More Bad Music; Class Wrap-Up; Go USA

Way Behind Back

Thanks to everybody who stuck through the lectures, such as they were, for the last two weeks. I wrote these “lessons” over about a twenty-minute period each morning as I was preparing for class. What showed up on the blog did not, to any real extent, make its way to class.

There was no time for preparing more complete articles. Class lasted a solid nine to five, with mornings given to prep and/or recovery and afternoons left for working on consulting projects.

Ideas posted here are necessarily sketchy, too. If I were to fully develop or prove any claim, it would take too much space or time or both. Most readers would rapidly lose patience. However, since some readers clearly want more detail, I will try, as best I can, to post accompanying papers, especially to the more controversial ideas in probability.

When I left for Ithaca, I had exactly four emails in my Inbox; now, the number is best characterized as vast. Lots of people sent great links, story ideas, and comments. I promise to answer or post these over the next week.

Shift-work Disorder

The invention of new mental medical maladies continues apace. The latest is “shift-work disorder”. It is, we are told confidently, a “medical” disorder. Commercials—“Talk to your doctor now”—for new pills to combat this awful affliction now appear regularly on the radio.

And just what horrors await those who suffer from shift-work disorder? Generally, tiredness, caused by inconstancy in sleep patterns. Surprise! Because you feel lagged after switching from day to nights, that sluggishness you experience is not just because you haven’t slept well, but because you now have a syndrome, which, through the application of money and pills, can be treated.

Bad Music Isn’t Just Simple

Remember this article? We created a new measure of musical badness:

Musical Badness (MB) quantified is this: the proportion of the time a length of music is devoted to repetitiveness.

MB is thus a number between 0 and 1. Consider our three examples: the endless tone has a melodic MB of precisely 1 because the repetition is exact however long the “piece” lasts; the harmonic MB is also 1 and for the same reason; as is the lyric MB, obviously.

A score of 0, it must be emphasized, does not indicate goodness: our score says nothing directly about excellence. For example, a chaotic series of “bleeps” and “bloops” supposedly emanating from a computer, such as were often heard in 1950s science fiction movies, would score very low on the melodic MB, but in no sense would this music be good. Neither would singing the dictionary make for a sublime lyric.

“Bleeps and bloops” are not constrained to the movies; they can also be found on stage. Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, today points us to a paper by Fred Lerdahl, “Cognitive constraints on compositional systems.” (PDF) Lerdahl tells us that he is “not interested in passing judgement on the composers and compositions that are mentioned”, but he does show us that very complicated music—the opposite of that categorized by the MB scale—can be just as bad as simplistic music.

You need merely read the first sentence of this paper to get the gist: “Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maftre (1954) was widely hailed as a masterpiece of post-war serialism. Yet nobody could figure out, much less hear, how the piece was serial.”

Ah, modern “art.” As long as it is “complex” or “controversial”, it is proclaimed “good.” Here, Boulez is both, but especially complex. Lerdhal says that “The lack of redundancy [in Boulez’s piece] perhaps overwhelms the listener’s processing capacities.”

This, then, is the opposite end of the MB scale. The MB can, as originally anticipated, be adapted to qualify overly-complex as bad. Both very high and very low MB numbers imply a high probability of rotten music.

More to follow…(I think I figured a way to actually implement this in software; just have to find time to do it!)

Finance Bill Emphasizes “Consumer” Protection

The new finance bill builds in, we are told, a “consumer watchdog agency.” But “agency” means, as it always does, bureaucracy. A new layer of government, that is; a layer which, like its brothers, will require feeding from the public trough; a place of dining which will soon be discovered (once more) to be too small to accommodate all the hungry mouths.

Anyway, I detest, as I’ve said many times, the word “consumer.” It indicates both avarice and slavishness at the same time. It tells us our only function in life is to consume, consume, consume. To consume what? Just what we are told to.

The word was never needed. We already had the serviceable “persons” or “people”, or even the more proper “citizens.”

The OED tells us that the word originated—as early as 1692; an instance is produced from Locke—as the technical opposite of “producer”, and in that context, it is forgivable. But it no longer means just that. It now means a beast-like thing, an automaton with unstoppable chomping jaws aimlessly wandering through malls and snapping up whatever is within reach.

Indeed, the earlier, non-technical definition of the word, says the OED, was negative. From the Bible: “Mal. iii. 11, I shal reproue the consumer for youre sakes.” Amen to that.


USA 2, Ghana 0.


  1. DAV

    aimlessly wandering through malls and snapping up whatever is within reach.

    Then my ex was definitely a consumer.

    Wouldn’t “people”, “persons” and “citizens” necessarily include “producers” ? “Producer” includes manufacturers, farmers, processors, sales reps, and service providers. What other word would you employ to differentiate those on the receiving end? “User”? “Customer”? “Buyer”? “Consumer” works for me and I never had any trouble knowing what was intended by the use of the word.

    Yep, it sure enough is a bureaucracy the measure should be how much power it would receive. Would it be an agency that issues warnings and recommendations (ratings) or would it be on the same level as say the FAA, FDA or, God forbid, the EPA.? I’m not sure I want to have yet another nanny.

  2. DAV

    “Musical Badness (MB) quantified is … a number between 0 and 1. … A score of 0, it must be emphasized, does not indicate goodness: our score says nothing directly about excellence.”

