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The Science of Pop

Do we really need a formula for perfect music?

A few years ago, a psychology lecturer at a British college came up with the formula for the "perfect" mood-lifting pop song. Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic posited a certain equation involving pitch, positive lyrics and serotonin levels that, when tweaked in precise amounts, would result in a vastly improved emotional state for listeners. The most formulaically perfect song? "Wake Up Boo!" by the Boo Radleys topped a list populated by the likes of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Jackson 5. Does that sound right to you? A few weeks ago, Joshua Allen of the Morning News blog put forth the notion that the perfect pop song was exactly two minutes and 42 seconds long. His assessment was decidedly less scientific than ­Chamorro-­Premuzic's, but he offers "There She Goes" by the La's, "California Dreamin'" by the Beach Boys and "Don't Do Me Like That" by Tom Petty as proof that, if a song is precisely 2:42, it can have the most impact on a listener.

These are but two examples of the logic of science continuing to intrude upon the art of music. Like other such intrusions, they are complete nonsense. To think that pop perfection can be broken down into a science is silly, though some audiophiles insist that chart-topping success is just an algorithm away.

Celemony, a company from Germany (of course), has been creating software called Melodyne since 1997. It's essentially a digital tool designed solely for the purpose of masking mistakes. A recent addition to the Melodyne software is called Direct Note Access, and to call it Auto-Tune on steroids is to glibly dismiss the truly evil nature of this digital demon. Enabling producers and engineers to hone in on a single bum note — within a chord — and then correct its pitch, length, or whatever, DNA (get it?) gives recording technicians the power they've never known they wanted: the ability to eliminate and alter any shred of humanity that an artist inadvertently left in his or her performance.

Unsurprisingly, there's a bit of a backlash to all this perfection seeking. Even less surprisingly, some of it's coming from Steve Albini. The producer/engineer/fly-in-the-ointment worked with Kim Deal during the production of the new Breeders album to codify a "new" process called "All Wave Analog Recording." According to Albini, "to record All Wave, one must use no computers, no digital recording, no Auto-Tuning, or any other mainstays of contemporary production... [It] carries through the entire production and mastering process, including mixing, editing, sequencing, post-production and the exceptional step of an all-analog direct-metal master for the vinyl LP."

That this process sounds remotely revolutionary is startling. But to dismiss it as the grumblings of a Luddite would be unwise, given the threats raised by the eggheads at the door. After all, "Please Please Please" by James Brown is 2:44 and is full of missed notes and sonic imperfections. Would you want to live in a world where it didn't make the cut?

 
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