Musical maturity and bad statistics

Among music-likers, it’s often said that your musical tastes are defined by what we enjoyed at age 14, or that our favorite music came out when we were 14. This claim comes from a 2018 article in the New York Times titled “The Songs That Bind” (paywalled). This article contains dubious statistical analysis, and its claims are probably false.

The article uses Spotify data, “on how frequently every song is listened to by men and women of each particular age.” There are two distinct ways of analyzing this data:

  1. The person level – Look at each individual, and see which songs they listen to most.
  2. The song level – Look at each song, and see which individuals listen to them the most.

So let’s read the article carefully and determine which analysis was used.
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Regulating data science with explanations

Data science has an increasing impact on our lives, and not always for the better. People speak of “Big Data”, and demand regulation, but they don’t really understand what that would look like. I work in one of the few areas where data science is regulated, so I want to discuss one particular regulation and its consequences.

So, it’s finally time for me to publicly admit… I work in the finance sector.

These regulations apply to many different financial trades, but for illustrative purposes, I’m going to talk about loans. The problem with taking out a loan is that you need to pay it back plus interest. The interest is needed to give lenders a return on their investment, and to offset the losses from other borrowers who don’t pay it off. Lenders can increase profit margins and/or lower interest rates if they can predict who won’t pay off their debt, and decline those people. Data science is used to help make those decline decisions.

The US imposes two major restrictions on the data science. First, there’s anti-discrimination laws (a subject I might discuss at a later time). Second, an explanation must be provided to people who are declined.

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Xenharmonic music theory part 3: Tuning theory

This is the final part of a series introducing xenharmonic music theory. In the first part, I talked about musical perception, especially the perception of microtones. In the second part, I explained roughness theory, which is an empirical theory of dissonance independent of musical tradition. The first two parts overlap with conventional music theory, but in this third part, I finally reach the music theory that is more particular to the xenharmonic tradition.

I’m just going to scratch the surface here, with an eye towards how you would actually use it in practice, if you were a composer. Most readers, I imagine, are not composers. It’s okay if it’s just a hypothetical for you, as long as you learn something.

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Xenharmonic music theory part 2: Dissonance Theory

See part 1

Dissonance in music is analogous to conflict in a story. Dissonance sounds “unpleasant” in the same way that conflict is unpleasant to the characters within the story, but then it would be an odd to have a story without any conflict. The opposite of dissonance is called consonance. Music commonly alternates between dissonance and consonance–creating tension, and then resolving it.

Conventional musical theory comes with a bunch of ideas about what’s consonant or dissonant. 400 cents, the major third, is considered consonant; 300 cents, the minor third, is considered dissonant. There’s some physical basis for these ideas, but arguably a lot of it has to do with tradition. 300 cents is more dissonant than 400 cents because that’s the meaning we’ve absorbed from our musical culture.

When you go outside the usual tuning system, musical tradition offers less guidance on what’s more or less dissonant. So this is the part of my intro to xenharmonic theory where I discuss a theory of dissonance that is independent of musical tradition.

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Xenharmonic music theory part 1: Perception of microtones

Microtonal music is music that goes outside of the standard western 12-tone tuning system. There are many microtonal traditions throughout history and the world, but xenharmonic music refers to a specific modern musical tradition that makes a point of being microtonal.  If you’d like to listen to examples, I have a list of popular xenharmonic artists. Xenharmonic music is associated with music theories that might be considered heterodox. Heterodoxy is good though because conventional music theory is too narrowly focused on a certain European classical music tradition, and we could use an alternate perspective.

This is part of a short series introducing xenharmonic theory. Part 1 is about the perception of sound, with a particular focus on small differences in pitch. Part 2 is about dissonance theory. Part 3 is about tuning theory. The first two parts overlap with conventional music theory, but focus on aspects that are independent of tuning. Part 3 is where we get into theory that’s more specific to the xenharmonic tradition.

I freely admit that I don’t know everything, I just know enough to point in some interesting directions. The idea here is not to write an authoritative intro to xenharmonic music theory (which might be better found in the Xenharmonic Wiki), but to write an accessible intro with a bit of a slant towards what I personally think is most important.

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Answering physics FAQs without preparation

Experts don’t know everything. Often, they only know how to look things up, and how to understand what they find. If you’ve ever seen physicists answering a physics FAQ, those answers took a lot of effort to get right. Some common questions are in fact really complicated, or hard, or maybe they just aren’t about the things that physicists normally think about.

With humorous intent, I’m going to answer a bunch of frequently asked questions, sampled from this physics FAQ by John Baez. And I’m doing it without preparation, so the answers will be bad.

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Sexual identity and topology

One of the consequences of having a great deal of math and physics education, is that whenever I learn about something, I internally encode it as math, even if nobody else is thinking of it that way. Today I’m going to share one of the more ridiculous examples, the analogy between identity labels and topology.

I’m mainly thinking about sexual identity labels, and especially arguments over boundaries of those labels. I’m thinking of how people claim “everyone is a little bisexual”; or they argue about the validity of bisexual lesbians; or they ask “isn’t demisexuality just normal?”; or they draw sharp distinctions between asexual, gray-asexual, and allosexual.

In all these arguments, there is the essentialist viewpoint, which says that everyone has an underlying sexuality, and each word covers (or should cover) a specific space of sexualities. If your underlying sexuality falls within the domain of the identity label you use, then your label is “correct”, and if it doesn’t, then your label is “incorrect”.

I disagree with the essentialist viewpoint, and I frequently point to prototype theory, family resemblance theory, and Wittgenstein as alternatives. But I also feel that if you’re going to take the essentialist viewpoint, obviously you should take it all the way, and learn about the math that you’re implicitly using. I am not going to “prove” that essentialism is wrong, and if you summarize my essay as “Mathematics disproves essentialism” then so help me, you did not read the fourth paragraph. The goal is to explore the implicit mathematical framework of essentialism, and point out its unaesthetic aspects.

Of course, I don’t recommend actually using this in an argument, since it relies on teaching people math.

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