Music, Maths, and Mash-Ups

It’s been a huge pleasure and a lot of fun to host Esa Räsänen and George Datseris here at Nottingham over the last few days. Once the video of George’s seminar, “Music Time Series Analysis: Universal Structure and Its Impact on the Listening Experience“, is edited and uploaded, I’ll write a longer post expanding on Esa’s and George’s work and the reasons why they both spent some time visiting our group at Nottingham. (I’ve been following Esa’s work for quite some time now…)

In between our discussions of 1/f noise, microtiming deviations, and power spectra, Esa introduced me to some classic compositions in the “mash-up” genre, of which I was previously only vaguely familiar. That meant that I was missing out on gems like this ground-breaking Bangles-Slayer collaboration…

Thank you, Esa, for expanding my musical horizons!

More soon on the physics behind Esa and George’s visit, but for now I’ll leave you with George’s wonderfully monikered (and logo-ed) band, The Max Funk Institute. George, a professional drummer, has recently completed his PhD at, you guessed it, the Max Planck Institute. He’s clearly a polymath; music, physics, and — as the first few seconds of the video below show — acting all fall within his sphere of expertise….

In Perfect Circles

I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t
Welcome any change, my friend…

JG Chancellor, D Carey, A Jones, MJ Keenan. Lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Ænema, Tool (Zoo Entertainment, 1996)


It’s been a week now; 10,000 minutes, give or take. And since the exponentially hyped and hyperbolically trumpeted release of Tool’s Fear Innoculum last Friday (Aug 30), I’ve persisted, playing the album at least once a day. In other words, I’ve sat through all eighty-six sodding minutes of their thoroughly predictable, tediously self-derivative, and frankly wholly disappointing new opus more than seven times over.

Why the musical masochism? Well, I’ve been trying to figure out just what it is that I’m missing; what’s in the bits/grooves of Fear Innoculum that others apparently hear but which completely passes me by? To say that the album has received critical acclaim would be quite some understatement; it’s been described in the hushed, awed, reverent tones that greets just about everything Tool produces. Moreover, Fear Innoculum is shifting units like no-one’s business, even potentially knocking Taylor Swift from the #1 Billboard spot.

But…but…but… it turns out that I’m not missing anything at all. It’s virtually the same bloody album as they released in 2001, Lateralus, and again in 2006, 10,000 Days. (If I hear just one more recycled variant of that hammer-on Schism riff I’ll scream…[1]) This, from a band that is meant to be the pinnacle of progressive rock/metal? There’s no progession at all. Zilch. They’re been running in circles, treading water, spinning their wheels for literally decades (if you’ll excuse the Keenan-esque mixed metaphors.)

As a huge Tool fan of old [2], I was eagerly awaiting Fear Innoculum. From Opiate, through Undertow and Ænema, and up to Lateralus, I bought almost entirely into the Tool mythos (slightly irritating though it was at times) and was rapt when I went to see them play live. Being a prog rock/prog metal fan — Rush, Queensryche, King Crimson, Yes [3], Dream Theater [4], Opeth [5], Haken, Shattered Skies, ELP, the afore-mentioned Marillion …etc., etc. — lengthy, rambling, self-indulgent songs are my aural tonic of choice; Rush’s 2112, Hemispheres: Cygnus-X1 Book II, and that archetypal exercise in self indulgence,  La Villa Strangiato, are not the snappiest or pithiest of compositions. Tool similarly have a penchant for long, intricate songs, which their fans, including yours truly, lapped up. (Reading the reviews of “Fear Innoculum”, I was put in mind more than once of Mark Kellys’s quote about Marillion’s song writing: “We could do a 15-minute fart into a paper bag and some people would be happier with that than a three-minute classic.”)

But what distinguishes Rush, Crimson, Yes, Marillion et al. from Tool is that the former set of bands didn’t release the same damn album three times in a row. They each experimented and evolved, and while I didn’t always like what they did, I admired their willingness to challenge themselves and move forward musically; to progress.

