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March 10, 2004 4:57 PM   Subscribe

You know how some songs are really catchy and you wonder if the hooks could be engineered to make people like the song? A company called Polyphonic HMI has created software they call "Hit Song Science" which is supposed to contain algorithms that determine if a song is likely to be a hit. The company is touting their first attempt at using HSS in the marketplace as a success. [via furdlog]
posted by mathowie (44 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
This really smells like a media hoax, but somethimes truth is stranger than fiction. Negativland did a segment like this on "Escape From Noise".
posted by 2sheets at 5:18 PM on March 10, 2004


Step 1 - Get the Neptunes to make you a beat.
Step 2 - Find some vocals, any vocals, and lay 'em on top.
Step 3 - Profit!
posted by badstone at 5:22 PM on March 10, 2004


Maybe someday this will explain ABBA.
posted by alumshubby at 5:37 PM on March 10, 2004


I only skimmed the article, and haven't read any papers published this group, but I'd say a definite "maybe".
I can't see any theoretical objection to there being some subconscious mechanism that determines what sort of tune we appreciate, and that this mechanism is similar over a large set of individuals. After all, that's the case for taste.

These people claim to have created a software algorithm that analyzes what this brain mechanism has approved of before, and makes an educated guess at wether it will approve of some new song.

Classic AI stuff, and I would not be surprised if it works.
posted by spazzm at 5:47 PM on March 10, 2004


Even if a computer doesn't perform as well as a human, it can still be a great help. For example, in quality control in manufacturing, the computer may not be able to definitely flag a defective finished product. It can, however, scan thousands of products quickly and cheaply, and call a human (or recording company exec) if it sees a potential defect.
posted by Triplanetary at 5:56 PM on March 10, 2004


This reminds me a lot of Komar and Melamid. They released an album in 1996 containing "The Most Wanted Song" and "The Most Unwanted Song." The latter, if I remember correctly is 12:55 and contains a chorus of children singing "Hey everybody! It's Yom Kippur!"
posted by clockwork at 6:23 PM on March 10, 2004


Dude, "Does Your Mother Know" explains ABBA. They were GREAT.

I've heard about these folks before -- now I just wanna hear this Anastacia song. (She's big in Europe, and invisible here in the US. The fact that she's had hits over there before does, of course, affect this -- give me a holler when they put an unknown in the charts...)
posted by logovisual at 6:49 PM on March 10, 2004


If this is true, I'll need a shovel to dig a grave for what's left of rock and roll. Then perhaps I'll jump in after it.
posted by jonmc at 6:51 PM on March 10, 2004


If this story about electrical amplifiers is true, I'll need a shovel to dig a grave for what's left of guitar music.

If this story about digital synthesizers is true, I'll need a shovel to dig a grave for what's left of piano music.

As the world turns, we turn with it.

That said, since this is "classical AI" I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't work, either...
posted by spazzm at 7:23 PM on March 10, 2004


If this is true, I'll need a shovel to dig a grave for what's left of rock and roll.

Rock and roll died the day Kurt Cobain and some high velocity lead pellets attempted to occupy the same spatio-temporal coordinates.

Anyway, everyone already knows the main ingredient of a hit pop song: three chords in a 1-4-5 or 1-5-4 progression.

Out here in the fields
I'll fight for my meals...

posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:32 PM on March 10, 2004


This is different, spazzm. This is an attempt to reduce vital, emotional art to fucking engineering.

The end has been coming for years anyway.
posted by jonmc at 7:34 PM on March 10, 2004


Here's the song, if anyone is interested. It is in the UK top 40 right now.

I don't know if the AI behind this just measures EQ and beats per minute or what, but I think it's probably possible to build software that could predict what people might like. That said, the song doesn't sound hooky or catchy to me. It sounds like average Kylie-esque pop.
posted by mathowie at 7:42 PM on March 10, 2004


HSS has been out for awhile, but last year it was primarily used by record companies to help pick out which already-recorded songs to promote.

Here's a short thing that was in the NYT last year:

-------
Hit Song Science
By CLIVE THOMPSON

Published: December 14, 2003

When Norah Jones released her first album, she was a long shot at best. ''Come Away With Me'' was filled with mellow, sultry tunes -- precisely the opposite of the histrionic diva pop crowding the charts. Virtually no one expected Jones to score a major hit.

