Dreaming on about machine learning

I don’t know if I’ve written about this before (that might explain how I crossed 2000 blogposts last year – multiple posts about the same thing), but anyway – I’m writing this listening to Aerosmith’s Dream On.

I don’t recall when the first time was that I heard the song, but I somehow decided that it sounded like Led Zeppelin. It was before 2006, so I had no access to services such as Shazam to search effectively. So for a long time I continued to believe it was by Led Zep, and kept going through their archives to locate the song.

And then in 2006, Pandora happened. It became my full time work time listening (bless those offshored offices with fast internet and US proxies). I would seed stations with songs I liked (back then there was no option to directly play songs you liked – you could only seed stations). I discovered plenty of awesome music that way.

And then one day I had put on a Led Zeppelin station and started work. The first song was by Led Zeppelin itself. And then came Dream On. And I figured it was a song by Aerosmith. While I chided myself for not having identified the band correctly, I was happy that I hadn’t been that wrong – given that Pandora uses machine learning on song patterns to identify similar songs, that Dream On had appeared in a LedZep playlist meant that I hadn’t been too far off identifying it with that band.

Ten years on, I’m not sure why I thought Dream On was by Led Zeppelin – I don’t see any similarities any more. But maybe the algorithms know better!

Books, Music, Disruption and Distribution

Having watched this short film by The Economist on disruption in the music business, I find the parallels between the books and the music businesses uncanny.

Both industries have been traditionally controlled by the middlemen – labels in the case of music, and publishers in the case of books. Both sets of middlemen are oligopolies – there are three big music labels and four (?) major publishers. This is primarily a result of production costs – traditionally, professional recording equipment has been both expensive and hard to get. Similarly, typesetting and printing a book was expensive business.

However, both industries have been massively disrupted in the last couple of decades, primarily thanks to new distribution models – streaming in the case of music, and online vendors and e-books in the case of books. Simultaneously, the cost of production have also plummeted – I can get studio quality recording and mixing software on my Macbook Pro, and I already have a version of my book that looks good on the Kindle.

Yet, in both industries, the incumbents strongly believe that they continue to add value despite the disruption, and staunchly defend the value of the marketing and distribution they bring. In the above video, for example, a record studio executive talks about how established artistes may do well going “indie”, but new artistes require support in production, marketing and distribution.

If you see blogs and news articles on publishing and self-publishing, on the other hand, most of the talk is about how little value publishers themselves bring into the marketing and distribution process. While publishers continue to have a broad monopoly on the traditional distribution chain (bookstores, primarily), they have no particular competitive advantage in the new channels.

One of the successful indie artistes interviewed in the above video talks about how he was successful thanks to the brand and following he built up on social media, which ensured that his album had several takers as soon as it was released. It is again similar to advice that authors who want to self-publish get!

As someone who has completed a book manuscript and is looking for production and distribution options, I find the developments in the indie space (across products) rather interesting. Going by all this, maybe I should just give up on the “stamp of approval” I’m looking for from a traditional publisher, and go indie myself!

I leave you with a few lines from one of my favourite poems, which I believe is a commentary about the music record label industry!

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.


Live Music at Wedding Receptions

The problem with live music at wedding receptions is with the volume. If you keep the volume too low, the musicians find it offensive. If you keep the volume high, on the other hand, people can’t hear each other talk and get irritated. And I’ve never really attended a wedding reception where the live music has had the “right volume”.

Hence, at my wedding reception, we dispensed with live music and instead carefully put together a set of trance numbers which were to be played over a CD-speaker system. And two hours before the reception is to begin, we find that there was no music player in the hall, and no one had bothered arranging for one. Thankfully the photographer, who I’d fought with for the duration of the wedding, agreed to arrange for a music system at quick notice. And then, when the reception was about to begin, it turned out that the uncle who had the CDs had gone home to get dressed.

Ultimately, I think they played the music that we’d carefully put together. I don’t know really because it wasn’t audible on stage, but we’re told by a few people it was quite good (they even asked for and “borrowed” the CDs). If you attended my wedding reception, please to be telling me how the music was.

So before my wedding, when I sent the invite to Mammo, he replied asking who was performing at the reception. When I told him my reasons for not having live music at the reception, he explained that performing at a wedding was a good chance for musicians to experiment, and in some ways it was a “paid rehearsal”. And that it really helps in the development of musicians.

On the other hand, I remember, some fifteen years back, my violin teacher being furious that he’d been called to play at a wedding, and there was no one listening to him, and his volume was turned out to be quite low, and he had a really bad experience.

So I don’t know. I still think the best thing to do would be to put recorded instrumental music that isn’t too intrusive. What do you think?

The Classical Dead

One of the bands whose discography I have and whose music I listen to when I want to listen to “unknown music” is the Grateful Dead. And while I was listening to them last night, it sounded like it was heavily inspired by Indian classical music (especially Carnatic stuff).

The song I was listening to was “not fade away” from the album GratefulDead (1971).  Ok now a little bit of wiki research tells me that this song was originally written by Buddy Holly and the Dead version in this album was a cover. I haven’t listened to the original but I’m really intrigued that the dead version has such a profound Indian influence on it!

