Music, Information, and Society

I just found this and had to publish it. I originally wrote it on 28 November, 2007 — but I had not remembered it until now:

It is my observation that, in general, people like music that is analogous to their lifestyle. By lifestyle I mean cultural norms, societal norms, amount of information that bombards them, and just about everything else that would effect day to day activities. I was noticing how The Brian Seltzer Orchestra and Voodoo Daddy played popular music from the early 20th century and I was mentally comparing it to recordings from the time period. The period recordings of the same music seem rather innocuous compared to the modern versions of them, which are very rambunctious and edgy. This made me think upon how music has changed over the years from the earliest piece of music till now and I began to wonder what drove this change and I began thinking about the earliest music I learned about as a music education major during my freshman year of college.

The earliest surviving piece of music is on the Seikilos epitaph. It is written in ancient Greek and is incredibly placid, so placid that I think it would quickly put anyone from the last few centuries to sleep. If you compare that with song from the next few thousand years it does not change much. Then we come to the common era, and many things start changing within 300 years. Musicians start to develop organum, which is the precursor to the renaissance polyphony. From that simple parallel harmony of perfect fourths and fifths comes the harmony best characterized by the work of Perotin. His music uses mostly perfect fourths and fifths, but also throws in a few thirds and sixths – which are treated as dissonances.

Another era is reached when the rules of harmony are codified right before the 11th century. In this set of rules the sounds of organum are outlawed. The only allowed parallel motion between voices is that of thirds and sixths. These harmonies, which were harsh to the ears only a few hundred years ago, became the most pleasing sounds to the ear. Of course, there is an increase in the dissonance that is allowed. The leading composer, Palestrina, taught that dissonance creates space for more beauty in its resolution.

Then, starting in the late 18th century, dissonant sounds are increasingly allowed in music. Why? It is because it sounds beautiful to the ear (or it at least jives or resonates with the listener). Then the romantic period came and ushered in a era of beautiful dissonance. This progressed into the modern or contemporary period, where Arnold Schönberg wrote music with his tone row technique and atonal music reached it heights, receiving such rave reviews by famous people like, “I wanted leave after the opening phrase” or “It sounded like a bunch of cats clawing and scratching on a blackboard”.

Starting in the romantic period we see an increase in the use of rhythm and faster and heavier percussive sounds. We see Rock ‘n’ Roll evolve and take over popular music. My father still calls most new popular music “noise”. It is “noise” to him, but it is completely tolerable music to me. By the same token, he cannot stand listening to the renaissance polyphony that I enjoy – and neither can most of my friends and acquaintances. The say, “It’s too mellow,” “It doesn’t have a beat,” or “It hurts my ears.”

What is the driving force behind these changes in musical taste? I’m sure there are cop-out answers such as “People are just always pushing the limits.”, but I don’t think that really says anything. It begs the question, “Why do people always push the limits?” I think the answer comes from physics and modern research on complexity and complex adaptive systems. The real answer lies in entropy and information density of the world populace. I don’t think any other phenomenon could correctly underly such an incredible diversity of social behavior.

When I thought about this and the problem of changing musical taste, I came up with the following picture. Music must correspond in some manner to what we experience in our daily lives. Or to rephrase that, the information content of the music must correspond to the information content of our daily lives. Things may get a bit tricky here, because we need to define what is meant by information content of music. I will avoid the trickiness by not defining anything that specifically relates to music, because that is not my main goal. Information is anything that can be perceived by a human through the senses and at any level of cognition (in my papers context). It is anything that can be thought about and turn into knowledge by the brain. I suppose that my main thesis of this section is that music is a measure of a society’s entropy.

Entropy and information are related concepts. Information is something most know about from daily experience. But I want to introduce a definition that I will use. Information is a pattern that is meaningful to some entity at some level. Meaningful means that something can be done with it. It does not imply understanding. Entropy is related to information in that it measures the amount of information is a system. It could also be said to measure the disorder, but I do not like that because it is misleading in systems which are constantly self-organizing. It could also be said to measure the possible configurations you could find a system in. That is what it really means in this context. When you reach a level of information density, or enough people know about a certain trend or belief, then the entropy is increased.