No one, that is, except for a piece of artificial intelligence called Hit Song Science, a program that tries to determine, with mathematical precision, whether a song is going to be a Top 40 hit. When the scientists fed Jones's album into that computer, alarm bells went off: the program predicted that eight tracks would hit the charts. ''We were like, whoa, that's funky,'' says Mike McCready, the C.E.O. of Polyphonic HMI, the Barcelona-based company that developed the software application. A few months later, Jones's album went multiplatinum -- and Hit Song Science had proved it could pick a hit as well as Clive Davis.

But how? At the heart of the program is a ''clustering'' algorithm that locates acoustic similarities between songs, like common bits of rhythm, harmonies or keys. The software takes a new tune and compares it with the mathematical signatures of the last 30 years of Top 40 hits. The closer the song is to ''a hit cluster,'' the more likely -- in theory -- that the kids won't be able to resist it. Yet the weird thing is, songs that are mathematically similar don't necessarily sound the same. The scientists found that U2 is similar to Beethoven, and that Van Halen shares qualities with the piano rock of Vanessa Carlton. Even more bizarrely, 50 Cent's throbbing rap tune ''If I Can't'' correlates with ''(There's) No Gettin' Over Me,'' a twangy country ditty by Ronnie Milsap.

This year, several record companies began using Hit Song Science to help pick which songs on an album to promote. Others are now using it in the studio, taking a rough mix of a new song, checking to see how hit-worthy it is, then tweaking it until it has ''good mathematics,'' as McCready puts it. He can foresee a day when most major hits will have been vetted by algorithms.

Which is, depending on how you look at it, either a wonderful breakthrough for science or an incredibly bleak statement about the music industry. Critics for years have complained that record labels produce only bland albums that mimic what's already popular. But Hit Song Science takes that trend to its logical absurdity: it does not merely aim at the middle of the road -- it calculates it, with scientific precision.

-------
posted by gluechunk at 7:49 PM on March 10, 2004


It does sound like Komar and Melamid territory. In any case, if these people want to make sure they have a hit, they need to hire a much younger computer to impersonate the computer that actually wrote the song.
posted by LeLiLo at 7:55 PM on March 10, 2004


The end has been coming for years anyway.

Whether social or technological, music has been "engineered" since the advent of the fixation of sound recordings, maybe longer. I just see it as a process that cycles through culture, not as something with a beginning and an end. No offense, jon, but to me whenever I hear someone say that rock and roll is dead or dying it means that person has an extremely myopic take on what rock and roll is.
posted by anathema at 7:57 PM on March 10, 2004


I think lelio is on the right track. Doesn't a hit song have more todo with "image" than the actual "song"? How can a computer listening to a song tell if the artist is photogenic?
posted by bobo123 at 8:00 PM on March 10, 2004


clockwork, I remember hearing about those guys on "This American Life," but I'm too lazy to go looking for a link. But I do remember vividly that the kids were singing "Labor Day! Labor Day!" - to a basic singsong tune that I now can't get out of my head, dammit.
posted by soyjoy at 8:03 PM on March 10, 2004


Thanks for the reference, gluechunk. I actually haven't heard the big Norah Jones record, but I find it interesting that the usual descriptions in reviews and from what people have told me, people find it to be "vital, emotional art." I realize that the recording was already made in the Norah Jones case and the algorithms were laid on top of it, but that also means that the software could have produced something somilar to the Jones album in the first place.
posted by anathema at 8:04 PM on March 10, 2004


No offense, jon, but to me whenever I hear someone say that rock and roll is dead or dying it means that person has an extremely myopic take on what rock and roll is.

That's prolly true, anathema. I was at Final Vinyl today and bought two records: Ducks Deluxe and Tony Joe White. I'm all about edgy, man.

I'm still holding out for a Paul Revere & The Raiders reunion, though.
posted by jonmc at 8:09 PM on March 10, 2004


johnmc: I'd say it's more like an attempt to reduce formulaic, annoying pap to fucking engineering. I doubt that the 'hit song' these people are aiming for has much resemblence to the work of creative, passionate songwriters. I don't have a problem with a computer writing the next N'Sync tune. HSS doesn't write music anyway - it's more like a software replacement for a music label mogul.

