 2019.

Cherie Hu, “Slave to the ‘rithm? Not so fast: Everything you need to know about the deal between Endel and Warner Music,” Water & Music newsletter, March 25 2019.

Melissa Avdeeff, “Artificial Intelligence & Popular Music: SKYGGE, Flow Machines, and the Audio Uncanny Valley,” Arts 8/4 (2019).