Musical Solar System

April 29, 2011

A new iPad app called Planetary, which drops on May 2, visualizes your entire music collection as a solar system: artists are stars, albums are planets, and tracks are moons. (a big thanks to FlowingData for the heads up here!) I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea came from Kepler’s idea of a music universalis, though this celestial take on music has never been expressed quite as literally before.

It’s sure to be a fun, immersive take on what has traditionally been a pretty unremarkable task: browsing your music. As with my recent posts about SoundPrism and iRig, the iPhone and iPad are starting to inspire musicians and developers to dream up completely new ways of visualizing and creating music. Traditional frameworks and systems (like the keyboard) are being questioned as new interfaces (like touchscreens) redefine what’s possible.

We’ll have to see if Planetary is actually a “better” way to explore music, but in the meantime I’ll definitely take “more stunning.”

Check out the official website:

Music Philosophy: Lyrics as Graphics

September 8, 2010

While neither philosophical nor particularly musical, the designer Mico has applied his graphic design prowess to music quotes. Enjoy. “Music Philosophy

(You can also snag poster versions of your favorite quotes over at Etsy)

Related post: “Music philosophy,” combining music and graphics

Musical Insights

August 4, 2010

The TED Conferences (self-described as “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”) are a highly acclaimed series of presentations from the world’s most influential thinkers, innovators, and artists. Brilliant minds speaking about important topics in an approachable way.

I wanted to draw attention to one music-focused talk that I found particularly interesting. Watching the video would probably be one of the better uses of 20 minutes you ever spend in your life, but I wanted to point out some highlights and insights:

Benjamin Zander on music and passion

  • Zander, in a compellingly funny and animated way, attempts to prove that A.) no one is tone deaf, and B.) that classical music is not dead. Both lofty ideas that are convincingly explained.
  • I’m not gonna go on until every single person in this room, downstairs, and in Aspen, and everybody else looking, will come to love and understand classical music.” You may be skeptical at this point, but aside from that: why does this statement matter? He goes on: “You’ll notice there’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that this is gonna work… it’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming. Imagine if Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream!…. of course I’m not sure they’ll be up to it…’ “
  • He proceeds to play a Chopin prelude and, with some explanation (“This is a B, and this is a C. And the job of the C is to make the B sound sad.”) and one simple seed of an idea, transforms the listener into fully appreciating the piece on an emotional level. He includes comparisons to Shakespeare, Nelson Mandela, birds, Irish street kids, and an Auschwitz survivor along the way.
  • The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound… he depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful. My job was to awaken possibility in other people.”

While music is one of the best ways to tap into emotions and creativity, I also argue that music is another form of philosophy. It’s one of the reasons I chose to study music at a university level, and why I continue to apply musical theory to almost every endeavor I take on. It’s a facet that Zander seems to appreciate as well. Studying and listening to music can unlock and refine a whole array of skills that are as useful in the music world as they are in other disciplines.

  • The sheer art of listening (which is a learned skill, mind you, and requires lots of practice…) is probably the most essential ability one can possess when working with colleagues or holding a leadership position. Studying music teaches you to listen differently, more carefully, and to be perceptive of nuance and subtlety.
  • Playing music with other people makes apparent the necessity for generosity, trust, cooperation, and teamwork. None of these things are ever mentioned when playing a 12-bar blues with some friends, but the best musicians (and leaders) practice all of them at all times.
  • Music theory blends mathematical concepts with imagination, emotion, and creativity. This delicate balance of structural integrity and freedom is a struggle faced by most entrepreneurs and CEO’s the world over. Building an organization, whether it’s a church or school or community or business, requires a successful balance of Policy and Ideas. Procedure and Dreaming. This is something musicians practice daily.

Music-as-Philosophy is a topic best saved for a separate post, but the point is: music appreciation leads to the appreciation of other facets of life. Music is simply a means to an insightful end.

Platonic… Music?

