City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Music’s Rich Facets

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I’ve been trying to capture the richness and variety of relationships within information about music. Noel at CarbonIQ started a brief discussion on music maps, which highlighted some really interesting ways of linking information around music, but didn’t develop that far beyond well-known, or slight, examples. Obviously Amazon and Allmusic have the basics down pat – simple catalogue-related facets of a release, which make it easy to find and sell music.

However, a cursory glance at these two bits of ephemera indicate there are other ways of thinking about music: Jeremy Deller’s nice maps of the connections between Acid House and Brass Bands (from his Acid Brass release); and sixties Zappa-protegé Wild Man Fischer’s own unique view of the musical universe.

So, how can we develop "Like this? Try this!" beyond simple catalogue relationships?

As we do more user research into how people think about and discover music, we’ll find lots of angles i.e. people getting into classical music via film soundtracks; discovering jazz whilst standing in Coffee Republic; reading about Vienna and developing a taste for both the Second Viennese school and ‘glitch’; music for adverts; etc.

Not one to miss a trick, Amazon extend this with their user-generated listmania, enabling people to group music together around their own relationships, like Essential Tortured Troubadours, or even music for drugs, love, suicide or enlightenment.

So, taking all this on, whilst engaged in a redesign of a large music site, I constructed a little diagram of basic facets around music, which I’m sharing with you in the spirit of open source concept development(!). I sketched this up to introduce some new angles into the architecture of the site; to begin to think about faceted classification(s) around music-related content, in terms of helping people discover new music:

I like to think of it as a 6-dimensional diagram, here presented in 2-D (use your imagination). The facets are:

The most basic, and one covered nicely by Amazon et al. Miles Davis is related to John Coltrane because they played together. I’m also using this as shorthand for basic catalogue-oriented relationships, such as song, composer, album etc. (though it’s worth noting there’s some interesting possible relationships here too, and some classic visualisation methods).

Another basic relationship: Miles Davis and John Coltrane both played jazz. Used by many music sites, though sparingly by Amazon who employ collaborative filtering most of the time (save Classical, which has more complex catalogue-based relationships of performers, conductors, composers etc.). I’ve previously discussed how record shops use genres, and how products like Echo can provide clustering beyond genres.

Grouping music around time i.e. Miles Davis and John Coltrane are both most closely identified with the late-50s thru mid-60s. This goes beyond providing a simple timeline by providing a rich axis of organisation beyond genre and even artform, whereby we can talk about a richer set of music from, say, the late-50s, and link to/from other related cultural/historical content from that time. From there, it’s a short step to Music for Paintings, or Music of the Atomic Age.

As with Time, location can provide fabulously rich cross-genre, multi-artform, historical relationships e.g. Miles Davis and John Coltrane are both closely associated with New York. In music, we could make connections with Talking Heads, Grandmaster Flash, DNA, Studio 54, Edgar Varése, Steve Reich, Randy Newman, Tin Pan Alley or even The bloody Strokes. There are some hugely interesting possibilities, not least in old chestnuts like Manchester, Vienna, Canterbury, Chicago, Liverpool, Paris, Detroit, or Seattle, but, zooming into the world map a little, Wellington NZ, Eel Pie Island, Athens Georgia, Laurel Canyon, Oslo, or your hometown. In previous jobs, I’ve built products along these lines.

Made-up word alert, but this alludes to one of the more interesting angles, that of the arcane connections that crop up around music, often in pub conversations! e.g. Did you know that Miles Davis painted, as did Joni Mitchell, Schönberg and Captain Beefheart? This is a hugely rich area, as it veers towards the less tangible, more contentious, and more entertaining e.g. "Great ‘second-string’ guitarists in early-70s US rock bands" (Dickie Betts, Bob Weir, Frank Sampedro, Denny Dias …). Well, quite entertaining 😉 ‘Theme’ can include artists who had records banned by the Beeb, great composers with beards, bands with names lifted from books or films etc. I mean really etcetera!

A relationship which is more relevant in ‘educational’ contexts, perhaps e.g. "Like Hendrix? Want to play like Hendrix?" (as if). But important too – enabling a linking around turntables, or clarinets, say.

Plotting the facets for, say, a biography of Miles Davis gives this:

There are a basic set to begin with, and obviously, ‘theme’ has many relationships nested within it. But they enabled me to begin to introduce some more interesting navigational angles into the new BBC Music site I’ve been working on (will be launched end-May). There you’ll see a profile of an artist, say Miles Davis, with link relationships organised around time and location, as well as artist and genre. It’s a small step but one with potential, I think. It’s already enabling the producers I’m working with to get in many more potentially useful links around artists, providing fruitful jumping-off points for users, avoiding pigeonholing, as well as creating new ‘incoming trajectories’ on objects (could be important long-term, given all the current talk around developing 2-way+ relationships).

What I’d like to do next is develop these facets more coherently, and add in the missing links, and then develop ways of visualising these, which could be in the simple but powerful HTML link space, but perhaps more interestingly, new methods of data visualisation such as those employed by Martin Wattenburg for the History Wired or Idea Line. Or in Ben Schneiderman’s work. Something which approaches the layering and complexity of Textarc’s analysis, but for music?

Does anyone have other interesting facets for music-related information spaces to share/discuss, or thoughts about the visualisation of these relationships?


