Genii Weblog

Why no Open Source Music?

Sun 6 Feb 2005, 04:57 PM

by Ben Langhinrichs
I'm sure to annoy my friends in the Open Source Software movement, but it seems interesting to note the similarities between designing software and music.  Almost anybody with a modicum of training can write software or write and play music, although clearly some do far better than others in both fields, yet with all the passionate support for open source software, and with all the interest in music, there is no real call for open source music.  Sure, there are community bands and such which play for free, but not communal writing of either symphonies or rock, jazz or hip hop.  Why not?  If the open source movement is supposed to create better software through collaboration, why can't it create better music through collaboration?  I have my own ideas of why, but I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Copyright 2005 Genii Software Ltd.

What has been said:

284.1. Andrew Tetlaw
(02/07/2005 03:45 PM)

Wish granted:

Ever read about "My Life" and "My Life CHanged" ?

See also:

284.2. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/07/2005 04:41 PM)

Hmm. Nice, but it really doesn't seem like the same thing, to me at least. Open Source Software is supposed to make for better software because various developers tweak and change and enhance, and this is just jamming off another person's guitar track, which is no different that has been done forever in music. It isn't altering the first person's music at all, but only adding layers.

Again, I appreciate the links, but it still seems a world away from the promises of OSS.

284.3. Richard Schwartz
(02/07/2005 04:50 PM)

Open source is not the same as communal writing, nor is it synonymous with "free", so I'm not really sure what you're getting at here, but in any case I can cite parts of musical tradition that are in fact communal, and which are in fact free.

In the classical genre, many concerti include one or more sections known as "cadenzas". These are an opportunity for the soloist to "show off". The composer expects the most highly skilled performers to improvise in this section. The published cadenza may be the one originally included by the composer, it may be an exact transcription of a version popularized by a famous performer, or it may be a simplified version of either. What you hear in a contemporary performance by a major soloist will likely be the result of a community effort, some of his or her own inspiration, a nod to the composer, and some elements taken from other soloists' versions.

And, since you mentioned Jazz, almost all Jazz performance includes extensive improvisation. You will almost never hear a composed piece performed the same way twice. The exchange of musical ideas between Jazz artists, evolving a piece over time, is even ritualized in "call and answer" exchanges of solos, in which one performer improvises on a theme, and the other then improvises a variation, and they go on challenging each other to re-express the music in a wider variety of ways. A lot of rock music has the same thing going on, too, although in most cases to a lesser extent. The Grateful Dead would be the most recognizable example of a rock group that would go on long improvisational journeys in their pieces, but there are others. Patti Smith regularly improvised lyrics in performance while her band improvised music to go along with it. I'm less conversant with the world of hip-hop, but one thing I can point to is that in the hip-hop world it is accepted practice for DJs re-mix pieces, including adding loops, over-dubs, and various effects and electronic accompaniments, so the version of a recorded piece that you hear in one club may be very different from what you hear in another.

Let's go on to the question of "free". In the folk genre, there are thousands upon thousands of pieces of "unattributed" or "traditional" music. The majority of religious hymns probably fall into this category, and they're probably some of the better examples of how the lyrics and music have evolved over many years into whatever form people are familiar with today. All of this traditional music is absoultely free of copyright, and the melodies and words can be freely re-used, in whole or in part, in new compositions. The Star Spangled Banner is just one example -- a rather famous one -- of a new song taking the melody of a traditional song.

If the thing you're getting at is that nobody actually starts out composing a piece of music with the intention of making it absolutely free for anyone to perform and collaborate on, to improve on, and to incorporate into derivative works... I would guess at one explanation: Most programmers can make a decent enough living as programmers, but in many cases they don't get to work on what they really want to work on, therefore they contribute to open source in order to achieve a greater level of satisfaction from programming. Most musicians, however, get an abundance of satisfaction from playing and creating music, but they do not make a decent living at it. The greatest need they have to fulfill is monetary, and therefore they are more protective of what little value they can derive from ownership of what they create.


284.4. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/07/2005 05:04 PM)

Thanks, Rich. I am certainly not talking about the music being free or not, as there is probably a good deal more free music than free software in the world. The examples about collaboration are excellent, and you are correct that they are common. They also share a big difference with OSS, in my opinion, which is the ownership of each individual piece. Not piece of music, but each person does their thing and nobody else touches it.