By the way, a very interesting research project in this vein is composer David Cope's software Experiments in Musical Intelligence, which does writes classical music.
posted by crunchburger at 8:10 PM on March 10, 2004


mmm Poke Salad
posted by anathema at 8:19 PM on March 10, 2004


Wow...that song is like the average of every track that's been played on every cookie-cutter top 40 or 'alt rock' radio station in the last five years.

I shudder to think what happens when this technology gets combined with GarageBand and those magic boxes that make bands like Good Charlotte sing on key.
posted by jbrjake at 8:31 PM on March 10, 2004


By the way, a very interesting research project in this vein is composer David Cope's software Experiments in Musical Intelligence, which does writes classical music.

crunch, you just reminded me of a guy named Robert Newcomb, who I wrote about back in 1995. He created electronic music using NASA research software they had developed to track celestial anomalies found in data from sky surveys. Actually, until I checked just now, I didn't realize my article was online, at his site.

He was in New Hampshire when I met him. Apparently he's now Director of Information Technology at the University of Michigan School of Music.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:34 PM on March 10, 2004


Rock and roll died the day Kurt Cobain and some high velocity lead pellets attempted to occupy the same spatio-temporal coordinates.

You meant that ironically, right?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:03 PM on March 10, 2004


this sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy machine

record labels use it to decide which songs to promote and with the proper promotion the song breaks on radio and everyone loves it.
this song just sounds the same as so many other pop songs.
posted by klik99 at 9:20 PM on March 10, 2004


I listened to that Anastasia song, and I have to say . . .

It FUCKING sucks. Really terrible. Next!
posted by Quartermass at 9:36 PM on March 10, 2004


Rock and roll died the day Kurt Cobain and some high velocity lead pellets attempted to occupy the same spatio-temporal coordinates.

Crap, I read that all wrong until Stavros's comment. I read "lead pellets" as rhyming with feed pellets and assumed it was a comment on Cobain's lack of Steve Vai-esque, wailing guitar chops.

And I don't know about rock in general, but I can say that punk is not only dead, but it's well past the point where it even stinks anymore.
posted by stet at 9:52 PM on March 10, 2004


I think a lot of you are missing the point. This is not a machine that engineers hits, it's a database of hits reduced to algorhythms which can tell you whether based on past experience, a particular song could be a hit or not. It can then suggest changes which can maximize the potential for a song to catch the popular imagination...

There's nothing sinister about it, great music is ultimately always judged by human beings over time... there is nothing to fear from technology, as long as people keep creating songs that the machines can't anticipate, and that happens all the time. Of course, they then get fed into the machine and become part of the next predictory cycle, but as long as we're infinitely more creative then we were last week, you know that we're still the rulers of the planet.
posted by chaz at 11:19 PM on March 10, 2004


Wow, that song made me ill. I don't mean that in a jonmc knee-jerk I'm-so-hip-I-could-just-die kind of way. I mean either it was the particular encoding of the mp3, or the song itself, that had this odd flatness, even concaveness, that hurt my ears and made my eyes water- it was like negative sound, like the sound was going back into the speakers. It made me dizzy, literally.

But from a musical level, it was so utterly uninspired.... that hurt too. The instrumentation had no depth, the chords were so standard...
posted by hincandenza at 11:31 PM on March 10, 2004


Yes, but would you hit this song?
posted by owillis at 11:33 PM on March 10, 2004


it's basically just doing some kind of pattern recognition analysis, right?

the algorithm could just as easily be deciding that every single song that jonmc likes contains the same patterns as all the top 40 engineered pap.

without a lot more specifics, who's to say?
posted by juv3nal at 11:58 PM on March 10, 2004


would you hit this song?

That photo is frightening, Oliver. When did Britney join the WWE?
posted by LeLiLo at 12:10 AM on March 11, 2004


Wow, that song does sound like every pop cliche ever rolled into a statistically average, marketable package.

Or as Terry and Dean would say, "Turn up the good. Turn down the suck. Somebody turned up the suck, and ripped the fuckin' knob right off!"

In any case, I think there's a lot to be said, not only artistically but commercially, for the unexpected. I mean, something like that Anastacia song is pretty much generic background noise, sort of a Europop-ised version of one of those jangly teen soap opera theme songs, but look at the sort of success somebody like Missy Elliot has making tunes that break as many rules as they follow.
posted by arto at 2:30 AM on March 11, 2004


As predicted by George Orwell.

