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.

TED | Talks | Clifford Stoll: 18 minutes with an agile mind (video)

I was browsing through the TED website and I found these videos that I would like to share. These are talks by some interesting people. Clifford Stoll has written several books. One of which is his personal account of tracking down a hacker who was hired by the KGB to gather any information the US was gathering on the Soviets. He also worked with Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer (think Wendy Carlos and the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack along with many other musicians and musics). His second book explores the effects of computers and technology on society. I actually have mused upon this same topic and wrote down some thoughts that are based on neuroscience research and just all the nuances of physics in human interaction. I’ll have have to write up a blog about it someday.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from www.ted.com posted with vodpod

Democracy and Education (or something like it)

I have been thinking about some democracy centered items over the past few years. About three years ago while I was still in Lincoln, NE. I was working at a place called Taco Inn and reflecting upon my life experience – the only logical thing to do when you have a job that solely utilizes your basal ganglia (essentially the reptilian part of the brain). The first thing that came to mind was about rights vs. duties.

I starting thinking about a phrase that I had heard in pop culture and in dialogs between people: It’s my right! I contemplated how this was used in several circumstances and finally settled that the context always implied a rights versus duties point of view. Let me explain: It seemed as though people would use the reality of having certain inalienable rights and freedoms as an excuse to neglect any duty or obligation that they had. I’m my own person. I can do what I want to. Just do it. This was our right. It seems very adolescent and it seems indicative of our culture.

This began to upset me, because I realized that rights brought along with certain duties. It is your right to take a loan, but it is your duty and obligation to repay it. Otherwise, there are consequences – personal and corporate. Take the sub-prime mortgage crisis for example. Duties and rights – these are the Yin and Yang of freedom. It is your duty to vote on everything you possibly can, otherwise it is you fault that your freedom was taken away from under your nose.

One other thing that I also thought was incredible that has some relation to democracy was that a lot of people in Europe have installed their own network infrastructure. Each person installed it on their property and owned it. No telecommunications company owned it because the people owned it. I have since thought about how awesome it would be if we overthrew all of the telecommunications companies by creating our own small grassroots tel-co movements. Along theses same lines, in Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; and in so many places around the world people are installing their own wireless networks that let people access different things, especially the internet. With how cheap technology is, it would be easy for a group of people to form a Wi-Fi cooperative and provide internet access. Of course they would need to find out how to get access to the internet, either a direct T1, OC-n, or distributed access through local internet providers. Any number of ways would work.

Now what would happen if people started to create their own cell phone networks? Cable networks? What about starting to broadcast in the now up for grabs TV spectrum when TVs go blank in February of 2009. Better jump on that quick before no one can get any bandwidth because Google or Nextel have bought all of it.

This brings me to my thoughts on education. Those ideas wouldn’t fly is because people aren’t taught enough about technology, science, engineering, and mathematics in elementary and middle school. I won’t point fingers here. I’ll say that there isn’t enough money and I don’t think we know the best way to educate students about those subjects. Now, I will put in my two cents worth (or more):

I started a research project and I wrote an eighteen plus page paper (which is going to turn into a book soon if I keep working on it). I have integrated different aspects of different disciplines and, in short, the book is very multifaceted and interdisciplinary. It draws on the ideas of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, artificial life, anthropology, sociology, education, and psychology. I wrote a short paragraph about learning in the earliest societies. It stresses how most learning took place in the field.

There were hunter-gatherers who would need to learn how to survive through experience. By doing so they were also helping the clan. There were also the early agrarian societies. These would learn the same way. They would learn by doing – not just to be doing something, but to help in a meaningful and rewarding way in society. This is how we evolved for many thousands of years. If you happen to be a creationist, there is still the mechanism of micro-evolution that is fully compatible with your world-view. It still allows for the fine tuning of the learning mechanism in our species over time.

We are very maladapted to learning things in the absence of societal reward. This is a profound statement that has prolific consequences for education and democracy. In this paradigm, learning about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects becomes rewarding (perhaps even financially?) and interesting. Since it immerses them into society, they will learn about all of the societal structures that are in place that they need to know about to bring their ideas to fruition. If they want to start a business, what type of business will it be? Sole proprietorship? Partnership? LLC? LLP? C or S Corporation? A variant of one of the above? Does their state support chartering their choice? Where will they get financing? What is the business plan and exit strategy? Since they are embedded in society, they will succeed or fail. Either way, they will learn and gain experience that will enable more success.

It is through this paradigm that they will dream and bring that dream into existence. They will learn higher level cognitive skills than they will if we just focus on the basics. I should stress that would “just” in the previous sentence. The basics will be there and they will be drilled over the basics. However, the reason will be the same about for any concert performer or athlete to practice and drill basics: it improves your capabilities and chances for successfully implementing your dream.

This paradigm also brings duties and rights to the forefront. It is your duty to learn this to earn your right to bring your dream into reality. If anyone argues, “We have that in the current system, it is one’s duty to graduate and earn your right to do what you want to. What makes this any different?” One major reason: this paradigm is more relevant, it makes sense to the innate learning mechanism. Students will see the reason for learning and perfecting the practice of the individual steps required to reach their goal.

I hope that this doesn’t seem like a Utopian dream. I know the nature of people and this vision only optimizes one aspect of a societal structure. It does not change people. It only uses our brain in a way more suitable to how it evolved.