CryptoCollab: A Decentralized Music Composition Experiment

Introduction

CryptoCollab is a musical experiment dealing with decentralization, immutability, value, and art. The goal is to build a collaborative music composition that will live forever on the Ethereum blockchain, accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Think of it as a wall for musical graffiti. To add to the composition, one must purchase NOTE tokens that allow you to place notes wherever you want in the composition, unless someone else has already placed a note there. There will be 5000 NOTE tokens available and the composition will consist of 1000 spaces in which any combination of the 127 MIDI values are possible. Composing will only be open for a limited amount of time (one month), the piece will be locked and considered finished on June 1, 2018. During the composition period, you can add new notes or remove notes that you have placed, you can also return your NOTES to the token contract and receive a refund of the ETH used to purchase them. No one may remove or move anyone else’s note so do what you want, if you want to write All Star seventeen times you can. If you want to add tritones to everyone else’s notes, more power to you. Anyone can add to the composition as long as they own NOTE tokens. Now, you may be wondering: “Isn’t this just another ICO cash grab? What do I get out of purchasing these tokens?” The answers to these questions are No and Music. Yes you must purchase these tokens if you want to add to the composition. However, at the end of the composition period the NOTE token contract will self destruct and send all ETH in it to the Composition contract, where it will be locked forever. Whether or not this is a waste of money is up to you.

This article will mostly explore the ideas behind CryptoCollab and not go in to the technical elements behind it. All code for this project is available at github.com/nedodn/CryptoCollab. If you want an overview of the technologies that make this possible go check out the Artist’s Guide to the Blockchain series by Matt Condon and Jake Fry. If you just want to know how to compose on CryptoCollab and not read a bunch of pretentious ramblings on art, skip to the end of this article.

From Blocks of Clay to Blockchain

Music exists when it is heard. Unlike other forms of art, it leaves no residue of its existence besides the instruments used to make it and an impression on those who heard it. Even written down music is not actually the music itself, it is an abstraction designed to help recreate and document this art form. This makes it one of the most fragile of art mediums, imagine how many songs and melodies we have lost because we have not written them down or the last person to know them died without passing them on. The earliest recorded melodies were written on blocks of clay and most are incomplete and have become worn over the many years that have passed (Look up the Hurrian Hymns for more information). The oldest complete composition we have is the Séikilos Epitaph, a short melody with words estimated to have been written sometime between 200 BC-100 AD.

By Thanatos [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The lyrics, written on a tombstone, translate to:

While you live, shine
Have no grief at all
life exists only for a short while
and time demands an end

There is also an inscription that reads:

“I am a tombstone, an image. Séikilos placed me here as a long-lasting sign of deathless remembrance.”

This is perhaps a fitting theme for what would turn out to be the earliest complete music composition to survive to the present day. We may not know who Séikilos was, he may not have even been a famous composer in his time, but thanks to him we can have a concrete glimpse into how some of their music sounded and the themes that might be present.

CryptoCollab attempts to collect people’s musical ideas and wrap them into a permanent time capsule, as long as the Ethereum blockchain exists this composition will exist and be publicly available to anyone who may care to hear it.

The Value of Art

“Opera is expensive. It doesn’t make money — you put money in, and you get Opera out.” -Maskerade, Terry Pratchett

Ask any music or art major about why they chose to spend thousands of money on a degree in their field and they’ll probably start crying when they’re reminded of that fact. After the tears have passed they’ll probably tell you something about love for their specific form of art, they’re probably not doing it just for the money and employment options (or lack thereof). And even among non-artists, it is generally accepted that there is some intrinsic value in the creation and appreciation of art, though many may differ on how how much value is actually in these institutions and how much a given piece is worth. The worth of an artwork is attributed to many different properties, its age, provenance, aesthetics, and the material it is comprised of. While a ring made from gold and one from stainless steel painted gold may look alike, we value the gold ring more due to it being made from a higher valued material. The value of a piece of music exists in a more abstract sense, though certain facets still hold true and affect the perceived value: the composer, who is performing it, the effect it has on people. CryptoCollab will be unique among music compositions, as it will be backed by the Ether used to compose it. In this way, the composition will be owned by itself and created by the community. This is the reasoning behind locking the Ether in the composition contract at the end of the composing period, the value in this composition will not only come from its musical properties but will also arise from the contributions made by those who decided that it was worth it. The goal of the token will not be to create art and receive a token, like the goal of the extremely neat Scarab Experiment, but to receive a token and create art. The incentive to add to the composition will be to contribute to a permanent and public piece of music.