"The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator."
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:42 AM on March 11, 2004


"Much like the x-ray machine is a tool that gives doctors objective and scientific information about the body, HSS is a tool that allows artists, producers and music industry executives the ability to see their music and their markets in ways that were previously impossible."

And much like the x-ray machine, too much exposure will give you cancer
posted by Outlawyr at 3:29 AM on March 11, 2004


At the heart of the program is a ''clustering'' algorithm that locates acoustic similarities between songs, like common bits of rhythm, harmonies or keys.
Now I know why almost every song in the charts today sounds exactly the same.

Right or wrong, I am with jonmc - while acknowledging that there has been enough time for the really crappy songs from decades past to fade from consciousness, leaving only the cream to occupy our recently played lists, I have tried really really hard to like the current generation of mainstream music, but I can't. I just can't. I often wonder how many of the current top 40 tracks will still be played in 20 years and come to the conclusion that, with very very few exceptions, what is meant by "classic rock" well into this century will be the same songs that we define this way today.
posted by dg at 4:40 AM on March 11, 2004


I don't mean that in a jonmc knee-jerk I'm-so-hip-I-could-just-die kind of way.

hincandenza, I kinda figured that a man named after a character in Infinite Jest could have figured out that I meant "edgy," ironically. Both the records I mentioned are around 30 years old, and are a long way from fashionable. But never let that get in the way of a cute little snark, huh, kid?
posted by jonmc at 6:42 AM on March 11, 2004


I guess I missed the memo, but apparently we are now to shit on jonmc at every opportunity? Do I have this right?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:19 AM on March 11, 2004


As predicted by Alfred Bester.

Her fingers and palm slipped gracefully over the panel. A tune of utter monotony filled the room with agonizing, unforgettable banality. It was the quintessence of every melodic cliché Reich had ever heard. No matter what melody you tried to remember, it invariably led down the path of familiarity to "Tenser, Said The Tensor." Then Duffy began to sing:

Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

"Oh my God!" Reich exclaimed.

"I have some real gone tricks in that tune," Duffy said, still playing. "Notice the beat after 'one'? That's a semicadence. Then you get another beat after 'begun.' That turns the end of the song into a semi-cadence, too, so you can't ever end it. The beat keeps you running in circles, like: Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun. RIFF. Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun. RIFF. Tension, appre—"

"You little devil!" Reich started to his feet, pounding his palms on his ears. "I'm accursed. How long is this affliction going to last?"

"Not more than a month."

posted by languagehat at 7:23 AM on March 11, 2004


Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.

Sounds like a Kraftwerk song to me. Or is that the point?
posted by soyjoy at 7:40 AM on March 11, 2004


stupidsexyflanders: I don't feel special, hincandenza shits on everyone.
posted by jonmc at 7:43 AM on March 11, 2004


Um, why does every music thread end up about jonmc's record collection? I'm so bored of reading about the supremacy of Dad-rock
posted by dydecker at 12:35 PM on March 11, 2004


surprised nobody's mentioned THE MANUAL by inveterate pranksters KLF
posted by jcruelty at 12:59 PM on March 11, 2004


Another bit of science fiction

When they started making music straight from the Azciak Polls, everybody howled about the Death of Art -- as if the process was anything new, anything more than an efficient closure of what had been happening for years. Groups were already assembled on the basis of elaborate market research. The Azciak Probes were already revealing people's tastes in breakfast cereals, politicians, and rock stars. Why not scan the brains of the populace, discover precisely what music they'd be willing to pay for, and then manufacture it -- all in a single, streamlined process, with no human intervention required? From the probes buried in a random sample of twenty thousand representative skulls, to the construction of the virtual bands (down to mock biographies, and all the right birthmarks and tattoos), to the synthesis of photorealist computer-animated videos, accessible for a suitable fee ... the music industry had finally achieved its long-cherished goal: cutting out everyone but the middleman.

The system spewed out pap. People paid to hear it. Nothing had changed.


That said, I don't mind a lot of new pop music. I know some music school students at the aforementioned University of Michigan, and a lot of them like Vanessa Carleton and Good Charlotte; older people don't like them because (1) the music industry over-caters to youth and (2) pop is and has always been simple and accessible, and that appeals more to people who haven't listened to music for as many years.
posted by Tlogmer at 3:06 PM on March 11, 2004


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