Hypermusician Tod Machover on music and the mind

MIT Media Lab musician/inventor Tod Machover talks about the neuroscience of the musical experience, and using technology to close the loop between brain activity and what we're hearing in real time. In the near future, he says, you can imagine having the ability to "design a piece of music... that is exactly right for you, and only you at this particular moment." Tod Machover at Big Think


  1. design a piece of music… that is exactly right for you, and only you at this particular moment.

    Not only do I find the idea horrifying, but I’m not sure I really want to hear music tailor-made for me. Disregarding completely the nasty thought of what this will do for advertising, one of the great things about music is the communal experience. It’s odd to me that Tod touches on the fact that all cultures share music in common and talks of popular music then comes to this conclusion. It seems to almost completely destroy the point of music.

    I’ve suddenly imagined a future where people walk around with headphones on their ears, not to listen to music, but to block out all of the tunes that have been designed for them to get them to buy a product.

    Being the kind of person who loves nothing more than sharing great music with my friends, I don’t want a future where nobody remotely digs what I’m into simply because they’re not me. There’d be nothing to discuss. It’s hard enough liking jazz as it is. Not many people out there that are into it, but there are some. It would suck if there were none. I, for one, hope Tod is wrong. Unfortunately, I suspect he’s not.

  2. Interesting interview.

    “design a piece of music… that is exactly right for you, and only you at this particular moment.”

    I found that bizarre and confusing too. What on earth does that *mean*, the “right” piece of music? Isn’t that part of the creative process – for both creating music and listening to it – to suspend some judgment about right and wrong and simply explore? What is the “right” color? The “right” flavor? I’m sure the debut of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” wasn’t measurably “right” for anyone, but what a creative breakthrough!

    I guess there are just those who think the brain and consciousness is all something to just be measured and quantified and caluclated. Weirdos. But given everything else Machover talks about in the interview, I don’t get the impression he’s one of them…just that comment was odd.

  3. One of the main antagonists in Tad Williams Otherland series had an implant that did this. It entered the narrative quite often.

  4. An article in Business week, many years ago, that described the function of office furniture in either the social roles of cave or campfire. Cave or campfire. Back to the basics!

    It seems to me that music came about from synchronizing the experience around a campfire. Everyone in the tribe would participate. Perhaps a leader would provide focus of attention. But, still … the ability to dance, chant, drum, all add to a group experience.

    So, what is the music of the cave? A private experience? Sleeping, grooming, making love. In some professions, that includes work, such as coding or composing music. When I code, I often listen to OEM radio to set a meditative mood. Sometimes I switch stations to set another mood. In a sense, I am acting as a private DJ. Now imagine a piece of code that helps me automate my own private DJ’ing. Could that piece of code be considered a composition? This is why I’m not threatened by Tod’s “design a piece of music… that is exactly right for you”

    BTW, here is a controller for a group experience, very much inspired by Tod’s earlier work and friends at Steim: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXLP1B5fzpo

  5. “design a piece of music… that is exactly right for you, and only you at this particular moment.”

    It’s called improvisation. It’s been around for a while.

    1. I think you’re on to something interesting in pointing out improv, but I’m not sure that Machover has in mind the same sort of musician/audience relationship that exists with improv. And even with improv, who is the music “right” for, the musician? The audience? What I heard Machover saying is that there’s some sort of correct music depennding on what your brain is doing and what the music is doing and what you want to evoke, and I’m saying there’s no such thing that objectively exists in artistic creation as “right”. Obviously music can be used and abused to evoke emotional states, but is that art? Is that creative? I don’t think the idea of in-the-moment music threatening, Machover just seemed in that one thought to take the music out of music.

  6. Wow this guy is almost scary . Another isolated academic detached from reality.Big business, big brother, and big government military types must think this guy is wonderful! This type of mentality is right out of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. As a futurist , Huxley raved about the wonderful world ahead with the development of products such as DDT. Tod Machover seems just as short sighted. And the integration of ‘hyperinsturments’ and electronic technology is nothing new. Perhaps someone should buy him an old Kraftwerk album.

  7. Clearly this guy seems to forget people are not born with Bachs’ musical genius, so how would your brain turn the right parameters… while the essence of music is to let the music do the story telling not the otherway around.

  8. why should you make a particular music only for me when I can pick the right kind of song that I need in a particular time. Let me put things straight. This idea is just another way of making things simpler for people, but it does not necessarily mean that people need that kind of modification.The trend of finding things more and more personalized is just the result that we cannot grab the right thing for us thus we “need” a personalized approach. Lets say that in this particular time I need a sandwich with tomato, the modern society teaches me that with the new technologies some kind of a company or a scientist will be able to guess what i need and serve it to me right in front of me. But why should i go for that option? I can simply move my ass and make a sandwich on my own, and while i am making this sandwich, who knows, maybe the task itself will give me an appetite for cucumber as well-a fact that noone could had guessed from the beginning. Know going back to music i think that a major good result of personalized music would be for patients that cannot choose for their own. There are also many therapeutic aspects of music that it would be exciting to unveil

  9. I think this sounds like an overwhelmingly exciting possibility! To me it sounds like the joy one gets when you improvise music, not necessarily for an audience, but just for yourself. Bashing away at the piano in your living room etc. Except this way it seems to allow the same experience, but with all the textures of electronic music, and requiring nothing more than a smartphone! Plus, you wouldn’t necessarily have to be proficient at any instrument to be able to have the experience. It sounds brilliant!

    Although i’m slightly confused as to why some people thought this would be used by marketing companies to coerce people into buying things…i don’t know how that would even work @_@ It sounds like saying visual art is evil because someone might use it to try and sell you something.

    1. aunthillary, you’ve just pinpointed exactly the possible problems with this kind of musical technology – that it becomes all about me, me, me and what do i want, want, want right now, now, now…removes the social, shared aspects of music, which are possibly just as critical as the actual notes…and “not having to be proficient at any instrument”…well, that just takes the whole craft and art and turns it into a button to be pushed and the result consumed like a cheap cupcake. I *hope* that’s not what Machover had in mind, and I think a lot of his comments indicate something a little wiser. He does talk about Guitar Hero and the loss of craftsmanship briefly.

      Music and being a musician is not the same as “notes hitting your eardrum”. There are whole levels of experience and learning for both the audience AND the musician that happen in the creation.

  10. Hahaha, lol. That’s what a real musician is able to do now and what he was able to do in all times. For that you don’t need a computer. You need an instrument, practice and an open mind.

    It seems to me as if this guy don’t owns at least the last of this things.

  11. The only problem I found with these technologies is that so far nobody managed to create an outstanding song with them. (after many tries)

    [Still listening to music from the 70s…]

  12. Wow, flufftastic! Rock Band and the iPhone are apparently the standard for music tech? Why not talk about the feasability of Max appearing on an iPhone (which almost certainly will happen in about 5 years or less – you heard it here first!)

    It’s interesting how much people focus on the pleasure of consuming of music and neglect the fact that a lot of great music is challenging (as magicbean mentioned). A lot of music I love is challenging.

    Also, music has never been about just meeting the listeners’ needs. It has always been about the listener participating in something bigger, connecting with the artist.

    Argh, so much to address in this…

  13. Some people just play music as background noise, while they’re trying to concentrate on something else. So maybe this is something for them. Artistry is not the focal point in this case; music takes on a utilitarian purpose. Would I buy what he’s selling? Probably not, but I’m sure someone will.

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