Monthly Archives: February 2017


Katy Perry has placed these chained disco balls in various parts of the globe (here). Each of them contains a headphone jack where one can listen to what is being dubbed as her new single. The title of this track?

“Chained to the Rhythm.”

It’s poetic really. We have been chaining people to rhythm for well over a century. 1889 saw the inception of these sort of devices. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton describe phonograph machines in their wonderful history of disc jockeying:

“Coin-operated and with stethoscope-like ear tubes, it was much like the listening posts in record stores today, except it was the size of a small nuclear reactor. Edison made some similar machines and wheeled them out at state fairs, where up to ten curious folk would plug in and grin at each other. However, these primitive contraptions never grew beyond a novelty.”

Amplification was able to take these primitive contraptions into their next evolutionary form – the jukebox. We were not chained by a stethoscope anymore. Or are we?

Headphones might resemble stethoscopes but they attach to feathery devices, a laptop being the heaviest among them. Mobility is the rule. Except now here we are, connecting to a disco ball chained in place and taking a picture of it.

It’s hard to look past Perry’s act as more than a promotional tool. Disco balls that play music are worth talking about – a picture here, a tweet there. Sooner or later Katy Perry releases a new album and the disco balls disappear. A nifty marketing trick we’ll say.

But to interrogate these disco balls is to find a deep history of holding the listener to a spot. Even before the technology, concert halls held listeners to their seats. Even after the technology, headphones act as umbilical cords that hold even the fastest runners at the mercy of music from their phones. Perry’s disco balls operate from the same notion.

The lightness of an auditory experience needs weight, otherwise it will be fleeting. We need to capture and hold music down. Likewise, we are in constant movement and stimulated by sounds on all directions. Figuring out what to pay attention to is a large undertaking. To minimize chance we chain ourselves to the rhythm – that way we know where to direct our ears.

When we finally direct our ears and lose ourselves to the music, we will know it’s because we kept ourselves firmly planted.


Gravity may not be strong enough to hold the universe back. If that is the case, in Bill Bryson’s words, “the universe will keep racing away forever until everything is so far apart that there is no chance of material interactions, so that the universe becomes a place that is inert and dead, but very roomy.”

This model is called an open universe. It implies that the expansion that started with the Big Bang continues on and perhaps indefinitely. Sounds like the Internet, our digital universe. Bits and bits and bits keep coming in various forms. One of the most popular, as we know, is music.

The open model says that material interactions will become less and less as the universe keeps racing way. If you look at the new arrivals on Bandcamp, they are updating constantly. An album on the first page one day is pushed farther back until it’s off of the list. It can get to a point where the listens of a song stagnate. The digital expansion pushes the song away from future interactions with users – out of sight out of mind. Only by an intentional search can one sometimes find these scattered bits.

And that is for exceptions. As a rule, the majority of music will remain scattered in the digital ether. That is the cost of the open universe model. We have to realize that. People are not stopping any time soon. Music will continue to be made and uploaded in digital formats.

A large portion of music has to be left behind for the continual stretching of content. As music is translated from bits to sound, other tracks will remain online as bits and not much else.

Inert and dead, but very roomy.

“If you cross the mirror in the other direction, there really is a universe of self-reproducing digital code. When I last checked, it was growing by five trillion bits per second. And that’s not just a metaphor for something else. It actually is. It’s a physical reality.”

– George Dyson, Edge Interview, March 2012

Five trillion is a gargantuan number. How much of those bits could be music?

That might be impossible to guess but let’s look at a sliver: SoundCloud. Figures from 2012 purport that ten hours of audio is uploaded every minute.

How does that translate to bits? A three minute song contains about thirty million bits. What if we add twenty of those songs together to form an hour? That would be a grand total of six hundred million bits per hour.

Now the fun part. If we multiply that figure by ten, then ten hours of audio would roughly translate to six billion bits of per minute. What does that mean every second of that minute? About one hundred million bits.

It cannot be emphasized how small of a sliver one hundred million bits is for the five trillion a second expansion of our digital universe. Less than a percent would begin to cut it. How about one twenty thousandth (1/20,000)? And that does not take into account Youtube, Spotify, and other digital means of music distribution. Who knows what a sliver of the five trillion bits they would all make up together. Maybe a percent?

