Open-source music

Sample-based music isn’t stealing. It’s valuable and important. It shows the way toward a future for recorded music that’s more in continuity with music’s past. Recordings are cool and everything, but they encourage passivity. If I buy a recording, I can listen to it or dance to it, both fine activities, but what if I want to go further? What if I want to engage with it, converse with it, customize it or adapt it to my own needs? According to the law, I can’t. This flies in the face of the uncountable centuries of music practice that predate the invention of recordings. Before recordings, if you wanted to hear music, someone needed to play or sing it. To learn how to play or sing, you have to learn and interpret a ton of music by other people. The normal method for passing music along for nearly all of human history was by oral tradition, and a lot of adaptation and reinterpretation was an inevitable part of this transmission process.

In the modern world, most of the music you encounter is in recorded form. Adapting or customizing music is going to continue as it has for uncountable centuries. To adapt or customize a recording usually requires sampling. As it stands, the law is in the way. We need open-source music like we need open-source software.

Folk music is by nature open-source (that’s folk in the “public domain/traditional” sense, not the “pop music played on acoustic guitar” sense.) You’re free to take public-domain material and rewrite or rearrange it as you see fit. There are more Frankie and Johnny and Sweet William songs than you can shake a stick at. Amazing Grace was sung to twenty different melodies before it settled into the one we’re all familiar with. Musically, the American folk tradition draws on a narrowly limited toolbox: I-IV-V chord progressions, major and minor pentatonics, circle of fifths root movements and the like.

Blues is an especially good example of an open-source form. It belongs to no one and everyone. Historically, at one point it belonged to African-Americans in the deep south, and some might feel that it still belongs to them. But as a practical matter, blues belongs to anyone who can sing or play an instrument and who’s willing to learn the vocabulary. There are a wealth of practitioners, teachers, recordings, books, videos and web sites to help. To really play blues with mastery takes a lot of practice, but there’s a low barrier to entry, and you can play it on just about any instrument, or just sing it a capella.

If you want to learn any improvisation-based music like blues, jazz or rock, an excellent strategy is to transcribe other people’s solos from recordings. Once you’re a sufficiently experienced musician, you can figure out pop songs in a few listens. But complex jazz and classical music can be impenetrable to the best of us when it’s rushing past in real time. Without a score to guide me, a lot of the inner logic of John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk would be beyond my grasp. Transcribing from recordings is a tedious, labor-intensive process. Fortunately, there’s a piece of software that helps you, called, appropriately enough, Transcribe. Click to see it bigger.

The top part of the screen shows about eight bars of “Afro Blue” as played by Coltrane. Two bars are highlighted. Once you highlight a section, you can play it back as a loop. You can also hear the loop slowed down to half or quarter speed with the pitches intact. This feature is invaluable for figuring out the twistier passages. I added the little green measure markers and red section markers by hand. You can stick these markers in from the keyboard during playback, it’s a lot like conducting. At the bottom of the screen, the software is guessing which pitches are included in the sample. The sharp peaks at the right show that the soprano sax plays A flat, B flat, C and E flat during the loop. The software has a harder time figuring out the pitches in the more crowded/muddily recorded lows and mids, but when you give it shorter samples to work with, it gets more accurate. If you give it a single cleanly-recorded piano chord, it can usually identify the individual notes  accurately. Helpful! Transcribe helps you uncover the source code of the music, so to speak, making it much easier to repurpose it for your own creative use.

Once you’ve got your bars and beats identified and looped in Transcribe, you can export them as samples with just a few mouse clicks. You can use these samples as the basis of new tracks in and of themselves. I usually drop my samples into Recycle for further slicing and dicing. It’s no coincidence that Transcribe should be such an excellent sampling tool, not just a transcription tool. It reveals the inherent similarity between both practices.

The recorded music industry is generally unfriendly to sampling, since in its present form it depends on ownership of and exclusive access to music. The software industry is coming around to more of a folk music attitude. On the Google blog, Jonathan Rosenberg says this about the virtues of openness:

The conventional wisdom goes that companies should lock in customers to lock out competitors. There are different tactical approaches — razor companies make the razor cheap and the blades expensive, while the old IBM made the mainframes expensive and the software … expensive too. Either way, a well-managed closed system can deliver plenty of profits. They can also deliver well-designed products in the short run — the iPod and iPhone being the obvious examples — but eventually innovation in a closed system tends towards being incremental at best (is a four blade razor really that much better than a three blade one?) because the whole point is to preserve the status quo. Complacency is the hallmark of any closed system.

Open systems have the potential to spawn industries. They harness the intellect of the general population and spur businesses to compete, innovate, and win based on the merits of their products and not just the brilliance of their business tactics.

Closed systems are well-defined and profitable, but only for those who control them. Open systems are chaotic and profitable, but only for those who understand them well and move faster than everyone else. Closed systems grow quickly while open systems evolve more slowly, so placing your bets on open requires the optimism, will, and means to think long term.

Open will win. It will win on the Internet and will then cascade across many walks of life: The future of government is transparency. The future of commerce is information symmetry. The future of culture is freedom. The future of science and medicine is collaboration. The future of entertainment is participation. Each of these futures depends on an open Internet.

As music comes to live increasingly on the internet, it too is going to continue to become more open-source in nature, with or without the blessing of copyright holders. Any sufficiently motivated kid with a computer can find and dissect anything that’s ever been recorded with some diligent web searching and software experimentation. The result is a lot of surprising new hybrids. Sampling, the internet and mp3 player shuffle combine with immigration to completely decontextualize musical memes, freeing them to recombine in ever-more unpredictable ways. This article gives the example of Mexican-American DJs who sample Bollywood soundtracks in a mistaken attempt to get an Arabic sound, resulting in something that sounds better than if they sourced the sounds “correctly.”

Some hip-hop musicians have embraced the open-source attitude. Kanye West gives away mp3s of the stems for “Love Lockdown” conveniently separated by track for your remixing pleasure. I hope more musicians follow his example.

One thought on “Open-source music

  1. I totally agree. As long as you don’t take a song and note for note copy it and call it your own but instead take parts of songs to make your own song there should be nothing wrong with that. The internet and recording technology is completely changing the music industry dynamic because of free mp3’s and bands now able to cheaply record their music on home equipment. A band or singer can now distribute his own music not just at shows or locally but also globally because of the internet. No longer constrained by limits songwriting and music can explode like never before.

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