Posted in communication and networking, music

Music day on Art of Science

Putting all of my eggs in one basket today and focusing on Music in all its scientific glory.

First up, news that songs will now appear on Google searches. Google announced last week the integration of playable songs into its search results yesterday, and is slowly rolling the feature out to U.S. searchers.  (You can test the search here for “U2 Beautiful Day.”)

“To an experienced online music listener, the feature seems a little bit random because Google is using both iLike (recently acquired by MySpace) and Rhapsody, and Pandora, each of which offers yet another experience–Rhapsody lets you play up to 25 songs per month for free, Imeem is best for finding unusual versions of popular songs (like live takes), and Pandora requires you to create a virtual radio station based on a particular artist or song, which can be useful for discovering other music you might like, but doesn’t give you an instant fix.”

For the average Internet user, however, this distinction doesn’t matter. What matters: when users go to Google to search for an artist’s name, song name, album name, or even a snippet of lyrics, they won’t just get random text links or YouTube videos. Instead, the first set of links will be to the audio recording itself–in many cases, the entire song.

Everybody knows that there’s free music available on the Internet, but most casual listeners don’t bother to find it. Now, the most-visited site on the Internet will put it right in front of their faces. As awareness spreads, it’ll be another nail in the coffin of traditional music media–why listen to the radio?–and a boon for the five companies who signed this deal with Google. Artists and record labels might also get a shot in the arm, as users discover new music for free and perhaps eventually buy a copy to keep.

Stay tuned for further developments of Google’s music search.


Speaking of creating music, I also bring to you a profile of a great music/tech inventor who died 10 years ago this month.  In 1993, Leon Theremin dies in Moscow. The Russian-born inventor leaves behind a legacy that touches several technical and creative disciplines.

During his 97 years, Theremin left his indelible mark on the fields of science, radio and television broadcasting, espionage, electromagnetic circuitry design and, most famously, music.

The electronic instrument of his design which also bears his name — by all accounts the first electronic musical instrument — is notable for its whooping and sliding high-pitched squeal. The theremin has influenced popular music, classical music, television and film soundtracks, and the musical avant-garde.

Leon Theremin got started early. He first experimented with electronics and Tesla coils as a preteen. After a stint as a military radio engineer during World War I and the Russian Civil War, he went to work in 1920 with his academic mentor, experimental physicist Abram Fedorovich Ioffe, at the Physical Technical Institute in his hometown of St. Petersburg.

It was there he began to branch out, working with X-rays, high-frequency oscillators and gas-filled tubes. In one experiment, he attached a small speaker to a charged antenna and discovered that when he waved his hand in and out of the electrical field, the speaker emitted a tone. The pitch would change, rising as he moved his hand closer and dropping as he moved it farther away.

Harnessing his childhood training as a cellist, Theremin soon mastered a few simple melodies. He was able to play with a vibrato effect by quickly shaking his hand in the air, and he added a second antenna to his invention to control the master volume. He named it the “etherphone” in reference to its ghost-like, otherworldy timbre. But soon enough, everyone just began calling it the theremin.

His invention was mysterious-looking to begin with — just a simple wooden box with two antennas sticking out of it. But its funkiness was compounded by the fact that you never actually touched it. It was played by moving the hands closer to and farther away from the two antennas, giving the visual effect of the performer “playing the air.”

“I conceived of an instrument that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra,” Theremin told musicologist Olivia Mattis in 1989. “The orchestra plays mechanically, using mechanical energy; the conductor just moves his hands, and his movements have an effect on the music artistry.”

The sound it produced — a whistle-like, unbroken buzz capable of connecting any two pitches with an inhuman glissando — was like nothing else.

Read the full story on Wired News



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.