13 responses to “Music’s Rich Facets”

  1.  Avatar

    can I sugest “utility” as an important 7th dimension. This will be particularly useful when your “map” moves further back in time than the last fifty years and most instructive with regard to locating unlikely connections within the other 6 dimesions:
    dance/any of the above
    recreation/any of the above
    this is not in any way a definitive list


  2. matt talbot Avatar

    great ideas, great job to be working on. i’m particularly jealous!
    i’ve been co-running a music server for 2 years now. it contains 5000+ albums, all strictly experimental and avant garde (it keeps the dickheads out, if nothing else :).
    from Heidieck & Chopin’s sound poetry to classic early concrete of Sala, Ferrari, Parmegiani to modern electroacoustic and non-idiomatic improv to japanese noise, plunderphonics, dark ambient, .. a headspinning potential list of genres… .
    i had 2 conflicting goals with the server – i wanted to categorise so that people could be introduced to new sounds by relating to what they already knew, but i didn’t want to pigeonhole and ghettoize.
    the solution was to broadly categorise at the top level (20thC Avant Garde/Rock/Electronic), and below to use more emotive and abstract descriptions to pool music into like groups. so the groups are influenced by musical feeling as much as a particular genre that they might normally be lumped in with. we’re quite ready to agree that the grouping may be subjective, but then the navigation of the music becomes an experience in itself – you ‘feel the music’ through the categories rather than simply hearing genre-names.
    it’s a solution that came about through restrictions of the software and the desired audience and the mission of the server and a number of other factors specific to this case.
    but perhaps an interesting insight into alternative forms of grouping.
    actually, These Records (London) have a similar approach..
    “the catalogue is arranged in groups of related or impressionistically linked artists (a-z within each section). ”
    as for maps of artist relationships, i don’t think anyone mentioned the impressive handdrawing reproduced on pgs 90-91 of Tufte’s ‘Visual Explanations’. credited as: “Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry’ (Chicago, 1977), inside front and back covers.”
    how this might be adapted online is another story!


  3. dan Avatar

    thanks matt, great comment.
    and i’m well aware of the Tufte graphic – i’d have scanned it in if i hadn’t lent it to someone. i’ll do it later – thanks for reminding me.
    i like your idea of 2 levels of categorisation – broad genres, then mood-based within that (These Records classification is typically interesting and obfuscatory).
    matt jones pointed me in the direction of Moodlogic too, in response to this – which is also organising around moods (though perhaps too many? when does it cease to become useful?) … and i’m also subsequently roadtesting MediaUnbound – which tests very well. i’ll report back.


  4. eric Avatar

    Also have a look at the Glass Engine, which slices up 60 different Philip Glass works by various facets like tempo, density, joy, sadness, and velocity.


  5. Creativity Machine Avatar

    Music Maps

    cityofsound’s Dan Hill has a very interesting post that gathers together some of the possibilities for creating rhizomatic semantic maps of music, going far beyond the banality of the record industry’s constructions of “genres”.


  6. meta-roj blog Avatar

    dimensions of music

    i’ve occasionally toyed with concepts of dimensions in music, perhaps as a tool to transcend genre for the process of discovering music – a potential solution to the discrimination problem. deep in my brain, i know this isn’t a new…


  7. Nadav Savio Avatar

    I think the huge elephant in the room here is that none of this describes the music. Time signature, instrumentation, song structure, lyrical theme, etc. I think that’s where it really gets interesting.


  8. Dan Avatar

    Some of it does, Nadav i.e. I picked out instrument etc above. But time signature and the rest would be good themes to pick out at some point. However, I’m not sure they’re actually used that often in the average experience of music (save some of the education I alluded to earlier). Lyrical themes are certainly more popular ways of describing music – and that kind of indexing (automatic or user-generated/created) would be very interesting for music where lyrics are relevant.


  9. Nadav Savio Avatar

    And then there’s the problem of actually compiling all that metadata. Eeek! Still, I happen to know that there are people working on this, and as a music consumer/user, I can’t wait.

    time signature and the rest would be good themes to pick out at some point. However, I’m not sure they’re actually used that often in the average experience of music

    I don’t think they’re used consciously in the average experience of music, but really neither is location or time, etc. And I believe the things that really describe the sound of the music itself are (unconsciously at least) used much more often and deeply. I.e. when you want to listen to music, you sometimes have an artist/album in mind immediately, more often probably have a genre in mind, and most often have a feeling or pace, etc. in mind.
    I love that you’re pushing on the standard set of facets, though. And nice job with the BBC Radio Player.


  10. DJ Alchemi Avatar

    Classification of online music resources

    After four months of keeping my bookmarks on Furl, I thought it was time to reflect on some of what I’ve collected — particularly in the music resources topic. I…


  11. Michael Ferris Avatar

    A collection of short articles on great composers and what they had to do to give their gift of music to humanity.


  12. Musical Instruments Brass Avatar

    Hey Dan,
    I stumbled onto this old post and really like what you are saying. I also like that you used Miles Davis and John Coltrane as examples. They are two of my personal favorites. I’m curious to see how your idea has developed. I appreciate any attempt to avoid pigeonholing. Thanks.


  13. Simon Strong Avatar

    Looks like a variation of Prof. Jason Crest’s tri-orthogonal theory of Punk Rock to me!


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