Paper of the Day (Po’D): Some Anthropological Considerations of Music and the Computer Edition

Hello, and welcome to the Paper of the Day (Po’D): Some Anthropological Considerations of Music and the Computer Edition. Today’s paper addresses the suspicion that arguments for applying computers to research questions of social import are based on a fetish of technology.

J. Kippen, “Music and the Computer: Some Anthropological Considerations”, Journal of New Music Research 21(3-4):257-262, 1992.

At the time of this artlce, there was an anxiety about involving the computer in musicology. There were concerns that a computer study of music is an oxymoron. That “Music/Computer” conferences lacked any music at all. That “computer” brings with it a sense of objectivity, but at the same time masquerades as a buzzword. Kippen imagines detractors saying, “Just mention the word ‘computer’ and you have an immediate and convenient short-cut to research grants, funds for conferences, and money for swish office systems or tiny, trendy lap-tops.”

Klippen reflects on arguments that music uses grammars, not only in terms of sound (an “acoustic fact”), but also in terms of culture (a “social fact”). This brings up the possibility that an analysis of an acoustic fact (within the purview of the computer) will nothing to say of relevance about “the social context of musical acts”, or the non-musical rules in which the acoustic fact originates. Klippen wonders if involving the computer in ethnography as a means to avoid subjectivity in analysis is misdirected, because 1) that assumes “hard facts” exist in these fields; and 2) the human use of a computer is undeniably linked to subjective human interpretation. Klippen ends by asking whether what the field actually needs is “a bunch of cynics suggesting why computers should not be used for musico-cognitive analysis. Then, by standing our ground in defense of our machines, we may better understand their role in our work, their advantages, and their limitations.”

Our project DaCaRyH is concerned with the same questions Klippen asks. While “computer” is no longer a buzzword, “big data” and “data science” are. In the study of calypso music, why should one apply these computer algorithms to study acoustic facts? Does a superiour precision of measurement (discussed in Tzanetakis et al. 2007) contribute new knowledge, or introduce new kinds of questions? How can we use questions of ethnomusicology to inform our design of our algorithms?

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