I guess what I am getting at is that the OSS world view seems to be that making a pie is bettered by having lots of cooks, while the music world view is closer to believing that making a banquet is bettered by lots of good cooks. I tend to favor the latter, and not the former. I have trouble contributing to OSS projects because anybody else can come and mess up what I created. In music, this is more rare. Someone might make a new piece inspired by mine (if I could actually either write or play music), or re-interpret my words, or accompany my tune, but they would not go and try to change my music.

I tend to think that OSS might be more successful if it valued the artist more than the canvass, although successful is the wrong word to use. It might be more interesting to me, let me say.

284.5. Richard Schwartz
(02/07/2005 05:49 PM)

I'm not sure that I agree with your conclusion that "each person does their thing and nobody else touches it". Isn't changing the instrumentation of a piece, for example taking a piece that Bach wrote for the organ, and playing it on a guitar (, equivalent to doing a pretty good amount of "touching"? Isn't it like taking, say, a really good sort algorithm and re-writing it completely as an equally good but different sort algorithm? Sure, the notes and the tempo may be exactly the same, so the written transcription might look exactly the same, but something fundamental about the nature of the piece is (IMHO) quite radically changed.

I also don't think that your conclusion that open source favors having "lots of cooks" versus "lots of good cooks" holds water. First of all, there are millions of bad musicians out there, doing dreadful compositions and interpretations of others pieces, but unless you watch the early shows in an American Idol season you will never hear any of them. Secondly, most open source projects that I'm familiar with don't accept just any contribution. Code must be reviewed, and it must stand the test of time, otherwise it is removed and rewritten. I might think that, if anything, music is less restrictive about what "gets into" or "gets cut from" a composition over time than open source programming is, because there is only the test of time and no explicit peer review to determine what versions and variations of a piece will survive. In the popular music genre, I could point to several songs in which the vast majority of people only know the remake that made the top 40 charts, and have never heard the original which is sometimes quite different (often with additional verses that have been dropped in the popular cover version)... and if they do hear the original they might think that it's a "bad remake".


284.6. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/07/2005 06:06 PM)

The comparison I made was not between "lots of cooks" vs. "lots of good cooks", it was between lots of cooks cooking the same thing and lots of cooks cooking different dishes at the same meal. There are plenty of bad musicians, but if I copy your Notes template and make a new template, even if I say it is "based on a template by Rich", that doesn't mean I am changing your template. A good cover, such as Devo with Satisfaction, is still a cover, just as a bad cover, such as the same song by Britney Spears, is still just a cover. Neither one is modifying the original. Obviously, there are exceptions, but there is still a focus on the artist as artist, and the work of art as work of art, that differs with OSS, which doesn't tend to see software as art, which I do.

284.7. Richard Schwartz
(02/07/2005 08:05 PM)

Okay... From that perspective I agree, sort of. An ethno-musicologist working to preserve indigenous music against the pervasive influence of broadcast western pop music might take issue with the idea that the original isn't modified -- in that entire musical traditions being lost forever could be considered a rather extreme form of modification of entire bodies of original work. But yes, OSS does not place an intrinsic and lasting value on the art of the contributed code. There is a certain amount of appreciation for elegant code, but that appreciation rarely if ever rises to the level of considering it to be art.

As for the pie analogy, I think that a better fit is creating the recipe for the pie, rather than actually cooking the pie. The former is an ongoing collaborative process of pure creation, whereas the latter is a single time and space-limited act of creative production. I would liken an OSS project more to creating the recipe, and doing a single build of the project to cooking a pie.


284.8. Andrew Tetlaw
(03/04/2005 07:39 PM)

"OSS world view seems to be that making a pie is bettered by having lots of cooks" I think this is a simplistic view of open source which tends to equate OSS with anarchy.

OSS is simply about making the source code available for anyone to play with under various licenses which give the 'player' various rights. Some licenses allow you to take source code and do what ever you like with it. Some allow you to take source code and make your own project with it but then require you to release the source code to your project.

This has nothing to do with how one piece of software is written. I can write a piece of open source software, and yet only allow my small team of 3 people to write it.

In my mind this is exactly like music creation. A small group of musicians write a composiiton and then allow other musicians to play with it as they see fit.

OSS can be both "lots of cooks cooking the same thing and lots of cooks cooking different dishes at the same meal"