There is no sign that the digital universe will stop expanding on the musical side of things. People continue to upload tunes as they see fit. The numbers have probably even increased since those 2012 statistics. These awe inducing facts bring up further questions about the nature of the digital universe music is a part of.

One that comes up is the concept of expansion and our analogy of the Internet as a universe. Because, in fact, neither are compatible when it comes to our own universe. The universe as we know it actually does not expand. Bill Bryson explains this in A Short History of Nearly Everything:

 “For the moment it is enough to know that we are not adrift in some large, ever-expanding bubble. Rather, space curves, in a way that allows it to be boundless but finite. Space cannot even properly be said to be expanding because, as the physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg notes, ‘solar systems and galaxies are not expanding, and space itself is not expanding.’ Rather, the galaxies are rushing apart. It is all something of a challenge to intuition.”

What could this mean for the new bits that we say are being uploaded as songs, that are supposedly expanding the digital universe? Is a song an expansion or is it rather part of a curved universe that is rushing apart? Is it creating new space or already part of preexisting curves?

As Bryson writes, it all really is a challenge to intuition, especially if the digital universe actually expands as we continually upload music. Could it mean that the Internet is not a universe but a universe that is in a constant state of becoming? Is it more like a digital Big Bang, spreading bits that become planets of audio like SoundCloud and Youtube?

Imagine if someone stood up during a concert in the 1800’s. This person’s mission is to force the orchestra to stop playing amidst the most roaring finale, instruments blaring at their peak. Those seated next to him glare. What a strange fellow. Maybe one woman is brave enough to hush him back to his seat.

It is near impossible for this man, at his seat, to stop the orchestra from playing. The only thing he could do is exit the hall. Even so, the music would still persist in his absence. Play it would until the end, out of the man’s control.

If that same gentleman is transported to the 21st century and given any sort of music playing device, he could stop the orchestra with a click. Of course it is not an orchestra he is stopping but a recording. Regardless, the fact remains: he can stop what was once out of his control.

He can listen to a piece and stop it when he uses the restroom, when he starts talking to a friend, when he answers the knock at the door, and so on. Then, whenever, he likes, the music can play where it left off.

It is one thing to be able to play music everywhere, another to have it bend to our will. A stop button makes this possible. Acting like a light switch, music can be on or off. The ability to stop music is a part of our modern means of listening – as common as electricity itself.

I wonder if, because of its regularity, we take this ability for granted. What would happen if we lost the stop button? How would our listening experiences change?

The 17th century Jesuit scientist Athanasius Kircher devised a statue he playfully called the ‘Oracle of Delphi’. John Glassie describes it in his pleasant work A Man of Misconceptions: 

“To make it, Kircher removed the acoustical tube from the wall of his cubiculum and installed it in a similar recess between the college courtyard and the museum; it was then connected by progressively smaller hidden tubes to a hollow statue…

‘Because the orfice of the shell meets with a public place,’ Kircher explained, ‘all the words of men coming from outside into the spiral tube produce themselves drawn within the mouth of the statue.’ As a result, the tubes could be ’employed in playful oracles and fictitious consultations with such artifice that not one of its witnesses was able to discern anything concerning its secret construction.'”

What one hears is coming from something one does not expect. A couple centuries pass to reveal another ‘Oracle of Delphi’. The 1990’s hit “The Power” by SNAP! includes a music video with a woman lip-syncing the hook. But the woman in the video is not the same one on the track. That is Penny Ford’s voice on the other end, not Jackie Harris’.

We draw up countless tubes that connect one end to another. A talking statue pales in comparison to what is now accessible: lip-syncing, orchestras that come from tiny keyboards, rock concerts that project from tablets. These devices are comprised of networks of tubes, software and hardware alike, creating an effect similar to Kircher’s talking statue.

