Complexity and music (Image: Michael Garfield)

Music holds a unique power over our species. Except in rare cases of what is called “musical anhedonia,” where a person’s brain scans show their auditory cortex isn’t linked to their reward circuitry, listening to music is like gambling or making love. So it is hard to imagine a more alluring topic for an SFI working group than “Complexity and the Structure of Music: Universal Features and Evolutionary Perspectives Across Cultures.”

Co-sponsored by SFI and the Institute for Advanced Studies of Aix-Marseille University, France (IMéRA), this forum brought together network and complexity scientists, musicologists, music theorists, composers, performers, and neuroscientists to trade licks about the intersections of music and complexity from as many angles as possible.

“The abstraction of musical structures as geometrical spaces naturally invites the analysis of music as a complex system,” wrote the working group co-organizers in their meeting description. Co-organizer Miguel Fuentes is a complexity scientist and SFI External Professor, and co-organizer Marco Buongiorno Nardelli (University of North Texas, IMéRA) is a composer, flutist, and computational materials physicist.

SFI has long pioneered research into the mathematical structure of music. In 1992, the Institute hosted the inaugural ICAD (International Conference on Auditory Display), a meeting organized by Gregory Kramer in which many tools for data sonification and visualization were realized for the first time. Since then, SFI has hosted talks on robotic musicianshipscience fiction film scores, and the historical intertwining of music and science; funded further research into sonificationmusical evolutionphase transitions in jazz ensemblesthe relationship between music and politicsmachine-assisted style analysis, and why simplicity sells in pop music; and collaborated with the Santa Fe Symphony on numerous live events and on the award-winning PBS documentary, The Majesty of Music and Math. It has, additionally, hosted musical concerts during its InterPlanetary Festival at the Santa Fe Railyard as well as a number of on-site and virtual internal concerts and local crossover events.

Meeting over three days, the current international group rotated many conceptual objects of musical structure through myriad key and tempo changes, hosting panels and running an event-long side discussion in the Zoom chat. According to one participant, they were well aware of the meeting itself as an improvisational ensemble with players learning each other’s languages.

Ideas flowed at high speed as speakers shared their work: using network-based approaches to study composition and the evolution of form over music history, identifying “rules” of music as emergent properties, asking how the neuroscience of pleasure might encode in us a math and music that reflects our cultural constraints, and investigating how spaces shape the experience and production of music.

“Music is 35,000 years old at least, and we can use these amazing math and network tools to understand how humans think of music,” says SFI Complexity Fellow Stefani Crabtree, an archaeologist and musician who participated in the group. “How great is it to work with an interdisciplinary team?”

What is and is not universal stayed a central question through the talks. People teased at the prospects of translating complex datasets to music, or sifting through music-listening data to identify scale-free patterns in human attention, or using a network model for harmony to write generative algorithms for music both like and unlike anything we’ve ever heard.

On the last day the working group posed questions like, “How soon can we do this again?” and “What kind of fruit can an integrated mess of music lovers in the sciences make?” 


Stay tuned!   


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