Formulas for Success

What are the formulaic traits that determine the popularity of music? Mikey Smith, a music student who layers popular songs over each other, shows that there may, indeed, be more than casual congruence between works on the top of the hit charts. Along with Smith’s montage project, other works in this section explore the circumstances and structural arrangements of popular music from the 18th Century through today.

Amy Alexander's project SVEN (aka American Idol To the People), evaluates traits of people caught on surveillance camera to determine their prospects for success as rockstars. While Alexander's project makes an exercise of identifying objective characteristics of musical success, Jason Freeman's N.A.G (Network Auralization for Gnutella) aims to aurally represent the relative popularity of music that has already been created, recorded, and widely distributed. Brian Whitman's A Singular Christmas album, a sonic summary of commonalities between Christmas songs, and Lief Inge’s 9 Beet Stretch, a dramatically slowed-down version of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, explore the nuances and structures of existing popular music. Finally, Eric Wubbels and Jeff Snyder’s project parodies heavy-metal fan tribute web sites writ upon fractal functions.

Mikey Smith


Could there really be such a thing as a musical formula for commercial success? Or, alternatively, is there a limit to the variety of creative output that can be produced by one band? In 2004, student and musician Mikey Smith noticed that pop band Nickelback was producing songs that sounded alike. So much alike, in fact, that he set out to prove that one Nickelback song laid directly over another, without significant intervention or editing, sounded like a unified piece.

To the allegation that they were copying themselves, Nickelback responded: “when you have a distinct style, you run the risk of sounding similar.” Whether the product of homogenizing A&R packaging or self-appropriating creatives, Nickleback's work becomes emblematic of formulaic directions in popular music that are then seized upon by other composers in their own turns.

Hear an interview with Mikey Smith on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

Leif Inge: 9 Beet Stretch


Norwegian computer musician Leif Inge's algorithmic expansion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which stretches out the piece to last twenty-four hours, forces us to ask (and to listen for) what makes the original so compelling. The slowed-down version invites us to focus on the minutest details in the music and the original performance, zooming in to structural levels that are near impossible to hear at the original speed. At the same time, the slow rate of motion strips the work of its linear momentum, creating static sound worlds that make us appreciate the higher structural levels absent from our consciousness at this slow speed.

Visit the site.

Brian Whitman: A Singular Christmas


"Music, what are you, really?" This is the question that spurred Brian Whitman, an artist, musician, engineer, and MIT Media Lab graduate, to develop the EigenRadio project, of which this Christmas album is an offshoot. A bank of computers ran a set of sophisticated analysis algorithms, borrowed from Whitman’s work in the rapidly growing field of music information retrieval, to analyze a series of holiday classics, searching for common features in the audio signals of all of them. These attributes were condensed into unified songs for this unusual Christmas album. Each short track coalesces approximately one hour of Christmas favorites.

Though the details of the algorithms are beyond the grasp of most of us, we can still listen for hints of the original tunes in the resulting spectral sludge. And despite the site's humorous tone, we can also listen for clues about the formulaic nature of popular music (or perhaps some tips for creating the next holiday mega-hit).

Read a statement by Whitman.

Visit the site (scroll to bottom of page for the album).

Amy Alexander: Surveillance Video Entertainment Network (SVEN)


Amy Alexander, an assistant professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, takes her mobile performance van to public places and turns surveillance cameras on an unsuspecting public, using complex computer vision algorithms to determine which pedestrians would make good rock stars. Each person prompts the launch of a specially-selected music video from the software's database. Video monitors, visible from the street, switch between straight surveillance camera images and montages that place the pedestrian over the original rock star in music videos.

The project may be interpreted on multiple levels. The video stream it delivers is a chaotic, algorithmically-generated collage of generic-looking surveillance video and cheesy music videos, its structure and content dependent on the cast of characters walking down the street. It also raises awareness of the music industry's bizarre-but-true reliance on computer-based, algorithmic analysis to predict the marketability of pop stars and the music they record. SVEN prompts the question: What criteria has its algorithm been programmed to use to choose the famous from amongst the masses? In this “structure for success,” one is forced to acknowledge the corporate powers that influence social culture, as well as the subjective forces that dictate surveillance technologies in other, heavier applications.

Visit the site.

Jason Freeman: Network Auralization for Gnutella (NAG)


Jason Freeman’s NAG software utilizes the popular Gnutella peer-to-peer file-sharing network to create real-time sonifications of user-chosen search terms. As matching songs are found, they are automatically added to a download queue. A chaotic mix of downloading songs is generated in real time, based on the bits of data currently being transferred over the network and the download rate of each file.

More popular songs are more prevalent on the Gnutella network, so they are found more quickly, download more efficiently, and are therefore more prominent in NAG's auralization. But in an ironic twist (or perhaps a mirror of reality?), the most popular songs are often found and downloaded so quickly that the initial Top 40 collage eventually gives way to a quieter, gentler mix of more obscure tunes.

Watch a video.

Visit the site.

(Gallery visitors can run the NAG software on this kiosk. Others can download and install it from the NAG web site.)

Jeff Snyder and Eric Wubbels: Self-Similar Guns N' Roses


Though it is inspired by the same self-similar structures of nature as Nick Didkovsky's MandelMusic, this web site from New York avant-garde composers Jeff Snyder and Eric Wubbels has a decidedly more humorous bent, as one glance at the "Axlbrot" version of the Mandelbrot set (right) should immediately convince. The project manages to poke fun at both obsessed music fan sites and at the often short-sighted appropriations of mathematical techniques by so-called serious musicians, both of which seem to be topical formulas for success.

The MP3s at the heart of the project are generated by a straightforward self-similar process. Entire Guns N' Roses songs are sped up as much as 480 times each, so that each song lasts only a fraction of a second. These sped up versions become individual notes (keys) of a digital sampler, which is then used to play back MIDI files of Guns N' Roses songs.

Visit the site.

Mediation Station is organized by Rebecca Uchill and Jason Freeman for the Perform.Media Festival.