Thinking Tech

Science explains why you hate techno

Posting in Science

Scientists provide evidence for why the human ear inherently dislikes drum machines.

Everyone knows that electronic music is sometimes thought of—by some—as nails scraped along a blackboard with a beat but until recently, no one knew why.

It turns out the reason is that electronic beats are too perfect.

A recent paper in the journal Public Library of Science One reveals that we prefer something called long-range correlated fluctuations in beats. We humans are actually wired to like imperfection in music.

From the paper:

…computer generated perfect beat patterns are frequently devalued by listeners due to a perceived lack of human touch.

Beat formats exist as they do because, simply put, they match our body rhythm. Our physiology. Literally the way our bodies move. It makes sense if you think about dance.

Modern audio software programs offer a “humanizing” feature which adds a slight alteration to the original machine beat. By the way, humans are extremely good at discerning a “humanized” machine beat from a real human beat. But such humanized beats are, as you might expect, uncorrelated errors that are inserted somewhat randomly. Scientists find that not only can people detect such nearly imperceptible differences, they significantly prefer the real human beat. Perhaps the machines cannot reproduced that irreplaceable and difficult-to-articulate thing that makes us swoon. What we might learn from this study is that technology cannot manufacture soul.

[Full disclosure: I was a teenager in the 1980s. And I love Kraftwerk.]

In this study scientists provide evidence that human listeners significantly prefer long-range correlated fluctuations in rhythms, which are the slightly inaccurate, slightly messy kind that only humans can create.

The 1980s brought the birth of mainstream techno with record sales of the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. The innovative beat maker that paved the way for serious hip hop and electronica beats to let your backbone slide, but the real thing might win the in end. Sometimes technology still can't beat a human.

As Joe Stilgoe writes in his post:

It is very easy to replace a bad drummer with a machine. It’s almost impossible to replace a good one. At its best, drumming is as close as music comes to dance. It is about feel, touch, dynamics and movement. It resists automation and thankfully it will carry on doing so.

[via Responsible Innovation]

[photo credit Threadless]

Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure