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Why Music

“IF MUSIC be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it.” And if not? Well, what exactly is it for? The production and consumption of music is a big part of the economy. The first use to which commercial recording, in the form of Edison’s phonographs, was to bring music to the living rooms and picnic tables of those who could not afford to pay live musicians. Today, people are so surrounded by other people’s music that they take it for granted, but as little as 100 years ago singsongs at home, the choir in the church and fiddlers in the pub were all that most people heard.

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Darwin Tunes: Music by Social Cultural Selection

Music evolves as composers, performers, and consumers favor some musical variants over others. To investigate the role of consumer selection, we constructed a Darwinian music engine consisting of a population of short audio loops that sexually reproduce and mutate. This population evolved for 2,513 generations under the selective influence of 6,931 consumers who rated the loops’ aesthetic qualities. We found that the loops quickly evolved into music attributable, in part, to the evolution of aesthetically pleasing chords and rhythms. Later, however, evolution slowed. Applying the Price equation, a general description of evolutionary processes, we found that this stasis was mostly attributable to a decrease in the fidelity of transmission. Our experiment shows how cultural dynamics can be explained in terms of competing evolutionary forces.

The organic world – animals, plants, viruses – is the product of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Natural selection expresses the idea that organisms (more accurately their genes) vary and that variability has consequences. Some variants are bad and go extinct; others are good and do exceptionally well. This process, repeated for two billion years, has given us the splendours of life on earth.

It has also given us the splendours of human culture. This may seem like a bold claim, but it is self-evidently true. People copy cultural artifacts – words, songs, images, ideas – all the time from other people. Copying is imperfect: there is “mutation”. Some cultural mutants do better than others: most die but some are immensely successful; they catch on; they become hits. This process, repeated for fifty thousand years, has given us all that we make, say and do; it is the process of “cultural evolution”.

However, the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. For example, how important is human creative input compared to audience selection? Is progress smooth and continuous or step-like? We set up DarwinTunes as a test-bed for the evolution of music, the oldest and most widespread form of culture; and, thanks to your participation, we’re starting to get answers.

Here’s a link to our recent PNAS paper and here are the audio results of our initial experiment.


Lima’s Inti Fest blends Culture and Eco-Awareness and Beats

The early morning view from the confines of my aeroplane seat was much like any other coastal destination landing I’ve experienced. Soaring green mountains, their peaking tips protruding above a thick layer of clouds, beaches trimmed with crashing white waves. The view—of Lima, Peru’s capital—was occasioned by my impending visit to Inti Fest, the country’s most celebrated electronic music, cultural and ecological festival.

On the taxi journey from the airport everything remained just as it had appeared from above, the Andes providing an exquisite green backdrop to the city. There is one thing that I had expected to disappear below 4000 feet, however. The thick layer of fluffy clouds. But they remained, lingering above the city, now a mere 500 feet above ground level. As the taxi slowly maneuvered its way through Lima’s standstill traffic I learned from the driver that the city suffers from the worst air pollution of any South American capital.

According to the Institute of Peruvian Studies, Lima’s air pollution consists of a toxic mix of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and other particles at levels more lethal than Santiago de Chile, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The fluffy white cloud up close is, in fact, a heavy clog of grey pollution. Some 80% of the emissions come from the city’s vehicles. Diesel fuel is used by 60% of these, and while cleaner diesel exists elsewhere, Peru is stuck with the world’s most contaminated. It’s an open question as to whether that will change. Half of the population of Peru live below the poverty line, and resources and education on environmental issues and sustainability are dangerously low. Yet, with an incredibly young 26 years old as the population average, Peru’s youth has a remarkable chance to make a difference. Its economic, political and ecological future depends on them.

Andres and Camila Dyer understand this. In 2009, Camila decided to develop Ecobeats, a sub division within a larger promotional company called 4Beats, that focuses on spreading awareness of the environmental issues in Peru through their events. Starting small by incorporating environmental messages through VJing projections, viral marketing and promotional materials, in 2010 they decided to expand and create a one day annual festival called Inti Fest (Inti meaning Sun), fusing Peruvian cultural and environmental awareness with electronic music. Adopting a specific environmental and cultural theme each year rather than simply “The Environment,” gives Inti Fest a precise annual focus, allowing clear messages and advice to surround the festival. This year’s theme was Sustainability, following on from Footprint in 2011 and Climate Change in 2010.

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Humanity escapes the solar system: Voyager 1 signals edge of interstellar space

With absolutely no attempt at hyperbole at all, it is fair to say that this is one of – if not the – biggest achievement of the human race.

For, as we speak, an object conceived in the human mind, and built by our tools, and launched from our planet, is sailing out of the further depths of our solar system – and will be the first object made by man to sail out into interstellar space.

The Voyager 1, built by Nasa and launched in 1977 has spent the last 35 years steadily increasing its distance from Earth, and is now now 17,970,000,000km – or 11,100,000,000miles – away, travelling at 10km a second.

Indications over the last week implies that Voyager 1 is now leaving the heliosphere – the last vestige of this solar system.

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Sink Macro Photographer Shikhei Goh

See more of his work here at 500px

Music from Nature: Composer Diego Stocco

A new video tonight from musician Diego Stocco (previously) wherein he samples audio from trees played with a bow, bark, coconuts, bees, almonds, orange peels, rice and other natural objects to create one of his signature tracks. This guy can make music from anything! Learn more about his Music from Nature project over on Behance