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How Science Is Becoming Music

By Sam Brinson on 23 Nov 2016

How Science Is Becoming Music

Music seems like one of those higher order mental capacities only humans are really capable of. Sure, birds and whales sing, dogs like to get in on the act, but people are the ones to truly explore the winding corridors of sound’s aesthetic properties.

We’re starting to kick this up a notch too. Now there are people finding music—or something close to it—all throughout the natural world, while others still are giving new forms of “life” a chance to show off their musical chops. Unsure what I’m getting at? Let me elaborate with some examples.

SPACE

In 2014, using specialised equipment, NASA recorded sounds from space. Is there sound in space? Not sound like we’re used to, but rather vibrations in electromagnetic energy. The sounds are, as NASA explains, “the complex interactions of charged electromagnetic particles from the Solar Wind, ionisphere, and planetary magnetosphere.” The sounds heard differ between planetary bodies, each making for a unique ambient soundtrack:

https://youtu.be/-MmWeZHsQzs

BACTERIA

That creepy looking stuff you grow in a petri dish, makes you sick, and that causes you to excessively wash your hands, can also compose a nice tune too. As the bacteria breaks down waste, microbial fuel cells release energy, which can then be converted into sonic energy. This is exactly what The Interspecifics Collective did, a Mexico City based “nomadic multispecies collectivity,” in theirEnergy Bending Labproject:

https://vimeo.com/133038236

BRAIN WAVES

For a lump of mass only 2% of our total body weight, the brain uses up to 20% of our bodies energy. All that fluctuating activity can be read accurately with the latest technology, allowing us to pear inside a brain as it thinks and reacts. The brain communicates through networks of neurons, with signals bouncing back and forth in remarkably cyclical patterns, such that we can model them as waveforms and interpret them as music. Several people have attempted turning their brain waves into music (you can find a list here), one notable artist is Lisa Park, who hooked up an EEG headset to a large set of speakers with thin pools of water of them, to appreciate not only the sound but visuals too: 

https://vimeo.com/112387261

Looking to the natural world is one way to find unique soundscapes and music, yet some have gone in the other direction—creating artificial systems that can compose and perform their own music. Music and technology have gone hand in hand since the time we could bang two sticks together. With each technological advancement came new ways to make music—from the drum and bone flute to electric guitars, synthesizers, and auto-tuners. Today it’s robots and computer programs.

ROBOTS

We’ve built steam engines, rockets and computers, now someones built a band. Squarepusher, the pseudonym for Tom Jenkinson, created a three-piece band called Z-Machines. The guitarist, March, has 78 fingers; Ashura, the drummer, 22 arms; and Cosmo, the keyboardist, can fire lasers. The band has already put together an EP, appropriately titled Music for Machines:

https://youtu.be/VkUq4sO4LQM

AI

Robots mimicking human bodies is one thing, can a computer mimic the mind’s ability for composition? The answer is yes. While Skynet is still a ways off yet, computers are getting much better at making original music. One example of this comes from Sony Computer Science Lab in Paris, who in a project called Flow Machines had a program use access to a database of songs to find a style it could then compose something in:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSHZ_b05W7o

Nature has some aesthetically pleasing inherent melodies, but it likely doesn’t compose them for the same reasons as we do, and certainly not to the same extent. So intent on new musics are we that we’ll create machines and algorithms that can go further than us. Yet we are still at the early stages of artificial intelligence, while computers might still be a little way off improvising jazz to a human standard, the thought of watching a band made of both human and artificial minds improvise new music is exciting, and a little scary. 

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Thanks Sam