There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a musical template; I love AC/DC as much as — probably more than — the next rock fan. But this is Tool, a band admired for their musical adventure, for their intelligence, for their willingness to push boundaries. And yet Fear Innoculum isn’t so much the sound of a band dialling it in, it’s the sound of a band having it dialled in for them — like the music an AI would produce if it were trained on previous Tool outputs.

Fortunately, not every review was on-brand and on-message; some, including Pitchfork  — thanks, Peter, for sending me the link — and the ever-reliable Prog, were more than happy to point out that the emperors are, if not stark bollock naked, at least drastically underclothed.

Perhaps the band themselves put it best on “Penuma”, track 2 of Fear Innoculum: “(we) go round, one foot nailed down.”


[1] And not in a good, metal, Maynard-James-Keenan-channelling-his-inner-demons way.

[2] To highlight just how much of a Tool nerd I was… I not only included a homage to “Lateralus” in the piece of music, The Tau of Phi, described in this Numberphile video, I made damn sure it appeared at 1:09 into the track in question. Tool aficionados will know why.

I guess I should also admit at this point that I smuggled a Tool lyric into my introductory thermodynamics lectures for many years: “I’ve done the math enough to know… the dangers of our second guessing.”

[3] I even like parts of Tales From Topgraphic Oceans, for feck’s sake…

[4] …who’ve also been treading water since about 1997.

[5] …who, on the other hand, continue to evolve and progress.

UnUnited Kingdom

“Rule Brittania?
The bitch has scammed ya
No smiling Union Jacks
My friends, I want my money backBut what about the system?
I think no one would miss them
Brain-dead corpses in the House of Lords
We could all learn a thing or two from Guy Fawkes

‘Cause this is not the United Kingdom
No, this is not the United Kingdom
This is not the United Kingdom
This is not the UK

Rule Brittania?
What’s she ever done for me?
Stuck a nail in the coffin of my national pride
And made the tourists hate me

This Green and Emerald Isle?
It’s just 800 miles of bile
High rise, car parks, ash tray dirt?
Well, we could still learn a thing or two from Guy Fawkes

‘Cause this is not the United Kingdom
No, this is not the United Kingdom
This is not the United Kingdom
This is not the UK”

 

“And now behold a feast befitting famine…”

When it comes to thrash, death, grindcore, and the heavier end of the spectrum, I tend to like my metal crunchy, guttural, and driven by huge sludgy riffs. There is nothing that gets my pulse racing more than a massive riff propelled by pummelling double bass drums, with vocals dredged up from the Seven Circles [1]. If the lyrics have a social conscience and/or political bent, all the better.

So when Chris Morley, a final year PhD student researcher here in the School of Physics & Astronomy — and fellow metal fan, accomplished musician, and quantum technologist — sent me a link to the new song he’s recorded with Beyond Grace, I was, let’s say, just a tad enthusiastic about the track.

Strap yourselves in. I’ll see you again in 4 mins and 56 seconds…

I f**king love that track. [2] There aren’t too many other bands (metal or otherwise), with the notable exception of Napalm Death [3], who would write a song that lambasts the breathtakingly simplistic fantasy of trickle-down economics. (And kick off by sampling Obama’s critique of that fantasy.)

As Beyond Grace themselves explain over at MetalSucks,

In The Arabian Nights there’s a story where a beggar is taken in by a rich man and served an imaginary meal and, after playing along with the illusion, is ultimately rewarded with a life of luxury and opulence.

“Of course, in the real world, this isn’t what happens. We wait and we wait, but nothing changes. We’re just told to do more with less, to keep our mouths shut, even as those upstream do their best to dam the river so that all that reaches us is the merest trickle of the wealth they’ve hoarded.”

And not only do Beyond Grace raise awareness, they put their money where their collective mouth is. They’re donating all the proceeds from the single to local food banks. You can purchase the track here, for however much or little you would like to donate. Go get it now. As MetalSucks put it, “killer music, killer ethos.” ‘Nuff said.

OK, are you ready? Growl like you’ve never growled before. Everyone. On 4.

1, 2, 3, fouuuuuuurggghhhhh…

AND NOW BEHOLD A FEAST BEFITTING FAMINE


[1] On other occasions, Abba, Zappa, or just about anything in between — except, of course, the aural enema that is country – are what I need for my musical fix. (And, if you, like me, have ever idly wondered what Abba-influenced death metallers might sound like …

A big thank you to my friend, and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, Adam Sweetman, for introducing me to the majesty of The Night Flight Orchestra.

