Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Music as Technology: Sad song of missed opportunities for music to do what music does well

Last week my colleagues Andrew Demetriou and Cynthia Liem presented a paper at ISMIR 2016 (the 17th International Society for Music Information Retrieval Conference) entitled "Go with the Flow: When Listeners Use Music as Technology" [1]. The idea of this paper is that listeners use music as a tool that is directed to accomplishing a task.

In the paper, we point to the phenomenon of people using music to put themselves into a flow state: "listeners make a conscious decision to expose themselves to the experience of music to alter their internal state in order to achieve a goal that they have set for themselves." With this paper, we want to encourage the development of music information retrieval technology, including recommender systems, that supports listeners in finding the music that they need in order to support their goals.

It is a chicken and egg problem. Unless systems are there that support users in finding music that allows them to reach there goals, it is hard to study the phenomenon at large scale. Unless we understand the phenomenon, it is hard to develop these systems. The first leap remains one of, well, basically, faith: faith that, given the evidence that we already have on hand, that we should push for music information retrieval that recognizes that positive potential of music for allowing people to best use their brains.

We try to keep the focus on the positive potential, but the dark underside of the situation is what happens if our world continues on, with the mainstream being unaware of the effect of music on the brain. The wrong music can prevent certain brain states, as easily as the right music can promote them. When music is not in the control of an individual (such as in a restaurant, cafe, or public place) serious thought is needed about what music is playing and how to play it. Otherwise the music is putting people in a brain state that is neither productive, nor even pleasant.

Stop the noise by Surko
In Chicago, I met a man cleaning tables in a restaurant.

The chain had obviously put a lot of time and money into the decor.

The music was a loud mix of alternating genres. Understanding people speaking was a strain.

When I asked the man about it he got emotional.

"I'm teaching myself guitar," he said. "There are a couple of good country pieces mixed in, but I know them by heart. The whole thing plays over and over again."

"I could tell them what they really should be playing!"

We look to a future in which the people making the music decisions about places like this restaurant care about their sound atmosphere as much as they care about the visual impression of their decor. The music should not only be geared to customers who stop by for lunch, but also to employees, who spend their days listening to it. The experience (and arguably also mental health) of people spending time in the restaurant could be enhanced if the music released them from the grind of repetition. Music may not always allow people to achieve flow state, but it can support them in enjoying being where they are, as much as possible.

Music decision makers should sit up and realize that music matters: music doesn't happen "out there" somewhere, but rather happens inside every person who is listening to it. The leap of faith is not a large one, it just requires listening to people who know that music is important, and asking them how to make things better.

[1] Demetriou, A., Larson, M., and Liem, C. Go with the Flow: When Listeners Use Music as Technology, ISMIR 2016.