The massive response to the Les Paul Google doodle was rapid-fire, full of statistics and trending hash tags. I thought it would be interesting to zoom out and look at a longer timeline of musical traditions.
Recording without recordings
We allowed users in the US to “record” their own songs, shareable through web addresses. But these weren’t really recordings at all. Vinyl records are really that: records of sound. Their grooves are the imprints of sound waves pushed through the air that you can touch. (Here’s a video moving slowly through record grooves like tectonic plates.) My favorite memory of tangible sound is trying to detangle the spilled entrails of a cassette tape. I remember holding my breath as I listened to a song, picturing the twisted magnetic tape when the sound warbled. Even digital audio is a record of sound, just one generation removed, translated into little bits. I’ve always liked that you can look at the center ring of a CD to see how much sound is really on there.
One of the distinguishing features of classical music is its focus on written notation. Before Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville (see phonautograph above) and Thomas Edison started carving sonic waves into paper and tinfoil, sharing through writing was a key means of preservation (and pretty much a lossless format). Performances in classical music are undoubtedly important, as there’s room for interpretation of a score. But compared to genres like jazz, the classical score reigns over performance as the definitive record of a piece.
Oral tradition in 140 characters
What’s even more interesting to me is what happened in non-US countries, where we couldn’t allow recording for legal reasons. In these countries, what we saw reached even further back to folk music.
The inability to enable recording outside of the US turned out to be a blessing. Launching initially in Australia and Asia, I noticed something funny happening. Tweets started appearing with odd bursts of “135 135 1358 5434321″ and “GD DGHS SDFK KJGHGFD.” Sites posted the keyboard sequences to Judas Priest. What was happening resembled a core part of the folk music tradition, the oral transmission of songs.
Many were foreign language tweets that needed no translation. Whether surrounded by Thai or Spanish, the QWERTY characters were the same. We had accidently created a temporary universal language for those 24 hours.
I wonder what it was like for traveling folk musicians to introduce songs to new towns. Before radio, songs were transported by being taught, note for note, like low-frequency songs hummed between whales that take time to slowly circument the globe. Our current culture of mashups and MP3 sharing has its origins in 80′s mixtape culture. On June 9th, we got a slight taste of something hundreds of years older, as we simultaneously taught each other our clumsy QWERTY songs around the world.
Less is punk
One of our goals in the design of the doodle was to ensure that, like folk music, it wouldn’t require musical training to participate. Some of this came through in the placement of the strings. In the vein of an autoharp or early 3-chord punk rock, the groups of strings formed convenient G, C, D chords. That way, the first surprise interaction of rolling over strings would be pleasant and inspiring, not off-putting. (I’m planning a more detailed blog post about the design, including images of older UI explorations.)
When we decided to create QWERTY keyboard interaction, we thought of it as more of a Medium-to-Expert Level feature. But it became much more widespread. I wonder if non-musicians who enjoyed tapping at the laptop keyboard would have so quickly warmed up to sitting at a piano keyboard. Sure, the little letters on the keys helped as a cheat sheet, but I think it’s the routine familiarity with they keyboard itself that helped the most. (Maybe a modest goal for schools can be getting kids as familiar with physically holding musical instruments as they are with QWERTY keyboards.) Millions of musical instruments were snuck into offices that morning, slipped under people’s fingertips. They were just disguised as the same tools used to write emails and edit spreadsheets. This report claims that collectively, about 5.4 million hours of productivity were stolen from spreadsheets, spent strumming a 475×175 pixel guitar instead. In 48 hours, 40 million songs were recorded. As one song, it would play for about 5.1 years.
If a song falls in a forest…
This article from New Scientist thinks archaeologists of the future may be overwhelmed by the mass of information generated during our current time of over-sharing. Maybe we’ll see fewer updates and shrinking friend counts in the next few years, with a renewed interest in private experiences.
But I think songs will be the exception. Whether written, sung, performed, pirated, remixed, or mashed up, songs have been, and will always be a social experience.
When I opened a text editor and built a quick prototype of the Les Paul Doodle last year, I really just set out to make a small musical toy. The social aspect didn’t come up until much later, during brainstorms with other Googlers. In retrospect, the link seems so obvious. The first musical doodle begged to be the first social doodle, just as much as melodies beg to be heard.
As a kid, I was always intrigued to open church hymnals and find credits like “Melody: Author unknown.” Generation to generation, details like authorship get lost, but songs survive. Taking a step back from impressive but short-lived bursts of social media’s power, I’m left even more impressed with this ancient human need to share songs. One day, all of the doodle’s news headlines will be a blip for archaeologists digging through our digital archives. But I bet they will still be humming some thousand-year-old melodies.