[2] Back in the days when I used to waste a lot of time “debating” pointlessly online, aggrieved anti-social-justice warriors often whined at me about “self-censoring” expletives in this way. (I kid you not. They really are exceptionally fragile individuals.) Let’s just say that it’s my homage to Kerrang! magazine, which I read voraciously as a teenager. I also think that partially “redacting” the word like that actually strengthens, rather than lessens, the written impact of the expletive.

[3] As I said to Chris, I hear echoes of Barney and the boys in “Barmecide Feast”.  

“Uncertainty to 11” Playlist

I was over the moon to find that a goodreads reviewer who goes by the handle of Hisacro had very kindly put together the YouTube playlist below for “When The Uncertainty Principle Goes To 11“. Hisacro diligently worked page by page through “Uncertainty to 11…” to add each of the songs I referenced therein, with a couple of key (and quite brilliant) differences to my selections and suggestions in the book. These include a wonderful version of Peanuts doing Rush’s classic 2112Thank you Hisacro, for taking the quite considerable time to put the playlist together. If you ever read this, please drop me a line so I can thank you slightly more directly than via the lines of a blog post!

 

 

Are you ready for the country?*

My friend and colleague Peter Milligan very kindly put together a three-CD compilation of country music for me a little while ago, as a “Country for Dummies”-esque introduction to the genre. As some of you may know, my preferred musical tastes and tipples lie somewhat (though definitely not exclusively — see editor’s interjections below) towards the heavier end of the spectrum. Peter’s “mix tape” was therefore a little …challenging. I tried. Lord knows, I tried. But I had to reluctantly admit defeat to Peter.

It’s possible that my over-exposure to the brutal form of bastardised aural assault that is Irish Country & Western (aka Country and Irish) — a firm favourite with my co-workers during my summer jobs when I was a teenager — has inoculated me against all forms of country music. In any case, I really don’t think I’m missing much. Peter begs to differ and makes the case for country in the following guest post…


 

I’ve Sold My Saddle For An Old Guitar

At the end of April I received my guitar back from Philip as he had borrowed it to play at an outreach event.  We started talking about open mic nights and how we had yet to perform at the same one.  I stated that I only did country songs at open mic nights and Prof. Moriarty expressed surprise and a “not getting” of said genre.

Not entirely legally, over the following weekend I constructed a “country music sampler” for your favourite nanoscientist and, as is often the way with me, it stretched to three CDs.  I didn’t include anything by Johnny Cash as his cover of “Hurt” had already been discussed as a “good song”.  [Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt is one of the most affecting songs I have ever heard. The first time I saw the video, I was in floods of tears. Even now, after countless re-listens and re-viewings, I still find myself welling up. PJM.] Bearing in mind the genre that song emanates from, I knew I had a challenge ahead of me to change your favourite metaller’s attitude to a form of music that has plenty of preconceptions, some of which are valid.

Cry Cry Cry

After a few weeks, I received the news today I had kind of been expecting.  Philip said that, try as he might, he had found my Country Music Sampler “unlistenable”.  He is not the first metal fan to evince such views to me, indeed that genre is known for its intolerance of any other kind of music [Sorry, Peter, but my pentagram-encrusted metal soul screams out at the injustice of this! I know many metal fans whose tastes, like mine, run from Aretha to Zappa, via, as just a handful of genre-spanning examples, Beethoven, Miles Davis, Kate Bush, Fear Factory, Duran Duran, Christy Moore, The Cure, The Smiths, Bowie, The Beatles. And The Shadows. (Examples all lifted from a scroll down my iTunes library.) PJM.]  but I have to be honest, that wasn’t his primary reason for finding the music of Hank Williams et al. unpalatable.  It seems the faux country music of his past has so poisoned his aural palate that he cannot even countenance a collection with an admittedly liberal interpretation of “country”.

So how did we get here and what is to be done?

