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Lectures for a New Year: How to Enjoy Classical Music

Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and a hell of a speaker. He's funny, engaging, and adorably English -- exactly the sort of speaker who commands and rewards attention. In this twenty-minute talk, he barrels headlong into a brief explanation of classical music, how it works, and how we -- the great non-classical-music-listening masses -- might actually enjoy it, even if we're weeping in the process. This lecture made me laugh and cry in equal measures -- bravo, sir.

Topics: "one-buttock playing"; "everybody has a fantastic ear"; the characteristics of a leader; "the reason you feel sleepy in classical music is not because of you, it's because of us!"; how Chopin mimics Hamlet; and the specific tip (right around 12:30) on how to listen to classical music.

For: anyone who likes classical music (3% of the general population) or dislikes classical music (97%). Mostly the latter.

Viewing note: the YouTube version is a little fuzzy; a somewhat higher-quality video is available directly from TED; click the Download button and follow the instructions.

Further Reading

Zander co-authored the book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. I haven't read it -- anyone in the audience care to comment on it? There's also a bunch of material conducted by Zander out there at your favorite music store, and these interviews might interest you.

Transcript

A full transcript (and subtitles in dozens of languages) is available from the TED page.

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New AI-Driven Music System Analyzes Tracks for Perfect Playlists
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Whether you're planning a bachelorette party or recovering from a breakup, a well-curated playlist makes all the difference. If you don't have time to pick the perfect songs manually, services that use the AI-driven system Sonic Style may be able to figure out exactly what you have in mind based on your request.

According to Fast Company, Sonic Style is the new music-categorizing service from the media and entertainment data provider Gracenote. There are plenty of music algorithms out there already, but Sonic Style works a little differently. Rather than listing the entire discography of a certain artist under a single genre, the AI analyzes individual tracks. It considers factors like the artist's typical genre and the era the song was recorded in, as well as qualities it can only learn through listening, like tempo and mood. Based on nearly 450 descriptors, it creates a super-accurate "style profile" of the track that makes it easier for listeners to find it when searching for the perfect song to fit an occasion.

Playlists that use data from Sonic Style feel like they were made by a person with a deep knowledge of music rather than a machine. That's thanks to the system's advanced neural network. It also recognizes artists that don't fit neatly into one genre, or that have evolved into a completely different music style over their careers. Any service—including music-streaming platforms and voice-activated assistants—that uses Gracenote's data will be able to take advantage of the new technology.

With AI at your disposal, all you have to do as the listener is decide on a style of music. Here are some ideas to get you started if you want a playlist for productivity.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Stradivarius Violins Get Their Distinctive Sound By Mimicking the Human Voice
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Italian violinist Francesco Geminiani once wrote that a violin's tone should "rival the most perfect human voice." Nearly three centuries later, scientists have confirmed that some of the world's oldest violins do in fact mimic aspects of the human singing voice, a finding which scientists believe proves "the characteristic brilliance of Stradivari violins."

Using speech analysis software, scientists in Taiwan compared the sound produced by 15 antique instruments with recordings of 16 male and female vocalists singing English vowel sounds, The Guardian reports. They discovered that violins made by Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivari, the pioneers of the instrument, produce similar "formant features" as the singers. The resonance frequencies were similar between Amati violins and bass and baritone singers, while the higher-frequency tones produced by Stradivari instruments were comparable to tenors and contraltos.

Andrea Amati, born in 1505, was the first known violin maker. His design was improved over 100 years later by Antonio Stradivari, whose instruments now sell for several million dollars. "Some Stradivari violins clearly possess female singing qualities, which may contribute to their perceived sweetness and brilliance," Hwan-Ching Tai, an author of the study, told The Guardian.

Their findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. A 2013 study by Dr. Joseph Nagyvary, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, also pointed to a link between the sounds produced by 250-year-old violins and those of a female soprano singer.

According to Vox, a blind test revealed that professional violinists couldn't reliably tell the difference between old violins like "Strads" and modern ones, with most even expressing a preference for the newer instruments. However, the value of these antique instruments can be chalked up to their rarity and history, and many violinists still swear by their exceptional quality.

[h/t The Guardian]

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