Thinking about it, the only Indian connection of the Dead I can think of is that drummer Mickey Hart used to regularly jam with Ustad Allah Rakha. But then considering he was a percussionist, it’s unlikely that the Indian influence came from him!

Anyways it seems like if I listen to this kind of music a bit more, The Grateful Dead may not be “unknown music” for too much longer.

Fixed and variable scales

One major point of difference I’ve noticed between Indian and Western classical music is about the starting point of scales. Western music has a fixed starting frequency, and all instruments and voices are supposed to be tuned to that. Every guitar is tuned identically, and I’m talking about absolute frequencies of various strings here. Similarly with other instruments.

Indian classical music on the other hand doesn’t bother as much about absolute freuqencies. The frequency of the base Sa doesn’t matter at all, it’s only the relative frequencies of various notes that matter and as long as those are perfect the music will be good. This allows greater flexibility to artistes, especially vocalists and allows them to find their own range rather than having to conform to set standards.

Related to this is the individualist nature of Indian music (you usually have one lead performer here, accompanied by two or three others) and the orchestra nature of Western classical. When the “band” is small, it is not so much of a big deal to retune instruments to match each other and because of this it is not so much of a problem to coordinate. When you are part of an orchestra, however, it is important to have a standard and have everyone conform to that, rather than have a large number of musicians retune for every performance.

What I wonder, however, is which came first – synchronized tuning or the orchestra.

Teaching Music in Schools

How many of you actually enjoyed your “songs”/music lessons in school? Not too many, I suppose. Actually I don’t think more than a tenth of the students would have ever enjoyed these lessons. And I don’t think there is too much surprise in this given the kind of stuff that is taught in schools.

At some point of time during my schooling, we used to have three (!!) “songs” classes during a week, each handled by a different teacher who would teach songs in different languages. The greying guitar-wielding fag-smelling Samson was a fixture, while the other two classes were handled by different people each year, none of whom I remember. One thing that connected all of them, irrespective of the differences in the nature of songs, was that most of the songs they taught were easily classified by us as “uncool” (back then, and even now I’d consider them uncool).

So earlier today I was trying to remember the different songs that had been taught to me in the “songs periods” in school, and the common thread was religion – irrespective of language. A disproportionately large proportion (yeah I love that phrase) of songs that were taught to us were about God, or doing good, or some such thing which could be approximated to a prayer. I remember that Samson also taught us some Christmas carols, but I would argue that even those can be classified as religious music.

There was no wonder that most of us dreaded the music lessons, and the only way we could look forward to them was to replace every significant word in a song with its opposite, or to simply replace it with moTTe (egg). No offence to any of the Gods in whose praise we were supposed to sing those songs but this was the only way we could make the lessons even remotely interesting.

I’m sure most of you would have also gone through similar experiences. And now consider this, courtesy askingfortreble:

Yeah that’s a bunch of schoolkids singing O Fortuna by Carl Orff. If you are done listening to that, then look at this – again being performed by students of the same school.

You heard right! They were singing Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters! Don’t you wish they had taught that to you in school? And made you sing it during the annual day? And if not anything else the bragging rights that would’ve given you later when you went to college? Or the coolness?

Thinking about it, Samson did teach us a couple of songs that were, in hindsight, cool. Ok we did enjoy them when he taught them to us also but they got lost in the midst of so many uncool songs that we never realized we knew such cool stuff. Harry Belafonte’s Jamaican Farewell and Dylan’s Blowing in the wind. Yeah, we learnt them in school but nobody told us they were cool.

Looking back, I wish we were taught many more such songs back then rather than having to substitute words of other songs with “motte”. For all you know, I might have actually taken up singing (ok that might be a stretch; even though I’ve learnt to play the classical violin for 6 years I hardly play it nowadays – ok that also maybe because most of the songs i know are uncool). Yeah I’m such a wannabe.

Unknown Music

There are times when you want to listen to songs that you don’t know. You want to listen to something that seems very vaguely familiar but something you don’t know. One way to implement this it to put winamp on randomize mode. But then, you are likely to know the songs so it won’t work that well. Another way is to listen to the radio but then they may not always play your kind of music (for example, there is one English radio channel in Bangalore and most of the time they play Miley Cyrus nad similar trash – not at this moment though, some awesome house music is playing).

Another way of implementing this which I’ve discovered is to listen to bands that you don’t listen to too often. A 250 GB harddisk on my laptop allows me to store lots of music and there are lots of bands whose music I largely like but don’t listen to enough in order to make myself familiar with their songs. So when I’m in one of those moods when I just wnat to listen to music without analyzing too much or thinking too much I just pull out one of these artistes, and listen to a couple of their albums.

Since I know what they broadly sound like, I can choose music to fit my mood. On the other hand, since I don’t listen to these bands too often, it sounds fresh and unfamiliar all the time, so I end up not thinking too much.

Do you people also feel the same sometimes? Feel like listening to music that doesn’t sound too familiar? What kind of stuff do you listen to then? Where do you source the music for such occasions? Do let me know