July 9, 2010

Courtesy Jay Kennedy

“Looking at Plato’s works in their original scroll form, he noticed that every 12 lines there was a passage that discussed music.” – excerpt from  “A Musical Message Discovered In Plato’s Works

This article is fascinating to me, not because of the DaVinci Code-like revelation, but rather the emphasis on the number 12. It is a story that, yet again, links mathematics and music. It also dovetails nicely with a post of mine from January 2009 (“Twelve“), while referencing Pythagoras and the importance placed on ratio and proportion (also detailed here, “The Golden Page“)

There is no real conclusion drawn from the NPR feature, so we are left wondering why the preeminent thinker of 300 B.C. felt strongly enough about music to encode its defining principles into an otherwise non-musical work. The real takeaway here, and this is irrefutable: Plato felt compelled to draw connections between various arts and disciplines. Perhaps by conceptually linking disparate ideas, Plato believed he could reconcile the conflict and strife that always seem to arise when concepts appear at odds. (Science vs. religion, math vs. art, sculpture vs. painting, etc…)

These links and connections, as expressed through music, are what BlogSounds is all about.

The Tao of Music

November 11, 2009


I was flipping through the book Everyday Tao and came across the entry for Music:

There was once a zither student whose master, frustrated by his pupil’s lack of musical progress for so many years, pronounced him unsuitable for learning. To understand how devastating this was to the young man, one must remember that playing the zither was considered a very high and demanding art, practiced only by refined and learned people. In addition, one’s master was like a parent. He or she was usually as dedicated to teaching as a parent is to rearing a child. So to be rejected by his teacher was a great shock to the student.

The master abandoned the young man on the shores of an island, leaving the student only a zither. Left to his own resources, the disappointed pupil provided first for his survival. The island, although uninhabited, had enough wild fruit and vegetables to sustain him. In the time that followed, he listened to the singing of birds, the chorus of the waves, the melodies of the wind. He spent long periods of time in meditation and musical practice. By the time he was rescued, several years later, he had become a virtuoso player and composer, far greater than his master: he had entered into Tao.

And so it is with us. We need teaching. But there is a point beyond which teaching cannot provide for us. Only direct experience can give us the final dimensions we need. That means learning from nature, and learning from ourselves. As long as we remember that, there can be no mistake.

So start playing.

On i

August 29, 2009


There is little doubt that Apple is not just a company, it’s a zeitgeist. Apple products inspire brand loyalty that rivals Harley-Davidson’s (Exhibit A), with a reputation centered on quality and innovation.

But there’s something more insidious going on, and it has nothing to do with Apple Fanboys: Apple has taken our identities. Not literally of course, but it has taken our own identifier, “I.” For those interested in the philosophical implications of the self and what it means to be conscious and self-aware, “I” holds great importance. 18th century philosopher David Hume famously explored the concept of the self over time, and the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 800-page tome centered around defining the Self as a “strange loop,” and explores this concept through a wide range of analogies and examples. These are just two of hundreds of works based on “I”.

But what of “i”?

Apple’s iPod has relegated the proper noun “I” to the ranks of standard noun, and instead gives Pod the distinction. The Pod is the Thing, not us. The iMac, the iPhone… iWork, iLife… What happens when we start to use the lower-case “i” to refer to ourselves?:

i think, therefore i am not.

i don’t think this was an intentional move by Apple, but simply an unintended consequence. My feeling is that they used “i” because it looks like an upside-down exclamation point—a purely aesthetic choice. But perhaps they are playing with the use of i to represent imaginary numbers in mathematics, and used this to embed the concept of “imagination.” Or maybe “innovation” is the suggestion. But the connection between the imaginary and the self is a dark philosophical notion, one that we are all familiar with after having watched The Matrix.

At the end of the day the concept works brilliantly from a marketing perspective. To get someone to fall in line and do your bidding, you must first break the will. You must destroy your subject’s sense of importance and worth. “I am nothing.” Or, rather:

iThink, therefore iBuy.

Music from a Tree

July 19, 2009


“Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem.” – Rollo May

Diego Stocco is a man who once saw a tree and decided to make music with it. Armed with some microphones, a modified stethoscope, a bow, and a Pro Tools LE system, he composed an entire piece of music using only unmodified sounds formed from the tree itself. Check out the final result here: Diego Stucco’s “Music From a Tree”

[Related post: “By Any Other Name…“]