Wheels of the bus went swimming one day

One story I like to tell is about how Mozart charged so much for setting Twinkle Twinkle to tune (if he did set it to tune, that is) that propagators of nursery rhymes decided to use the same tune for several other popular songs – most prominently for ABCDEFG and with a small variation for Ba Ba Black Sheep.

It’s confusing, not just for kids but also for the parents. I’d written here a month or so back about how I would play tunes on the keyboard and Berry would try to guess the song and sing along. As someone who sets quizzes occasionally, the lack of “a unique answer” drives me nuts. And it possibly drives Berry nuts as well, since she changes from twinkle twinkle to ABCD within the course of one stanza.

I wonder why this is the case. Using my one data point (Berry) kids can catch on to tunes pretty quickly (she was barely a year old when she started humming the tune of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. Now she knows the full lyrics). And having unique tunes for songs means that kids are able to make easy associations between music and words – always a desirable thing.

And the lack of one-to-one correspondence doesn’t just run one way – sometimes there are multiple ways in which the same song can be sung. For some songs, such as Happy Birthday, this is due to copyright issues. I’m not sure why other songs are sung in different tunes.

For example, there are two clearly different ways in which the third line of itsy-bitsy/incy-wincy (depending on which side of the pond you’re on) spider is sung, and it gets especially confusing when I’m playing on the keyboard, since I don’t know which version Berry is expecting ( we invariably sing/play the “other” way).

The usage of voice controlled players has made things worse. In fact, the first time I appreciated Siri on my phone was when Berry was just born, and I needed both hands to hold her and put her to sleep, and then someone turn on a lullaby (“Hey Siri, play iron man by rockabye baby”). Now, the problem with voice-controlled playing is that when there are multiple versions of the same song you don’t know which one will get played.

An extreme case is like earlier today we asked Alexa to use Amazon Unlimited (we have a 3-month free trial, possibly because of my Prime membership) to play “london bridge”. It belted out some dhinchak EDM song! Within the realms of nursery rhymes itself there are songs that are sung to completely new tunes (like I had never expected that there exists a version of Jack and Jill sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle. It is most annoying). It is extremely disorienting for me – and I guess it is for kids as well, for I’m told they like predictability.

I don’t know what can be done to restore the sanity of one-song-one-tune.  Yes, I can record a set of songs in unique and popular tunes, but there is no guarantee that it will take off. And with the increase of voice controlled music playing, there is no guarantee that the “bad tunes” won’t get any air time.

The title, for those that didn’t get it, is a portmanteau of two songs that share a name. I must mention I have no intention of popularising these two precise renditions of these songs – they were simply on top of the search engine results.

Mommy duck said quack quack quack, all day long!

PS: There are differing versions in lyrics as well. One version says “all day long”; another says “all the way to town”. As Aditya Narayan sang in Rangeela Re 23 years ago, it’s complicated being a kid.

Why Indian Classical Music is Superior to Western Classical Music

I’ve been half-watching this atrocious movie called “Thank You“. Rather, the wife has been watching and I’ve been eavesdropping once in a while. Apart from the odd lame joke, it’s a horrible movie, so I wouldn’t recommend you to watch it.

But there’s one scene in that that illustrates that Indian Classical Music is superior to Western Classical Music. So the plot of the movie is that there are three stupid guys who are trying to find a conman who has been messing with them. Despite mostly obvious clues, they fail to identify him.

Until this day when they are all in his office, and one of them finds some sheet music and starts playing the notes on a conveniently located keyboard. This piece of music is something associated with the conman through the movie, and the three stupid guys immediately figure the identity of the conman.

So what does this have to do with Western Classical music? One of the key differences between Indian and Western Classical music is that in the former the performers mug up the notes of the songs – at least the parts where they don’t have to improvise. Once you know a song, you can dispense with the book. It is almost unknown for professionals to look at notes while performing.

Western Classical, on the other hand, spares performers of using up valuable memory space in their heads from remembering music, and has performers read the music from a sheet as they play it. While this has its advantages – notes are never “forgotten”, and all performers are easily in sync, and valuable memory space in the brain is not wasted – there are disadvantages as well.