Dropkick Me Jesus Through The Goalposts of Life

There is no genre of music as misunderstood or as reviled as country music.  There is also no genre of music as brutally honest as country music; there is nowhere to hide in country, your soul is bared wide open for all to see [Beg to differ. Four words: Fell On Black Days.  (And while we’re on the subject of Chris Cornell’s incomparable, incredible talent, Johnny Cash’s version of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” is everything country should be…

Misery, pain and addiction are well trodden themes in country […and metal. It seems that misery really does love company. PJM] and my sampler contained them all.  It’s a good idea to see your country heroes live when you get the chance as they have a habit of not hanging around.  Whilst most country artists are white they are not all men.  I don’t think any musical genre really ticks both of those diversity boxes.  Modern feminism and the MeToo movement is all very well but Tammy, Dolly and Loretta were doing it forty years ago.

It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere

My own journey to country music has rather strange beginnings.  I was always an indie kid as a teen with a side interest in blues.  University in the early 90s saw my tastes grow into the blossoming lo-fi/alt.rock scene in the US and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement became a pivotal record in my life.  They became my favourite band and I was happy to discover that several of my friends in my hometown coincidentally liked them too.  When I suggested that “Range Life” from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was a cool song, one of my friends suggested that I listen to Silver Jews, who were a “Pavement spin-off band” – pedantic note, the converse is actually true – as they were like a countrified version of Pavement.  So I started to buy Silver Jews records as well – in those days, I bought vinyl, and was called a Luddite for doing so, funny how fashions have changed – and started to listen to the various incarnations of Will Oldham along with Sparklehorse, Whiskeytown, Wilco and other bands straddling the indie/country – essentially alt.country borderline.

I had CDs too as some of these albums were not available in the UK on vinyl in those days.  I recall spending (a lot) of time during my Ph.D studies at the Daresbury Laboratory doing X-Ray experiments on copper crystals with sulphur containing aromatic molecules stuck to them.  I had packed “Stranger’s Almanac” by Whiskeytown and a twofer of GP/Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons for listening to whilst my Ph.D supervisor and I were doing our long shifts at the laboratory.  Whilst my boss was seen to tap his feet to Stranger’s Almanac from time-to-time, he did complain that he didn’t like it very much.  The Gram Parsons stuff though was a different kettle of sturgeon altogether.  On hearing me talk about it, he actually thought that I was going on about Alan Parsons, an artiste his brother liked.

Gram Parsons

Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother

In those days, the internet was far more rudimentary than it is today; indeed, social networking, youtube and Wikipedia did not exist – oh that they did for the red-eyed long hours of synchrotron work! [Peter and I share a love of beamtime at large scale facilities. PJM]  So in order to discover more about Country Music, I was reliant mostly on the music press, whose veracity was, and still is, decidedly variable – not that the internet is much better.  One thing they all agreed on though was that Gram Parsons was the man.  I picked up the Gram Parsons disc second-hand in a now-defunct record shop in the West End of Glasgow.  I then discovered that this disc contained “proper country music”, i.e. with violins and pedal steel guitars that actually sounded like something your grandparents would listen to.  There was no way my supervisor was hearing this.  I kept it turned down so that no-one else could hear it but eventually I kind of got into it.

Then a CD came along that changed it all for me.  Sounds of the New West was a free CD with Uncut Magazine in 1998 and it became an almost constant companion.  I was interested to see it include Silver Jews and Will Oldham and it introduced me to Willard Grant Conspiracy, Freakwater, Lambchop and The Handsome Family.  I now have several albums by most of these and have seen some of them live, indeed a track from each one is included in your favourite caffeine junkie’s sampler but are sadly all “unlistenable”.  Although released later, the Beyond Nashville discs are similar in approach although contain older material also.  I should also point out that the sampler contained such country music luminaries as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson – I do after all lean toward the “outlaw country” sub-genre.

The Dark End Of The Street

When I moved to Nottingham, a friend who was part of the folk scene started to get into country music also.  He posted on Facebook, linking me, that he “got it” and that the triumvirate of country music as far as he was concerned was Gram Parsons, Gene Clark and Townes Van Zandt.  A trio of more drugged out nihilists you could never hope to meet.  Like many others, including Teenage Fanclub, I worship at the altar of Gene Clark.  He wrote music of great beauty, sensitivity and fragility.  His “No Other”, whilst not technically a country record, is one of those “lost classics” that the critics purr over.

