Thursday, June 25, 2015

The intersection of Beyoncé and Bioinformatics - modification by dissent

A friend brought up this article on the "evolution" of popular music. Scientists' revolutionary findings on pop music.

I think most of us are at least a little bit aware of the arguments about cladistics, and how DNA sequencing has revolutionized it into ever more argumentative factions, and given the above I would imagine that proudly declaring you've proved scientifically that there were only 3 new varieties of American pop introduced after the 1950s, namely:
1. The British Invasion, 
2. The Eurythmics
3. Hip-Hop

- would be at least a little bit contentious. (Though I can easily imagine this as three populations of animals - R&B, gated snare, and poetry-over-drumbeat-with-no-melody, so he's not entirely wrong.)

Anyway, the bit I like is that the semi-literate journalist makes a number of mistakes, my favorite being "It's the process that Darwin spoke about, modification by dissent [..]"

Ah, yes, the famous Darwinian theory of modification by dissent. I know it well. (It's actually "descent with modification by means of natural selection".)

I read a little bit more about Armand Leroi and he's worked with Brian Eno and generally seems to know a bit about music and a lot about evolutionary biology. Comparing sequences of DNA - or even phenotypical traits -  to make a "map" of where creatures fall in terms of similarities is a fairly common thing in biology, and he's using the same type of maths to look at short sequences of music, which seems like it might be a reasonable thing to do, in theory.

What does it all mean? 

I doubt if his results "mean" anything concrete as obviously, unlike genes, today's music landscape isn't literally descended from chunks of previous music that have been sorted and then sent off into the wild to be naturally selected. I can see that a map of popular music since 1960 could be drawn as British Invasion R&B, gated snare and synthesizer 80s pop, and the no.melody-kick.drum-sample-poetry music of today, but it's certainly not the way I would have described it before reading the piece - and looking at the vast list of assumptions in his paper, there's probably 10,000 different equally "mathematical" ways to draw the map.

Still you can't fault a scientific paper where the caption to Figure 1 is "Data processing pipeline illustrated with a segment of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, 1975, one of the few Hot 100 hits to feature an astrophysicist on lead guitar."

Here's his original paper. Beware: math

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