    Let’s re-think about that. MB sounds like the equivalent p-factor. IOW, not much help. What is the point of a “number” which conveys quality vs. quantity?

  3. Speed

    Wouldn’t the best form of consumer “protection” be a good education?

  4. Ray

    When I was in the Navy everyone had shift work disorder due to the rotating watches. It was really bad when we were shooting fire support because we were on port and starboard watches, i.e. 4 hours on watch, 4 hours off. When you received a call for gunfire support you had to respond immediately, so one battery was manned 24 hours a day. You might not think 12 hours of watch standing a day is too bad, but watch standing is in addition to your regular duties. After a week of that you were like a zombie.

  5. DAV

    I have Vespe playing in continuous loop on my refrigerator to make it even cooler. Sometimes, when in need of contemplating my navel, I hum along with it. Ummm…..

    I believe this is the bagpipe score. The bass clef part was obviously plagiarized from John Cage.

  6. DAV


    at NASA we switched to digital watches but the shift work disorder did not diminish.

  7. DAV

    Since we are complaining about word usage (such as “Consumer”) in this post, I think it necessary to point out that all watches (except the one-time variety) rotate.** The complaint arising from “rotating watches” is really the result of phase shift. Thus, a more proper term would seem to be Phase Shifting Watches.

    ** Yes, even digital ones rotate because they orbit the Earth and, if they maintain attitude orientation with respect to the Earth (point the same way toward the ground) they must rotate with a 24 hour period as all Earth-pointers do. By definition, an attitude orientation change requires a rotation.

  8. DAV

    Change “24 hour period” to “orbital period” in the above. The moon obviously has a much longer roational period. I was thinking only about Near Earth and very-Near Earth (like being stuck on the ground) orbits . The definition of “Earh Pointer” could use some work. Don’t hold your breath though.

  9. Speed. ……and a free market.
    Matt. Re: the world cup you were almost right but your statistical model needs a slight bit more tweaking. That said, based on the commercial on  this post
    Al Gore is now saying Vuvuzelas are the primary cause of AGW.

  10. Luis Dias

    USA 2, Ghana 0.


    Of course, the main reason why USA sucks at football is that americans still insist on calling it “soccer”. Until that correction occurs, yanks have no chance at all at the greatest sport ever invented.

    Sorry bout that 🙂

  11. Luis Dias

    Musical Badness (MB) quantified is this: the proportion of the time a length of music is devoted to repetitiveness.

    Yes, I remember this well, and how it completely missed *any* substantial point on musical aesthetics. It’s not even wrong, really. Just dump that lunatic of a theory. I mean, right now.

    I’ll give you a hint: music is *founded* on *repetitiveness*. I’ll give you another: some of the best pieces of music throughout the ages *depend* upon its own repetitiveness for its brilliancy.

    But don’t let anything stop you from trying to place “objective” measurements upon the unmeasurable. For an agnostic like you, it’s probably one of the most atheistic dogmatism I’ve ever seen displayed here, albeit without intention. To justify this accusation I present the figure of Richard Dawkins. I can imagine such a person trying to “numerize” music like this, but I have to try hard. Even he doesn’t go as far as that.

  12. reid simpson

    I worked shift work in my youth. Experienced all of the symptoms until an oldtimer told me to put aluminum foil in the bedroom windows. Turned out that trying to sleep with the sunshine coming through the curtains (with blackout hangers) was the real problem.

  13. mt

    All values of MB have a probability of badness of near 1. That you’re only going to apply this measure to songs that have progressed far enough for you to hear them, means there’s a selection bias in your data.

  14. TomVonk

    Yes, I remember this well, and how it completely missed *any* substantial point on musical aesthetics.

    I partly agree with that . And I also remember an interesting discussion with some rather relevant insights .
    Personnaly I submitted that “music” was just a rather artificial subset of “sound stimulations of the brain” .
    Therefore a study of “music perception” should actually be a study of “brain states” .
    Frome there follows that if there are some invariant features in the sound stimulations (f.ex why is the sound of fingernails on a blackboard invariantly associated with an unpleasant stimulation ?) then it is those invariant features that distinguish “good music” from “bad music” .
    It appears clearly to me that “repetitiveness” is not such an invariant – sometimes it is associated with very pleasant stimulation and sometimes with very unpleasant .
    So this feature can’t be fundamental in any significant way .
    Actually I would even suggest that a dose of “repetitiveness” is a necessary component of any “good music” .

    This allows me a transition to a constructive criticism of your blog William .
    Your blog works a little like a textbook .
    You post often , have mostly interesting subjects and write well .
    But there is little to no interactivity . You rarely engage in the comments and even very interesting discussions sink very fast without glory or satisfying conclusion in the depths of the blog .
    Yet having well written opinions on interesting subjects is just a necessary condition for a good blog .
    Having interesting discussions is a necessary and sufficient condition because most people , especially on more intellectually oriented blogs like yours , like to argue , comment , prove and contradict .
    It would be nice if you switched the weighting of your time from an actual 95% article + 5% discussion to something like 60% article + 40% discussion .
    Of course I hope that you will pardon me if I presumed .
    Obviously this being your blog , you weight your time as you want and it is possible that a kind of 95/5 is exactly what you want .

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