Musical Inspiration

From a music composition perspective CryptoCollab draws from avant-garde composers such as John Cage, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young with their ideas of indeterminacy in composition and performance. John Cage was one of the pioneers of indeterminate composition, composing Music of Changes in which different elements of the piece would be decided by a reading of the I Ching, thus introducing random chance to dictate parts of a piece of music. CryptoCollab attempts to utilize indeterminacy by harnessing the compositional ideas of a group of people in a trustless and decentralized way. Interestingly, it does this by using a completely deterministic system (the EVM). The more people who contribute to the composition, the more indeterminate the piece will become as each person adds their own ideas, each note added will be equal to every other note.

The structure of the piece is also meant to resemble the blockchain (if you squint your eyes a little). When played each beat, or block, continues at a fixed rate, and can contain any number of notes, up to 127. There will be no changes to increase or decrease this limit (something something Satoshi’s vision). The maximum number of NOTES will be hard capped at 5000 (with apologies to Vlad Zamfir). In order to contribute, you must wait for your client to download the current state of the composition, then you can add or remove notes and watch as the piece is composed live (must have Metamask for this).

How to Compose

Note: You’ll need the browser extension Metamask to contribute to the composition.

Step 1: Purchase NOTES from the NOTE Token contract at a price of 0.001 ETH per NOTE, you can do this conveniently from the CryptoCollab page. You can only purchase or return up to 100 NOTES at a time.

Step 2: Prepare yourself to make a permanent contribution to the music world, unless you change your mind and remove it before the composing period ends.

Step 3: Click where you want some notes, write whatever you want, add a melody or harmonize someone else’s line up to 10 (ten) notes at a time. Selected notes you want to add will come up as blue. You can hear what your added notes would sound like without committing to the contract by playing the composition.

Step 4: When you’re ready to add to the composition, click the Add Selected Notes button with up to 10 (ten) notes selected and confirm the transaction through your Ethereum client. After the transaction has gone through, which may take a minute or thirty depending on the network state and gas price, your notes will turn up as purple, showing they have been added to the composition! Assuming nothing goes wrong. There is also a feed that will show who’s composing along with you.

Step 5: The notes that you have added will show up as purple, if you want to remove them, just click up to 10 (ten) of your added notes to remove at a time, notes you want to remove will be red. Then click the Remove Selected Notes button and confirm the transaction. Please do not try to remove blue notes or add red notes. You won’t break anything, it just won’t work and you’ll feel pretty dumb.

Step 5a: You can play the composition by pressing Play. Pretty self-explanatory there. You can also press the spacebar. You can set where you want it to begin playing, where to stop, the tempo, and you can also loop a section over and over again with the Loop button. The Stop button stops the playback. Just in case you were wondering.

Step 6: If the composing period is still ongoing and you realize you don’t want to spend your hard earned Ether to add to a music composition experiment and you’d rather just HODL and never do anything interesting with this revolutionary new technology, you can enter the amount of NOTES you want to return in the Return Notes field and press the Return Notes button. This will return the Ether you used to purchase your NOTES. You cannot return NOTES that have been added to the composition until you remove them from the composition.

Step 7: After the composing period ends, the NOTE token contract will be self destructed (callable by anyone so race to be the one to blow it up) and all Ether spent will be sent to the Composition contract. Composing will lock and the piece will be considered finished.

Final Thoughts

Now it may be a naive hope that enough people will want to contribute to a composition at the cost of their money and receiving nothing in return. A large part of blockchain applications is in providing incentives for people to contribute. Mostly these incentives exist in speculation at the moment, or a way to earn money. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. However CryptoCollab attempts to explore other methods to incentivize people, particularly those where the incentive does not take the form of monetary values but in the act of creating and collaborating with a large group of people even at a net monetary loss. One could say that the act of creating at a possible and probable monetary loss is a defining feature of art. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of an early group of people interested in this new technology and the ideas it represents, like decentralization and collaboration. CryptoCollab is meant to be an expression of these ideals and the people behind them working to build a more decentralized and trustless future. It is also an example of a 100% decentralized app, consisting of a static webpage and the blockchain with no server between the two. While it is hosted with Github at cryptocollab.co if you wanted MAXIMUM DECENTRALIZATION you can access it on IPFS here. Also if you wanted, you could clone the repo and run it on your own local machine and it’ll work exactly the same as using the website. So wherever you exist on the spectrum between artist and technologist, stop by CryptoCollab, take a listen, and if you want to, collaborate to create something permanent and experience the excitement of this new frontier.

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