It has been said that we live in the information age, but that is nonsense in some ways. Every age has been an information age. Information has always been around and will continue to be around in increasing quantities. That increase is what drives the changes that we see in society and the products of that society – including their music. I see information as a fundamental aspect that drives reality. We each respond to it by creating more information throughout our lives. Everything that we perceive is information and everything we do creates information. It is this fundamental action that causes all change and growth.

We are complex autonomous organisms that are capable of self-organizing and creating order. We are imbued with intelligence and therefore the ability to create and learn. Our basic activity is responding to information by creating more information. This increases the entropy of our society. Which increases the possibilities of what can happen and will happen. We see examples of this throughout history. Clothing, horseback riding, the radio, TV, the automobile, the microwave, the computer, the Internet, and Google: Each of these required several parts to happen, increase in knowledge, increase in ability, innovation, acceptance, mainstream acceptance, and paradigm shift. These stages can be abstracted down to three different stages: information increase, entropy increase, and paradigm change.

A paradigm is really part information and part change of practice. The relation between entropy and paradigm is that an increase of entropy will allow a paradigm to gain or loose a foothold. A change in paradigm signifies that the increase in entropy has allowed the configuration of society the change. In this context I will define a paradigm to be a functionality within a society. That is to say, it is a way of living, such as: stories & myths, social norms, customs, traditions, religions, ways of thinking & doing, philosophies, technology, and music.

Music was at first very slow and calm because that is how life moved. Their were no cars, no planes, no telephones, no computers, no fast food restaurants, no radio, no electricity. One had to grow their own food, gather their food from the naturally growing fruits and nuts and herbs, or go and hunt down some animal to eat. All of this involved a long process that took lots of time. Also one might spend a long time walking from place to place, or – if one were lucky enough – one might be riding a donkey or some other animal. The main point is that everything took time. There would be lots of time spent waiting for things to happen. The information created by this society would take lots of time to be made and would probably not be that much. Since there would be relatively little change throughout a lifetime, I think it would be safe to say that their music would be slow and calm. The major exception would be societies that did hunt large animals in herds and groups of people ran to after them to hunt them. The would have a template in their mind of the motions and rhythms that were experienced during those times. This, being a part of their daily lives, would have greatly influenced their music and aesthetic sense. It probably would have created fast steady rhythms in their music. This can be heard in African and Native American musics.

As time progressed all sort of inventions were created that would start to influence all of society and therefore music. Society clustering into towns and villages created an environment for information to increase faster. The invention of the press, industrial age, trains, electricity, light bulb, automobile, radio, telephone, computer, & Internet have influenced and still influence every aspect about society by allowing information to flow more freely to people and throughout society.

Find elements, get inspired, and build great things.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Inspiration is sometimes hard to come by. Stress can get in the way. Monotonous cubicles and austere workspaces seem to eradicate inspiration. Sometimes a certain space is inspiring. Other times reading something completely unrelated to work helps rest a weary brain. Sometimes seeing the out-of-the-ordinary helps feed creativity.

If one is trapped in the workplace and needs a quick dose of raw creativity and ideas, where do they go or do? No time for a walk. No chance for a field-trip to a museum. Just stuck. This might be a good use for Elements.

What is Elements?

Elements lets one explore one image or quote at a time. It can be used to Elements has been described as a “visual twitter”. Even though it looks like twitter on the surface, it is nothing like it. Twitter lets one choose to read everything or search for specific things. It can be used as a research tool or as an asynchronous messaging service. It is a swiss army knife of communication. It really is what one makes it. In Elements, what is visible changes as one uses it. Twitter remains constant in what one can see. This article will explain the concepts behind it, but exploring Elements is really the best way to figure out what it is. You can find your elements at

The formula for elements is roughly:

Elements = Images and Quotes + Special Japanese Magic + Twitter Like Interface

When I met with Hideshi Hamaguchi, COO of, he told me more about the origins of Elements and its main difference from twitter. He drew a few diagrams in his notebook to help clarify the concepts and never thought to ask for those pages. However, I took the liberty to remake the diagrams from memory and include them here.

The systems have very different conceptual designs. In twitter anyone can send 140 Unicode characters to everyone on the system. Anyone can see everything (except private time lines) if they chose to. In Elements, what one sees is principally determined by relationships (who you follow and who follows you) and what you have liked in the past. Visually, what happens can be represented by these two diagrams:


In twitter, one’s actions cannot influence how the system interacts with you: what messages you can see or the order you see them is constant. This is represented by the circle and the arrow directions not crossing over. In Elements, what one does (following people, having followers, liking an item, or casting an item) influences how the system interacts with them — what pictures end up in their queue and what order they appear. This is represented by the figure eight and the arrows crossing over.

Each person has a queue of items they will be shown which is influenced by their relationships. Actions of people who one follows will effect what one sees more than the actions of their followers.

The concept behind Elements was inspired by the attitude of the Japanese tea ceremony, the concept of ichi-go, ichi-e (“one-time, one-meeting” commonly: “one chance in a lifetime”). There is only one time to inspire and one chance present a gift. Each of these gifts can be elements inspiring great things.

How Elements Came Into Being

Elements was inspired by the lack of methodologies to manage, harness, and inspire creativity. Hideshi says there are three distinct stages to the creation of an information/knowledge worker’s (read: creative’s) product: Collecting Disparate Elements of Inspiration/Information, Organizing and Pruning those Elements, and Creating the Final Deliverable. Here’s how it looks visually:
Elements fits into the picture on the far left at the beginning of conceptualization. One could say it is a product to fill the need for tools to begin managing creativity.

Typically, companies focus on bringing things to market more than they focus on creating ideas. In fact, the relative amounts of resources put into different parts of the creative cycle looks like this:
On the other side, when it comes to possibilities and creative license — or technically, degrees of freedom — the curve is just the opposite:
The upper diagram shows why companies seem to come up with unoriginal and non-paradigm shifting ideas. It’s not that they can’t afford the potential risk involved, it’s the undesirability to allocate resources for a creative process that they don’t know how to manage. Elements is the first step in managing the inspirational aspect. It may eventually become feasible for companies to manage the creative process in a resourceful manner.

Where’s “The Lost and Found”?

At 9:16 AM Dec 22nd @vincenthunt said, “There are far too many people walking around looking for their passion, and their purpose. I wonder where the ‘lost and found’ is??” Immediately, my mind started thinking about why. I wrote back “The ‘lost and found’ is everyone and it is also deep inside each person waiting. You’ve inspired me to write a blog post.” So here’s the post:

Society at large seems to teach us that we are born, go to school, get a mediocre job, retire, then die. While we’re living we might make some money, we might inadvertently change the world, and we’ll probably buy a few things along the way. This doesn’t strike me as a picture that inspires purpose into a life. In fact it seems to take away purpose.

I think most people think they need a “job”; they think they need to be employed. Most people are raised to think that there is no other way to make an easy living. People also tend to seek the approval of others. Many people probably don’t do this intentionally, rather subconsciously. Maybe they think people won’t approve of them quitting their job and risking their income. Maybe they’re just afraid that they won’t be able to have all of what they do now. That might be true. It might be tough to start a new venture after quiting a job.

Entrepreneurs are more likely to not think this way. If they want something to happen they will go for it. If they see how the world could be different they will convince enough people to make it happen. They will ask for whatever it takes to do it. They won’t be afraid to ask. They won’t think about how weird it might seem. They don’t think about how strange doing something seemingly impossible is to other people. They also have the confidence to know that it can be done and the knowledge and ability to direct it to completion. They know how to work their magic.

Now this is too idealistic. Most entrepreneurs are not one hit wonders. They too must learn their craft. Perhaps a few of them were lucky to have caregivers that taught them the ways of the entrepreneur. I venture that most didn’t have that good fortune. So what makes these people different from you or me? Nothing really. They just saw something and went for it. They probably fell along the way. Everyone falls when they learn to walk.

So what does this have to do with where the “lost and found” is? I think people lose their purpose about the time they realize it’s easier to keep doing what they’re doing: crawling along at some job they can merely put up with. The thing is, people probably still have that purpose inside of them. Buried underneath the seeming impossibility of it all, is a passion they lost track of in the mess that our lives seem to become. Now here is where everyone becomes involved: Everyone is similar at some level. People have needs. If one has a compulsion to do or make something, there are probably a few people out there who would enjoy it or have a need for it. Basically, if you feel compelled to provide an item or a service that brings value to people, you’ll succeed. It seems so simple and feels so counter to our everyday lives; but if you really go for it, you’ll be free from the tyranny of boredom. Just go out there and learn to walk and you’ll do what you enjoy doing. You might just find your passion and purpose.