Drake and a Bird’s Beak: Music in Service to Code

It is common knowledge that music is primarily listened to on digital devices. Songs are converted into code for our access on laptops. These classes of numbers and the like are the underpinning of our musical experience.

Is this code in service to our musical pleasure or are we, in some way, in service to it?

Such a question has been bubbling ever since early computing.

In 1953, the Italian mathematician Nils Barricelli created a digital universe in which, he says, “a class of numbers which are able to reproduce and to undergo hereditary changes.” These numbers were coded sequences that existed in a program of Barricelli’s making. What is profound about the project is that these codes replicated, reproduced, crossed paths, and evolved much like cellular organisms. All by themselves, generations upon generations of codes went through.

The results were recorded, but the impact of Barricelli’s digital experiment lies beyond the survival of those particular codes. For it the activity of those codes that the ones today, those that reside in our music, follow to a tee. They are, in George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral, “collector societies, bringing memory allocations and other resources back to the collective nest. Numerical organisms were replicated, nourished, and rewarded according to their ability to go out and do things…”

One of those things is to be accessed as music. When we download a song into our Itunes library, it is reproduced into another environment. Once there it interacts with the codes of our computer in various ways. These processes keep happening and happening. George Dyson explains it further:

“They coalesced into operating systems amounting to millions of lines of code – allowing us to more efficiently operate  computers while allowing computers to operate us. They learned how to divide into packets, traverse the network, correct any errors suffered along the way, and reassemble themselves at the other end. By representing music, images, voice, knowledge, friendship, status, money, and sex – the things people value most – they secured unlimited resources, forming complex metazoan organisms running on a multitude of individual processors the way a genome runs on a multitude of cells.”

The emphasis is mine and for good reason. With this perspective, music becomes like an evolutionary trait, perhaps a species even. A hit single by Drake is for code like a beak that can break chestnuts is for a bird. If music spreads it is code that spreads too. A popular song will travel across millions of computers and systems on them like Spotify and Itunes. That is the goal for code.

It is eerily similar to the idea of Vilém Flusser who argued that the content of a photograph was not a feeling or memory but the apparatus that created said photograph. The content of music is not a feeling or beauty but “a class of numbers which are able to reproduce and undergo hereditary changes.”

This can seem demeaning to music itself. That cannot be farther from it. Music serves a vital role in our ever expanding digital universe. If we can understand how music operates within it, we can better understand the laws and principles that run the cosmogony of code we live in today.


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