Can you use math to determine if a song is good or not?

Music is a highly, highly subjective things. The same song that gives me chills and makes the hair on the back of my neck stands up has you running screaming from the room. There’s no way we’ll all agree that a particular song is “good.” Whatever “good” means.

Or is there? The New Republic thinks that the solution might lie in mathematics.

By now it is commonplace to point out how much of our lives are subject to algorithms. The imperative to provide “analytics” for everything from financial portfolios to security risk, to work and shopping habits seems always on the verge of converting all of experience into some tidy table of figures. Arguments about where or whether we reach something human and unquantifiable typically end up invoking, more or less indignantly, aesthetic experience. Art, it is argued, is the place where analytics hit a wall.

The idea that works of art can be explained quantitatively (aside from quoting some dollar amount), might be caricatured in the description of, say, a Vermeer, by noting that it is a 17 7/8 inch high by 16 1/8 inch wide canvas, on which are arranged a certain combination of color-coded patches and flecks, followed by an account of the chemical processes at work when the pigments change as the picture suffers the ravages of time. Even if all of this turns out to be factually true, such a description leaves a lot out: the way (to take one of a potentially limitless set of examples) a milkmaid tilts a jug so that falling rivulets of milk are caught in a ray of late afternoon sunlight. What is left out, in short, is the experience of the painting. Measurement misses the point.

Music is more complicated, though, because it is fundamentally bound up with numbers.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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