As to what constitutes country music; well my judgement is as subjective as anyone else.  I included Creedence, Stones, Scott Walker, Grateful Dead, R.E.M., The Band and even Pavement on the scanning probe doyen’s compilation and each one is a country song.  Alas, even they were too country for your favourite teetotal vegetarian. [It’s a question of the genre/style. Not the band. Each of those bands has produced music that I enjoy. PJM.]  

This Drinkin’ Will Kill Me

How rock and roll is country music?  Hank’s heart gave out at 29.  Gram Parsons checked out of an OD at 26.  His manager stole his body, drove it into the Joshua Tree National Park and set fire to itJohnny Cash gave us the immortal, most rock and roll line of all time, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”.

When my wife and I got married we decided, rather tongue-in-cheekily, to name the dinner tables after country singers.  I am very proud to have sat at a top table entitled, “The Hank Williams Table**” and my eldest step-daughter demanded that her table be named after Dolly PartonHank Williams is the undisputed king of country music.  His legacy is a rich tapestry.  Go discover***.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to my wife, Dawn, and also to Dom, Mark, and Jimmy who also received the sampler and gave me some valuable feedback also.

If you want to chat about country music or receive a sampler, leave a comment and we’ll get back to you!

*     from the Neil Young album, “Harvest”, Reprise, 1972

**    my nascent father-in-law proceeded to tell everyone that Hank Williams was the guitar player in The Shadows.

***   The Gilded Palace of Sin is as good a place as any to start!

 

 

 

“The drum beats out of time…”

Far back in the mists of time, in those halcyon days when the Brexit referendum was still but a comfortably distant blot on the horizon and Trump’s lie tally was a measly sub-five-figures, I had the immense fun of working with Brady Haran and Sean Riley on this…

As that video describes, we tried an experiment in crowd-sourcing data via YouTube for an analysis of the extent to which fluctuations in timing might be a signature characteristic of a particular drummer (or drumming style). Those Sixty Symbols viewers who very kindly sent us samples of their drumming — all 78 of you [1] — have been waiting a very, very long time for this update. My sincere thanks for contributing and my profuse apologies for the exceptionally long delay in letting you know just what happened to the data you sent us. The good news is that a paper, Rushing or Dragging? An Analysis of the “Universality” of Correlated Fluctuations in Hi-hat Timing and Dynamics (which was uploaded to the arXiv last week), has resulted from the drumming fluctuations project. The abstract reads as follows.

A previous analysis of fluctuations in a virtuoso (Jeff Porcaro) drum performance [Räsänen et al., PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127902 (2015)] demonstrated that the rhythmic signal comprised both long range correlations and short range anti-correlations, with a characteristic timescale distinguishing the two regimes. We have extended Räsänen et al.’s approach to a much larger number of drum samples (N=132, provided by a total of 58 participants) and to a different performance (viz., Rush’s Tom Sawyer). A key focus of our study was to test whether the fluctuation dynamics discovered by Räsänen et al. are “universal” in the following sense: is the crossover from short-range to long-range correlated fluctuations a general phenomenon or is it restricted to particular drum patterns and/or specific drummers? We find no compelling evidence to suggest that the short-range to long-range correlation crossover that is characteristic of Porcaro’s performance is a common feature of temporal fluctuations in drum patterns. Moreover, level of experience and/or playing technique surprisingly do not play a role in influencing a short-range to long-range correlation cross-over. Our study also highlights that a great deal of caution needs to be taken when using the detrended fluctuation analysis technique, particularly with regard to anti-correlated signals.

There’s also some bad news. We’ll get to that. First, a few words on the background to the project.

Inspired by a fascinating paper published by Esa Rasanen (of Tampere University) and colleagues back in 2015, a few months before the Sixty Symbols video was uploaded, we were keen to determine whether the correlations observed by Esa et al. in the fluctuations in an iconic drummer’s performance — the late, great Jeff Porcaro — were a common feature of drumming.

