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The Carletonian

Is a computer the “ultimate music authority?”

<ther morning my dad forwarded me the ad for Apple’s latest product, a small stand-alone device with fancy speakers, programmed with Siri, and presumably useful mostly for broadcasting podcasts and music into a room (an expensive fix for my current method of using a mixing bowl to amplify my phone’s speakers).

The text reads: “‘The ultimate music authority.’ HomePod is built to bring out the best in Apple Music. With the intelligence of Siri and access to virtually all the world’s songs, it’s like having your very own musicologist who learns and plays what you like, and helps you discover music you love.”

I responded with a weeping emoji. I’m a musicologist. Was I weeping because my job has been replaced by a small computer? My first thought was to jump ship.

I asked my dad if I should apply to work for Apple or another tech company, helping to program their music software.
He said that’s what people in his field, statistics and data analysis, did in the 80s.

You can’t turn back the clock: once a computer, or a robot, or some other means of automation can do your job faster than you can, there’s no way to make these machines un-learn your skills.

So you might as well cash in—as they say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Initial despair aside, my job is just fine. A musicologist certainly can give you recommendations about what kind of music you might like.

But computer programs have been able to do this for a long time, at least 15 years.

In order to make music recommendations, the computer needs a huge database of songs, yes (Apple Music claims to have about 45 million), but also data points corresponding to the musical dimensions.

Is the song slow or fast? Does it have a vocalist? Man or woman? Smooth or growly tone? What about the instruments—are there guitars? Acoustic or electric? How about drums? Drum machines? Samples? Rapping? Are the lyrics sweet or sad? Aggressive? Explicit? “Angsty?”

Each song in the database can be summarized by some number of these traits.

A program that “learns your taste in music” records the musical traits from the songs you “favorite” or add to your playlists, and then it searches the database for more of the same.

So it doesn’t really learn as much as it retains, analyzes, and applies its analysis to lots of other songs.

Cool. But this isn’t really what a musicologist does.

Yes, a musicologist knows lots of music (well, maybe not 45 million songs…), and yes, a musicologist analyzes music.

In the case of musicologists who study aesthetics, they most certainly try to understand what listeners like about their favorite music.
But that’s where the comparison ends, because that’s where the computer’s abilities end.

A human musicologist is after much more than analysis and repetition. Human musicologists try to understand music.

We want to not just know what qualities our favorite music has, but also why those things are appealing to us.

Carleton is lucky to have a relatively big music department with five musicologists.

Justin London analyzes the brain’s responses to music to understand why we respond to different rhythms in different ways.

Melinda Russell studies what kind of music is made in different parts of the world and how that music is incorporated into different societies.

Andy Flory seeks to understand the conditions under which the most enduring popular music was created and disseminated.

Ron Rodman gets into the nitty-gritty of musical structures with a goal of understanding how music creates meaning and can influence our emotions.

And I ask how a society’s art music reflects its intellectual activity, such as philosophy, science, or theology. You can think of us as “your very own musicologists.”

Whether you use a streaming music service and tap into its convenient software that automatically generates a playlist is up to you.
But expanding your taste in music might be hard to do using such software alone.

Sometimes we come to appreciate the sound or style of a new type of music more when we understand who made it, and for what purpose.

And musicology isn’t just about finding new favorite songs or even about becoming an authority about music; its goals are much loftier.
Musicologists want to not just understand what music is, but why music matters.

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