Like if you have a signature tune, and if you play it often, you are likely to leave the sheet music of the tune lying around in a convenient location – which can then be found by your pursuers who can then identify you. If Akshay Kumar’s signature tune in the movie was Indian classical, he is unlikely to have had sheet music lying around in his office, and thus not got caught!

Now, if this is the way that stupid guys identify a conman, you can imagine how bad the rest of the movie might be. As if it wasn’t absurd enough, they’ve even tried to shoehorn some senti-max social messaging into the movie, making it utterly bizarre.

And once again I must point out that I didn’t really watch the movie – I just occasionally  eavesdropped as the wife watched it!

Songs for sleeping

As I write this, Berry is fast asleep next to me. It took a long time, and a fair amount of effort, to get her to sleep, as has become the routine everyday. Finally, she fell asleep as Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb was playing. This was no coincidence. This is part of a careful sleeping routine I’ve developed over the last month.

It started with a bit of what I can describe as “reinforcement learning”. We were on the way to the airport sometime last month and Berry was getting cranky in the cab, so I started singing to her. On a whim I started singing Pink Floyd songs (maybe because I know the lyrics of a lot of them). She passed out halfway through Wish You Were Here. A couple of hours later on the flight, she felt drowsy during the same song, and then slept when I started singing Comfortably Numb.

So every time I found that she would sleep to a particular song, I started singing that the next time I was putting her to sleep. Obviously it didn’t work like that – her falling asleep was a random event, which I chose to infer was a cause of my singing. And I’m someone who gives lectures on not mistaking correlation for causation.

Singing got tiring, so soon enough I had created a playlist. The playlist to which she invariably falls asleep every day nowadays is called “lullabies“.

Here is what it looks like.

Now, you might just think that it’s a random list of Pink Floyd songs, with one LedZep song thrown in. It’s not. The songs have all been carefully selected.

The first set of songs have been chosen because they are heavy on lyrics, don’t have long instrumentals and are easy to sing along to. These are songs that play when Berry is about to fall asleep, and I sing them while patting her. And invariably she falls asleep during this time.

The next few songs are long soothing songs, that will keep her asleep until she gets into deep sleep. As I write this, Atom Heart Mother is playing.

But getting Berry to sleep is not easy. I don’t start the evening with these lullabies – they come in only when I know that Berry is sufficiently sleepy and will sleep in the next 10-15 minutes (like the closer in Baseball). When she comes into the bedroom, I start with this playlist that I created a couple of months back, and which I had then named as “Berry’s Education“. 

As you can see, Black Sabbath’s Iron Man heads this list. It is Berry’s favourite song. In fact, when she gets on to the bed, she says “has he lost his mind, appa”.

This playlist is not intended for sleeping, and I randomly choose a few songs to play. When Berry gets into the next stage of her slumber, where she is now ready to sleep, but not sleepy enough, she needs some lullabies. And it’s the time for Iron Man again, except this time it’s the version by RockaBye Baby.

This is the song she used to fall asleep to when she was a baby, from the time when she was barely a couple of days old. And from there I let the album play for a while until she is really ready to sleep. Which is when the lullabies playlist takes over.

As you might imagine, having multiple playlists is a pain. I normally use the kinda old iPad4 to play, and changing playlists means entering my passcode, going up one folder and then going into another playlist. You might wonder why I haven’t created one integrated playlist.

The reason is randomness, on two counts. The amount of time Berry takes to pass each stage of sleepiness is variable. So I don’t know how long I will have to play each kind of music. Also, she is moody and the way she reacts to each kind of music is a bit random. So I need to switch back and forth between the kinds of music, and so having multiple playlists is better.

On good days, I will have my phone with me, which makes it easier to switch playlists (one hand operation, touch ID to login etc) – though it’s invariably the iPad that plays the music.

So as you might have figured out, putting babies to sleep is not an easy task, which is why I’m sharing my method with you, in the hope that it might help you. What do you do to make your baby sleep?

 

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.