Why do we care — and why should you care — about fluctuations in drumming? Surely we physicists should be doing something much more important with our time, like, um, curing cancer…

OK, maybe not.

More seriously, there are very many good reasons why we should study fluctuations (aka noise) in quite some detail. Often, noise is the bane of an experimental physicist’s life. We spend inordinate amounts of time chasing down and attempting to eliminate sources of noise, be they at a specific frequency (e.g. mains “hum” at 50 Hz or 60 Hz [2]) or, sometimes more frustratingly, when the signal contamination is spread across the frequency spectrum, forming what’s known as white noise. (Noise can be of many colours other than white — just as with a spectrum of light it all depends on which frequencies are present.)

But noise is most definitely not always just a nuisance to be avoided/eliminated at all costs; there can be a wealth of information embedded in the apparent messiness. Pink noise, for example, crops up in many weird and wonderful — and, indeed, many not-so-weird-and-not-so-wonderful — places, from climate change, to fluctuations in our heartbeats, to variations in the stock exchange, to current flow in electronic devices, and, indeed, to mutations occurring during the expansion of a cancerous tumour.  An analysis of the character and colour of noise can provide compelling insights into the physics and maths underpinning the behaviour of everything from molecular self-assembly to the influence and impact of social media.

The Porcaro performance that Esa and colleagues analysed for their paper is the impressive single-handed 16th note groove that drives Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’…” I wanted to analyse a similar single-handed 16th note pattern, but in a rock rather than pop context, to ascertain whether Procaro’s pattern of fluctuations in interbeat timing were characteristic only of his virtuoso style or if they were a general feature of drumming. I’m also, coincidentally, a massive Rush fan. An iconic and influential track from the Canadian trio with the right type of drum pattern immediately sprang to mind: Tom Sawyer.

So we asked Sixty Symbols viewers to send in audio samples of their drumming along to Tom Sawyer, which we subsequently attempted to evaluate using a technique called detrended fluctuation analysis. When I say “we”, I mean a number of undergraduate students here at the University of Nottingham (who were aided, but more generally abetted, by myself in the analysis.) I’ve set a 3rd year undergraduate project on fluctuations in drumming for the last three years; the first six authors on the arXiv paper were (or are) all undergraduate students.

Unfortunately, the sound quality (and/or the duration) of many of the samples submitted in response to the Sixty Symbols video was just not sufficient for the task. That’s not a criticism, in any way, of the drummers who submitted audio files; it’s entirely my fault for not being more specific in the video. We worked with what we could, but in the end, the lead authors on the arXiv paper, Oli(ver) Gordon and Dom(inic) Coy, adopted a different and much more productive strategy for their version of the project: they invited a number of drummers (twenty-two in total) to play along with Tom Sawyer using only a hi-hat (so as to ensure that each and every beat could be isolated and tracked) and under exactly the same recording conditions.

You can read all of the details of the data acquisition and analysis in the arXiv paper. It also features the lengthiest acknowledgements section I’ve ever had to write. I think I’ve thanked everyone who provided data in there but if you sent me an MP3 or a .wav file (or some other audio format) and you don’t see your name in there, please let me know by leaving a comment below this post. (Assuming, of course, that you’d like to be acknowledged!)

We submitted the paper to the J. New Music Research last year and received some very helpful referees’ comments. I am waiting to get permission from the editor of the journal to make those (anonymous) comments public. If that permission is given, I’ll post the referees’ reports here.

In hindsight, Tom Sawyer was not the best choice of track to analyse. It’s a difficult groove to get right and even Neil Peart himself has said that it’s the song he finds most challenging to play live. In our analysis, we found very little evidence of the type of characteristic “crossover” in the correlations of the drumming fluctuations that emerged from Esa and colleagues’ study of Porcaro’s drumming. Our results are also at odds with the more recent work by Mathias Sogorski, Theo Geisel, Viola Priesemann (of the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, Göttingen, Germany) — a comprehensive and systematic analysis of microtiming variations in jazz and rock recordings spanning a total of over 100 recordings.

