NASHVILLE SKYLINE: What Fresh Hell Is This?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

What fresh hell is this? Word comes in that there is yet another technological assault on the creative process that brings forth music to the world.

I’m sure that we’ll soon be assured that this new hi-tech assault will be more “efficient.” Efficient, that is, in the same way that I am continually assured by businesses that advise me that “in order to serve you better, we are going to shaft you in incredible, as-yet-unimagined ways by cutting services and raising fees. And by mainly screwing you by every possible means.” But, you know, you kind of always imagine that the creative musical process is at least a bit removed from the everyday temple of the money-changers. Wrong.

I mean, I know that Nashville songwriters have been working under creative advisories for many years. Some of the advisories are spoken and some are very much sotto voce, very unspoken: the songwriters are quietly advised to write songs for women aged 25-54, to write upbeat stuff like the “Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-tempo Love Song” (thank you, Alan Jackson , for actually writing and recording that), to write young, to write “hip” and to write …not so country.

Now comes a new scientific process that is designed to identify hit songs before they are hit songs. A new song analysis system called Hit Song Science (HSS) is literally deconstructing songs and comparing them to recent hits to see if they can also become hits. That’s because in the conventional wisdom of record companies, only songs that sound like recent hits can become hits. HSS claims that what it actually does is look for “optimal mathematical patterns” in songs.

HSS says, “We use artificial intelligence applications as well as other methods to analyze the underlying mathematical patterns in music. Our technology does something called spectral deconvolution which is a fancy way of saying that we can isolate and separate many musical events that occur in a song. Some of these event [sic] are patterns in melody, harmony, chord progression, brilliance, fullness of sound, beat, tempo, rhythm, octave, and pitch. We then compare the patterns in new music (yours for example) to patterns in recent chart hits. By doing this combined with other mathematical calculations we’ve been able to develop a highly accurate and scientific tool.”

HSS further says that it can “analyze approximately 3.5 million songs. This includes almost everything that has been released by the music labels since the 1950s until the present time. The database is updated weekly with new releases. The analysis application is able to “listen to” any CD and isolate patterns in many musical events, some of which are melody, harmony, tempo, pitch, octave, beat, rhythm, fullness of sound, noise, brilliance, and chord progression. This is a process called Spectral Deconvolution. Each song is then mapped onto a grid we call the music universe and is positioned according to its mathematical characteristics. Each song is represented by a dot on the universe and the songs on one end of the universe are vastly different from songs on the other end of the universe. Songs with mathematical similarities are positioned very close to one another.”

If this were still the ‘60s, I could say that that’s very far out.

This process is now being used by the pop divisions of the major music labels, for fees I don’t know and can’t imagine. The same service is available to you as an independent artist for a sliding scale ranging from $49.99 for one song up to $399.90 for an 11-song album and then $34.99 each for 12 songs or more. All of that so that you as an aspiring artist can present this as your musical resume to the A&R head at a major music label. Good luck.

Fortunately for country music, song lyrics themselves are not part of the scientific HSS process.

Even so, I can think of many major country hits that probably wouldn’t have survived the spectral deconvolution procedure. “Strawberry Wine” would not have been a hit — there was no precedent for a four-minute ballad being a huge country hit; never mind the unlikely hit quotient of the song’s lyric that’s about the loss of virginity.

The current, unlikely country hit “Picture” by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow would not have happened by this process (and it’s by far the best-selling country single right now). Willie Nelson ’s sparsely-accompanied, behind-the-beat “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” would not have stood a chance on the Spectral Deconvolution process, Randy Travis ’ triumphant return to the top of the Billboard country chart with his current hit “Three Wooden Crosses,” would have been impossible under this spectroscope. Garth Brooks ’ epochal “The Dance” probably wouldn’t have spiked high enough in the spectral universe; nor would have Conway Twitty ’s unorthodox but massive hit “Hello Darlin’.” “Stand By Your Man” likely would not have registered.

Melodies aside, lyrics remain the biggest factor in country music’s appeal. So, it’s good that HSS cannot dissect them under the microscope. The best country music songs connect directly with listeners — they wire in to them emotionally — and that’s the only way to gauge them.

When I was studying science in junior high school and was having a hard time with it, my father told me a story about one of my science assignments. He told me that a bunch of aerospace engineers once convened to study the matter of bumblebees. Some of the engineers had observed bumblebees and wondered how a creature with such a huge body and such small wings could actually fly. These aerospace engineers, my father told me, undertook extensive scientific studies of bumblebees. They compared body mass to wing displacement and so on and on. These engineers’ scientific conclusion? They said that — scientifically — bumblebees cannot fly. They are logically incapable of flight.

Ah, but they can fly free, bumblebees can. And so can country songs.