The Secret Science of Pop


In The Secret Science of Pop, evolutionary biologist Professor Armand Leroi tells us that he sees pop music as a direct analogy for natural selection. And he salivates at the prospect of a huge, complete, historical data set that can be analysed in order to test his theories.

He starts off by bringing in experts in data analysis from some prestigious universities, and has them crunch the numbers on the past 50 years of chart music, analysing the audio data for numerous characteristics including “rhythmic intensity” and “agressiveness”. He plots a line on a giant computer monitor showing the rate of musical change based on an aggregate of these values. The line shows that the 60s were a time of revolution – although he claims that the Beatles were pretty average and “sat out” the revolution. Disco, and to a lesser extent punk, made the 70s a time of revolution but the 80s were not.

He is convinced that he is going to be able to use his findings to influence the production of new pop music. The results are not encouraging: no matter how he formulates his data he finds he cannot predict a song’s chart success with much better than random accuracy. The best correlation seems to be that a song’s closeness to a particular period’s “average” predicts high chart success. It is, he says, “statistically significant”.

Armed with this insight he takes on the role of producer and attempts to make a song (a ballad) being recorded at Trevor Horn’s studio as average as possible by, amongst other things, adjusting its tempo and adding some rap. It doesn’t really work, and when he measures the results with his computer, he finds that he has manoeuvred the song away from average with this manual intervention.

He then shifts his attention to trying to find the stars of tomorrow by picking out the most average song from 1200 tracks that have been sent into BBC Radio 1 Introducing. The computer picks out a particular band who seem to have a very danceable track, and in the world’s least scientific experiment ever, he demonstrates that a BBC Radio 1 producer thinks it’s OK, too.

His final conclusion: “We failed spectacularly this time, but I am sure the answer is somewhere in the data if we can just find it”.

My immediate thoughts on this programme:

-An entertaining, interesting programme.

-The rule still holds: science is not valid in the field of aesthetic judgement.

-If your system cannot predict the future stars of the past, it is very unlikely to be able to predict the stars of the future.

-The choice of which aspects of songs to measure is purely subjective, based on the scientist’s own assumptions about what humans like about music. The chances of the scientist not tweaking the algorithms in order to reflect their own intuitions are very remote. To claim that “The computer picked the song with no human intervention” is stretching it! (This applies to any ‘science’ whose main output is based on computer modelling).

-The lure of data is irresistible to scientists but, as anyone who has ever experimented with anything but the simplest, most controlled, pattern recognition will tell you, there is always too much, and at the same time never enough, training data. It slowly dawns on you that although theoretically there may be multidimensional functions that really could spot what you are looking for, you are never going to present the training data in such a way that you find a function with 100%, or at least ‘human’ levels of, reliability.

-Add to that the myriad paradoxes of human consciousness, and of humans modifying their tastes temporarily in response to novelty and fashion – even to the data itself (the charts) – and the reality is that it is a wild goose chase.

(very relevant to a post from a few months ago)

Pop and click remover, old electronics magazines

Just saw a short article about a new product that aims to remove the pops and clicks from vinyl records. It…

…digitizes the signal at 192/24 bit resolution and then uses a “non-destructive” real time program that removes pops and clicks without, the company claims, damaging the music.

…In addition to real-time, non-destructive click & pop Removal the SC-1 features user controllable click & pop removal “strength”, a pushbutton audiophile-grade “bypass” that lets you hear non-digitized versus digitized signal (for when you don’t need pop and click removal), iOS and Android mobile app control and 192/24 bit hi-res digital processing.

Of course it is highly ironic that a vinyl enthusiast should need the services of the digital world to improve the sound of his recordings. And it is obvious (surely) that the digital stream could be stored for later replay without needing to further degrade the original vinyl or wear out the multi-thousand dollar stylus that is no doubt being used. (Omitting to mention the most obvious idea of just listening to a digital recording…)

The aim of the product reminded me of a certain project in an old electronics magazine, a huge number of which I still have in a set of bookshelves that I haven’t touched since 1990 – the date of the last magazine I seem to have bought. Sifting through them, it is amazing how familiar the front covers still are –  a measure of the intensity of youthful hobbies.


From Electronics Today International in April 1979, the project I remembered was a ‘Click Eliminator’ for vinyl records based on an analogue CCD delay line. The idea was to insert a few milliseconds of silence in place of the offensive click. Here’s how it worked:


Electronics Today International was the magazine I would go to WH Smiths for on a Saturday, being terribly disappointed if the latest issue wasn’t in. I would say more than 50% of issues featured an audio or hi-fi project: from 1982 an active speaker project for example, or from 1986 “Can Valves make a comeback?” with an accompanying valve amp project. There were any number of MOSFET amps, phono pre-amps, tape noise reduction units. Electronic music featured prominently with projects for effects pedals and synthesisers galore. I devoured this stuff.

Other magazines included: Practical Electronics, Wireless World, Everyday Electronics, Elektor, Electronics and Music Maker, and one I didn’t recall Hobby Electronics. I also bought any number of computer magazines. I have never thrown any away, so I have hundreds of them gathering dust.

Christmas Lectures, then and now

xmas lecture 1

How the Christmas Lectures looked in 1988

I watched the first of this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures today. The theme was ‘How to hack your home’, explaining how it is possible to approach any engineering problem and break it down into simpler elements, culminating in turning a real London skyscraper into a giant game of Tetris (a wi-fi controlled LED lamp in each window – you get the picture). The lecture made great use of small microcontroller boards with ethernet connectivity and scripting languages to turn lamps on and off, trigger cameras and so on. It all seems quite reminiscent of the 1980s BBC Micro initiative where a generation of schoolkids was introduced to writing computer software. The perception is that this was a great success at the time but that in the intervening couple of decades it was forgotten and we subsequently taught kids to use Microsoft Office really well, but not to write software. I think there is a movement to get the kids interested in software again.

One thing I hate about this year’s Christmas Lectures is that they have decided that having a lecturer stand behind a desk or bench is just too elitist or formal for the kids to take these days, so the lecturer should be like a modern politician and speak without notes while wandering about. I don’t like it at all. If the idea is that knowledge and education is all about building on what has gone before, then it is completely natural that a significant part of any lecture is in the form of references to texts, or objects, or pieces of apparatus, all of which may be accessed quite conveniently when placed on a large flat surface.

I thought I would have a look at at some previous years’ lectures on Youtube, as a comparison. The first one I happened to stumble upon may be of interest to audiophiles. This 1988 lecture deals with the history of entertainment in the home, starting with musical boxes then pianolas, wax cylinders, 78s, LPs, crystal sets, valve radios, wire recorders, reel-to-reel, the compact cassette, mechanical television, and ending with the then future of high definition television, flat screens and 3D. Vinyl enthusiasts are allowed a wry chuckle at the claim that

…in 10 or 15 years we will probably have lost the LP for good