The likelihood is that the conditions under which we recorded the tracks — in particular, the rather “unnatural” hi-hat-only performance — may well have washed out the type of correlations observed by others. Nonetheless, this arguably negative result is a useful insight into the extent to which correlated fluctuations are robust (or not) with respect to performance environment and style. It was clear from our results, in line with previous work by Holger Hennig, Theo Geisel and colleagues, that the fluctuations are not so much characteristic of an individual drummer but of a performance; the same drummer could produce different fluctuation distributions and spectra under different performing conditions.

So where do we go from here? What’s the next stage of this research? I’m delighted to say that the Sixty Symbols video was directly responsible for kicking off an exciting collaboration with Esa and colleagues at Tampere that involves a number of students and researchers here at Nottingham. In particular, two final year project students, Ellie Hill and Lucy Edwards, have just returned from a week-long visit to Esa’s group at Tampere University. Their project, which is jointly supervised by my colleague Matt Brookes, Esa, and myself, focuses on going that one step further in the analysis of drumming fluctuations to incorporate brain imaging. Using this wonderful device.

I’m also rather chuffed that another nascent collaboration has stemmed from the Sixty Symbols video (and the subsequent data analysis) — this time from the music side of the so-called “two cultures” divide. The obscenely talented David Domminney Fowler, of Australian Pink Floyd fame, has kindly provided exceptionally high quality mixing desk recordings of “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” from concert performances. (Thanks, Dave. [3]) Given the sensitivity of drumming fluctuations to the precise performance environment, the analysis of the same drummer (in this case, Paul Bonney) over multiple performances could prove very informative. We’re also hoping that Bonney will be able to make it to the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre here in the not-too-distant future so that Matt and colleagues can image his brain as he drums. (Knock yourself out with drummer jokes at this point. Dave certainly has.) I’m also particularly keen to compare results from my instrument of choice at the moment, Aerodrums, with those from a traditional kit.

And finally, the Sixty Symbols video also prompted George Datseris, professional drummer and PhD student  researcher, also at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics & Self-Organisation, to get in touch to let us know about his intriguing work with the Giesel group: Does it Swing? Microtiming Deviations and Swing Feeling in Jazz. Esa and George will both be visiting Nottingham later this year and I am very enthusiastic indeed about the prospects for a European network on drum/rhythm research.

What’s remarkable is that all of this collaborative effort stemmed from Sixty Symbols. Public engagement is very often thought of exclusively in terms of scientists doing the research and then presenting the work as a fait accompli. What I’ve always loved about working with Brady on Sixty Symbols, and with Sean on Computerphile, is that they want to make the communication of science a great deal more open and engaging than that; they want to involve viewers (who are often the taxpayers who fund the work) in the trials and tribulations of the day-to-day research process itself. Brady and I have our spats on occasion, but on this point I am in complete and absolute agreement with him. Here he is, hitting the back of the net in describing the benefits of a warts-and-all approach to science communication…

They don’t engage with one paper every year or two, and a press release. I think if people knew what went into that paper and that press release…and they see the ups and the downs… even when it’s boring… And they see the emotion of it, and the humanity of it…people will become more engaged and more interested…

With the drumming project, Sixty Symbols went one step further and brought the viewers in so they were part of the story — they drove the direction of the science. While YouTube has its many failings, Sixty Symbols and channels like it enable connections with the world outside the lab that were simply unimaginable when I started my PhD back in (gulp…) 1990. And in these days of narrow-minded, naive nationalism, we need all the international connections we can get. Marching to the beat of your own drum ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Source of cartoon: https://xkcd.com/1736/


[1] 78. “Seven eight”.

[2] 50 Hz or 60 Hz depending on which side of the pond you fall. Any experimental physicist or electrical/electronic engineer who might be reading will also know full well that mains noise is generally not only present at 50 (or 60) Hz — there are all those wonderful harmonics to consider. (And the strongest peak may well not even be at 50 (60) Hz, but at one of those harmonics. And not all harmonics will contribute equally.  Experimental physics is such a joy at times…)

[3] In the interests of full disclosure I should note that Dave is a friend, a fan of Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, etc.., and an occasional contributor to Computerphile. He and I have spent quite a few tea-fuelled hours setting the world to rights