Archive for the ‘Sonic Truth’ Category

Sonic Truth: Music’s Gender Problem

Friday, January 29th, 2016

Mike has asked:

Why is the music industry so male-dominated?

Dear Mike,

Let’s start with some good ol’ verifiable facts. As of this year:

+ no solo women have ever won the Triple J Hottest 100 since it was established in 1989
+ only three have won the UK’s Mercury Prize in its 22-year history
+ around 1 in 10 audio engineers are women, and no woman has ever won a Grammy for producing a non-classical record.
+ industry gender pay gaps are substantial, remain in place and in some areas are increasing.

Also, take the Billboard Power 100 for 2015; index of the industry’s most powerful and influential. Twelve spots out of the total 100 feature women — often they are featured as part of a duo with a bloke. So while Taylor Swift, Adele, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna are all marquee names in music, the reality is that it’s men producing the records, pulling the industry strings and landing the kudos when they put their own tunes out there.

The past couple of months has seen black metal musician Myrkur forced off social media due to death threats and Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman revealing she’d been sexually harassed by a prominent publicist. Anyone can spend some quality time with Google and find myriad similar tales from now and in the past. Lots has been written on this so I’ll leave it to one side for now.

For my part, one of the ways I think the music industry can help here is by fixing a certain mindset. My theory is that women working in music earn less respect because of sexist biases about expertise. Expertise is highly valued in the music industry, whether it be as a great manager, talented audio engineer or a sick guitarist able to shred G# diminished sweep arpeggios at 220 BPM.

Socially, we still reinforce ideas that men are more pragmatic, technical and decisive while women are emotional and vulnerable. But research on the brain has debunked this idea. If this bias can be banished from the music industry, we’re encouraging more women to succeed in roles that they would be great in, but haven’t always been given the opportunity.

Not many of us, even those involved in the music industry, have any influence on something like who lands in the Billboard Top 100. But all of us love music, and we can be more conscious in the way that we express that love. Women musicians and producers rarely get called geniuses, but lots of them are. If they achieve great things in the music industry, it’s an achievement usually described with the prefix “female”. Just laziness.

Music culture is archetypal. We can name heroes in all parts of the music world, but our handful of heroines have been confined in a small corner of it. The more inclusive we make the myths, in the way we talk and speak, the faster we can move towards an equal playing field.


If you’d like an answer to any of life’s great mysteries, get at Alex on

Sonic Truth: Can Artificial Intelligence Make Meaningful Music?

Friday, January 15th, 2016

Hey everyone,

Welcome to the very first instalment of Sonic Truth! Evan writes:

Do you think that artificial intelligence can create meaningful music? Will people like the music AI creates if it’s missing the “human element” to it?

Dear Evan,

So I reckon you can divide the music writing process into two rough chunks. One is applying knowledge and problem solving; the other is injecting an emotional quality via the imagination or personal experience. This first chunk is the kind of thing computers are really, really good at.

We’ve been able to teach computers the basic theory for music composition, but would it pass a Turing Test for ‘good music’? This is a test where the intelligence of an AI is measured by how convincing it appears to a human observer. Normal meatbags with squishy analog brains have an emotional relationship to music, and that’s the part where the computers fall down. While Prof. David Cope’s AI has been able to think up some decent classical pieces, this is a genre that is highly formal and rule-driven, rigging the odds in favour of the robot. Similar attempts in rock and pop formats have struck my ears as stilted and dinky.

Could one train an AI to know, like Billy Corgan did, that if you detune the guitar solo a quarter-step in ‘Behold! The Night Mare’ it will not only be shockingly dissonant but also achingly gorgeous? I guess you could in theory — sit the AI down, have it take notes on the musical features of literally hundreds of thousands of songs, how humans have rated those features, aggregate it all into a big database and then generate new musical output based off it.
Computationally, it’s staggering the think about but comes fairly easily to humans. Hubert Dreyfus has argued convincingly since the 60s that the human mind is not wholly or fundamentally computational anyway. AIs will always miss the key component of intuition that drives musical decision-making.

Could we perform some Blade Runner–level memory implanting to make a computer write and perform something like Nina Simone’s ‘My Man’s Gone Now’? The research indicates that we will be able to teach AIs many things but that good ol’ tangle of romantic projection, lusty desire and fear of death that fuels so much good music is going to be forever out their grasp. Which is exactly why Roy Batty was so homicidally pissed.

Those pesky emotions will always pose a problem for our budding AI composers. And while I’m 100% positive that massive leaps are going to get made in the problem-solving aspect of artificial music composition, I wonder if the mere accumulation of huge reams of musical ‘knowledge’ will ever be enough to create a Turing-certified album. The point of music has never been perfection anyway. That’s the reason why we don’t all sit around enjoying Chick Corea Elektrik Band, unless we have a sudden craving for one of the most unintentionally awkward and hilarious video clips of the 1980s.

We’re definitely heading towards a world of increasing automation, and our expectations about what the AI future will look like can’t be accurately determined by our current knowledge. But I really doubt Skynet will be able to write us a five-star album.


If you’d like an answer to any of life’s great mysteries, get at Alex on

Sonic Truth — sleepmakeswaves’ Alex Wilson Answers Your Questions

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

Hi, I’m Alex. I play bass in sleepmakeswaves, and I want your questions about life, the universe and everything. Unsurprisingly for a guy who spends his time writing dramatic post-rock epics, I’m pretty fascinated by the big picture.

Touring and seeing the world threw me off from a plan to do a PhD in moral philosophy and become an academic — probably dodged a bullet there. But when LIFE IS NOISE approached me with a little corner of the internet where I could muse about humans and everything around them, there was no way I could turn it down.

Although this will follow the format of an ‘advice’ column, I’d like it to be more than that. We can run the whole gamut, from the serious to the utterly silly, from the smallest personal things to the most mind-bending concepts. If you give me question I don’t know about, I’ll get my facts straight before running my mouth off. Checking the facts and having an open mind matters. I’m also up for a healthy amount of trolling, because: internets.

You can me ask me things like:

Why is there something rather than nothing?
Is happiness even real?
Can we even make choices?
Why is music so goddamn meaningful?
What is the good life, and how do we find it?
Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?

I’m aiming to try and crank a couple of these out every month. If you want to help us get started, shoot a question to — you can be as anonymous as you like.

Alex Wilson is a musician and writer from Sydney’s Inner West. He plays bass in sleepmakeswaves and produces bands, and video game and film soundtracks. He has a philosophy degree buried in a box somewhere under his bed.