Those who witnessed the ‘Oracle of Delphi’ thought that it was actually possessed by a ‘latent demon’. If sound and vision can be manipulated with such mastery, music can come out of anything. In contemplating such a future in 1928, Paul Valéry compared this ubiquity to a sorcerer’s palace full of singing furniture. Such stupefying artifice might as well be magic

There is a passage from one of Charles Darwin’s 1838 notebooks that begs for consideration. “Nothing”, Darwin writes, “shows how little happiness depends on the senses [more] than the [small] fact that no one, looking back to his life, would say how many good dinners…he had; he would say how many happy days he had spend in such a place.”

Adam Gopnik synthesizes Darwin’s idea in Angels and Ages:

“We have sensual experience, animal appetites, and arrive at the idea of happiness. Happiness is made of many dinners, but the dinner provokes a concept larger than just their enumeration. Sensation becomes conceptual thought. The mind turns good dinners into happy days.”

Music is a part of our sensory experience. Darwin’s proposition paints a unique picture for its place in our lives. The mind turns good songs into happy days. It serves as the middle man, the mediant between auditory experience and memory.

One would deem this as obvious as the earth revolving around the sun. Even so, we still say that the sun rises and falls with complete knowledge that it does not. In the same way we might focus on the details of a musical experience when it is the feeling that eventually overcomes.

For the life of me I cannot remember many details of what I listened to when I used to run. These songs do not register on an aesthetic, let alone auditory level. They might have when I selected them – not anymore. What remains is the semblance of bliss and dogged perseverance: the spirit of bettering my body. Beyond any particular note or artistic choice, the converted sum of conceptual thought takes precedence in the end. Perhaps this is why music works so well in sporting events. You might not remember every chant but it is many chants which, in Gopnik’s words, provoke concepts larger than just their enumeration: camaraderie, tenacity, competition, sportsmanship, grace.

No matter the end concept, the sensory experience still stands in the beginning. There has to be a good dinner. It is what elicits the mind to wrap its, well, mind around music, converting the sound into thoughts and memories that last beyond the initial sensory experience. These sonic details are important. Many feast upon them and make it their life’s noble work. But knowing that these characteristics of the sound will not last is profound and begs us to consider what will.

The mind turns good music into happy days.

The Roman poet Lucretius believed all things to be comprised of invisible particles, atoms. In his monumental On the Nature of Things he describes these building blocks as letters making up words and sentences:

“Nay, even in my verses everywhere thou wilt discover letters manifold common to many words, and yet perforce thou must admit that words and verses both are formed at different letters each from each.”

As language establishes limits on repetition and use, atoms form matter in the same way. They create what Stephen Greenblatt calls “a discrete set capable of being combined in an infinite number of sentences.”

Digitally, music is made of such a discrete set capable of being combined in an infinite number of possibilities. Even the links for songs on Youtube share in the variation. Lucretius analogized the building blocks of the universe as code. But now music is just that, made of alphanumeric atoms. Analogy becomes reality.

That is the pace technology puts on music. It transforms analogy into reality. Paul Valéry analogized music as one day transmitting through homes like water, gas, and electricity. Now music is a public utility. At the grocery store, jazz hums quietly alongside air conditioning.

Whose to say when music will actually be stuck in our heads? An ear worm could actually be a song on an internal hard-drive implanted in the brain. All we would have to do is think up the tune to listen on repeat. This could happen sooner than we think. It won’t be a comfy analogy distanced from the present. How can we deal with this?

“Lucretius”, Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The Swerve, “did not claim to know the hidden code of matter. But, he argued, it is important to grasp that there is a code and that, in principle, it could be investigated and understood…” If music is following technology at a rapid pace, truth will not be stranger than fiction. Fiction will in fact become truth. We may not know the hidden future of music. Instead, we can grasp that analogies are closer to music reality than we think. Once this is realized, the implications of technology upon music can be investigated and understood on a deeper level.

I leave you with a similar thought uttered by writer George Dyson in an interview with Edge:

“What we’re missing now, on another level, is not just biology, but cosmology. People treat the digital universe as some sort of metaphor, just a cute word for all these products. The universe of Apple, the universe of Google, the universe of Facebook, that these collectively constitute the digital universe, and we can only see it in human terms and what does this do for us?

We’re missing a tremendous opportunity. We’re asleep at the switch because it’s not a metaphor. In 1945 we actually did create a new universe. This is a universe of numbers with a life of their own…”