Musical Tinkering

My favorite moments messing around with Chrome Music Lab

Check out the full set of interactive experiments at https://musiclab.chromeexperiments.com/

I love tinkering. When I was a kid, I had a great time taking things apart and putting them together to make something new. I also love music. But how can you tinker with music? How can you take it apart, and put it back together in a new way?

When I was in middle school, I thoroughly disassembled an old portable CD player. I never got it working again. But later on, I got a start in electronics by modifying an old electronic toy, transforming its sound into shrieks and squeals through the art of “circuit bending.” In college I started messing around with code, using skills I’d first learned for analyzing neuroscience data to generate my own synthesized music.

I realized that I loved playing with music technology, and I wanted to make that experience more accessible. I’ve been lucky enough to work on making new tools for just that: to help people learn by tinkering with music. My doctoral thesis at MIT Media Lab was called “Explorations in Musical Tinkering.” More recently, I’ve been working with an amazing team at Google Creative Lab, and we’re launching a new project called Chrome Music Lab. It’s a set of interactive experiments that let you play with everything from harmonics and sound waves to rhythms and melodies.

I’d like to take you on a tour of some of the magical moments, clever tricks and hidden gems sprinkled through our music lab experiments.

Pictures of Sound

A spectrogram is a picture of sound: time moves across the screen, and you see colorful peaks representing the energy of the sound at different frequencies. One of my favorite sounds to look at is the human voice, which the Chrome Music Lab Spectrogram experiment can analyze using the microphone on your laptop or mobile device. Here are some patterns to look for.

When you whistle, you can see it as a line that slides up and down with the pitch of the note.
Spoken syllables like “kah” and “tah” show up as vertical lines in the spectrogram. So do percussive sounds like drums.
Sounds like “sss” and “shhh” show up as clouds, as do other noisy sounds.
When you sing a steady note, you get a stack of horizontal lines.
The lines go up and down together as you raise and lower the pitch.
A vibrato effect, rapidly moving the pitch up and down, makes the lines wiggle.

There are lots of other details to discover as you use the spectrogram to analyze sounds in the world around you. But where do those stacks of horizontal lines come from?

The Harmonic Series

Your singing voice sounds like a single note, but it’s actually made up of a combination of frequencies which we call harmonics. These harmonics show up as a stack of horizontal lines on the spectrogram. The harmonic series is the mathematical relationship between the frequencies, and the Harmonics experiment lets you play around with it.

If you visit the experiment and strum across the harmonics from left to right, you hear a sequence of pitches going up. They’re just like the parallel lines on the spectrogram, now turned on their side. You can also see that the waves that make up the harmonics get closer together as the pitches get higher. The musical intervals between the pitches come from the relationships between those waves.

For example, the first wave, a low F, has just one peak, and the second has two. The second one is the same pitch, an F an octave higher. The fourth one has four peaks, so it’s twice as high as the second one– that’s why it’s the same pitch again, yet another octave higher. What does it mean that these are all the “same” note? One clue comes from the similarity of the waves: you can see how their peaks and valleys line up with each other, more than with the other harmonics. You can see the same similarity in the two C’s, the third and sixth harmonics, which are also an octave apart.

Another thing to try out in the Harmonics experiment: you can play the first three notes of the “Star Spangled Banner,” which also happens to be a major triad.

I find the harmonic series especially fascinating because it links these fundamental aspects of music, octaves and triads, with physical phenomena that occur all around us. Anytime a string vibrates, or a column of air resonates (in your throat, or in a clarinet or trumpet or other instrument), it generates the frequencies in this same harmonic series. So while it might seem like octaves and major triads are things we invented, they actually come from nature. It’s almost like music is built into the universe.

Playing with Harmony

The Arpeggios experiment lets you tinker with chords. Starting with that same major triad that’s built into the harmonic series, you can play with different chords just by clicking around the ring. Press play to try out the different arpeggio patterns, or press pause and listen to the chords individually.

Try comparing the outer versus the inner rings. The outer ring (uppercase) is the major chords, and inner ring (lowercase) is the minor chords. Try moving clockwise around the outer ring of chords, and compare that to moving counterclockwise. The counterclockwise movement may sound more familiar, because it is more like a standard Western chord progression.

You can use this experiment to play some famous chord progressions.

Here are the chords from Pachelbel’s canon:

You can also play a classic progression used in hundreds of pop songs, including “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, and “Let It Be” by The Beatles:

Keep Tinkering

Those are just a few highlights from Chrome Music Lab. There’s a lot more to explore.