How to Enjoy Music: Listening for Experience

by Langdon Crawford

A student recently pointed me towards this article on It discusses why we’ve lost touch with music. On the one hand, streaming and skipping on digital platforms decreases our attention spans when it comes to music. On the other, crushing musical data into bandwidth and spatial constraints is limiting our experiences.

I don’t even for a second believe its the quality of the audio that is neutering our connection with music. The ease at which we experience music is.

Take a look back at the thought an attention required just to make ye olde mix tape.
Then when you listened to that mix tape, you actually listened.  You didn’t edit, you didn’t skim, skip, or flip the tape over other song.
And the quality was total crap. It was a cassette tape recorded either from the radio or another cassette, which may have also been another mix tape. The noise floor on these tapes was crazy.
But the tapes were awesome.
You listened to every song, because you knew what it took to make that tape. And when you listened, you listened not only to the tracks but the intention of the mix tape maker who chose to put on one track after another.
You can make a playlist in iTunes or burn a CD in seconds. It’s the ease of rendering which has rendered the playlist almost trivial. It’s just a collection of songs.
When you receive a playlist from someone, you just sample it.  You listen and go, Hey, thats cool, then probably skip to the next song after the second chorus or bass drop.
All that said you have to ask why people are listing to music. When I’m inhabiting my role as a music maker and educator, I listen to music very differently than I do when I’m driving to the airport or painting the house.
Each context involves different levels of attention, (background noise, vs focused analysis) and different motivations (inspiration for my next piece or lecture, vs inspiration to move furniture while vacuuming). If I’m looking for something new, I might skip more tracks on Pandora. If I’m looking for the right vibe to keep me going while organizing photos on my computer, I might jump to the heavy section of Bohemian Rhapsody…
But if I’m looking to feel the feelings,  I’m probably going to set up a playlist of the songs as presented on an artist’s album and let them play through, preferably in a chill space without any noise from Fox News or Buzzfeed.  Vinyl records and cassettes are good for that, but it’s not because of the sound quality.  It’s the fact that its not a computer, it’s the album and only that album. I don’t have a remote or itchy trigger finger when playing a tape or record. It’s a time to listen and relax: there’s no need to stress, or spazz each time there is a series of 4 notes I don’t absolutely love, because the next good part is probably less than a minute away…
Take a break and enjoy music every once in a while.  It might just be good for you.

In the Studio: Signal Flow

We’ve got a new video! And more coming in the works.

Understanding signal flow, the direction and path a signal takes in your system, is so important. In the case of a recording studio, it goes from the sound source to its storage destination, but signal flow can be comparable to production order: how a product goes from manufacture to the store shelf. If at any point your product gets derailed, it will never reach its destination. Sometimes I like thinking about sound as a similarly concrete thing.


Chroma from Harmonix: Why I’m Excited as a Gamer and Musician

Harmonix (the creators of Rock Band) are prototyping Chroma, a video game that utilizes the mechanics of both first person shooters (FPS) and musical games such as Rock Band and Audiosurf. At its core it functions as an FPS, but here the soundtrack takes center stage, literally altering the course of battle. Musical gameplay mechanics include rhythmically placed speed pads, beat-matching combos for increased damage, a constantly changing map based on the selected song, and last but certainly not least a gun that literally shoots music.

From a technology standpoint, this game is really something to look at. There are a ton of things happening under the hood to make each feature run flawlessly in each match. Continuous spectrum analysis, calculations, and data manipulation need to occur every second on top of all the nitty gritty programming that makes this game a game in the first place. It’s not only an example of how powerful musical analysis can be, but how it translates into signal theory and its analysis.

Looking at this purely from a gamer’s standpoint, an ever-changing map adds a cool dynamic to a match. Perhaps you as a player can learn the exact moment in a song when the map will change and even know where on the map the optimal position for cover will be when the shift happens. Perhaps the other team does as well. As that song approaches this transition, both teams will rush to the same part of the map and intense fight will ensue. Essentially, the flow of gameplay has been improved as a direct result of the music.

Another example: perhaps your team has a sniper who just so happens to be a drummer with perfect rhythm. You’ll get combos for days. I mean can you say, “BOOM, HEADSHOT?” If features like these are executed properly, the FPS community could have another arena style shooter akin to Quake and Unreal Tournament on their hands—except with more music, which we could totally get behind.

But it’s important to note (ha) that the musical elements add many pitfalls that need to be avoided. Having guns that produce musical tones could get annoying very quickly if they aren’t automated. Not only that, if players are penalized for shooting out of rhythm or in the wrong melodic context it would make griefing a player’s team far too easy. Think feeders in League of Legends except these heartless demons ruin the song (the primary driver of match dynamics) while they’re at it.  That would literally ruin a match. And how would song choice play into a match? The team who picks the song would have the clear advantage, especially if they know all of that song’s map transitions (see the song transition example above). Either the song choice or the way the terrain modulates needs to be randomized to maintain some level of balance from match to match.

An interesting decision made by Harmonix is the use of original music produced by the studio. If you think back to the days of Guitar Hero for a second, you can recall that you played along with music by mainstream artists. We’re not trying to knock the folks producing the music over at Harmonix, but the tracks have to be really killer to not get stale.  Obtaining song licenses is complicated, but it would be a huge draw to the game, especially if players were able to do battle to their favorite songs. Think about it. If you thought Dragonforce’s “Through the Fire and Flames” on expert was crazy, can you imagine that level of chaos except with guns and modular terrain? That. I want that to be a thing.

Chroma is looking to be a very interesting player in the video game scene. With games like Rocksmith and Audiosurf gaining popularity, it would appear that gamers of the current generation are intrigued by the use of game mechanics driven by music. We’re going to keep an eye on this as development continues, and certainly give it a shot when it releases. I’m already excited to fry a screaming 12-year-old with my dubstep raygun of death.

Introduction to Resistors


In a continuation of our Introduction to Electronic Components series we present (drum roll please) resistors!

Resistors…resist. It’s what they do. Well, they don’t resist everything. They won’t help you resist the temptations of the dark side, for example. But these little guys are useful components when it comes to regulating the amount of electricity with which you want to work.

Interested in more? Check out our full playlist here.

Introducing an Introduction (to Electrical Components: Capacitors)

New YouTube channel means new content! The Science of Music presents an Introduction to Electrical Components: an ongoing series dedicated to teaching the basic building blocks of musical electronics. Today’s topic: capacitors or “caps” for short.

Capacitors are a type of passive electrical component that store electrical charges via an electrostatic field. There are several different types of capacitors, and we’ll go through their differences and shared similarities.

Be on the lookout for more in our Intro to Components series with resistors, voltage regulators, and more in the weeks ahead.

The Science of Music’s Secret Origin Story

The truth is, the Science of Music wasn’t always a blog. Or a YouTube channel. And it definitely didn’t start out as a Twitter or Facebook page.

I’ll give you a moment to stifle your gasps.

This project actually began in 2010 as an after school program. The four-part workshop was presented by NYU MARL’s Science of Music team at the Institute for Collaborative Education (ICE). We had then, as we do now, the same goals of spreading the joys of music and technology far across the land. That will never change.

And now you know our secret origin story. Things will never be the same.

Photos by Eric Humphrey and Pia Blumenthal.


  • Editing and Music by Langdon Crawford
  • Produced with support from The National Science Foundation