The first few times I played Guitar Hero, the ridiculously addictive video game, I played it safe. I am not known, in the circles I move in, for my physical dexterity, so it was daunting to manipulate those coloured “frets” on the little plastic guitar, pretend-playing along with a rock band. As a result, when I was confronted with a long list of songs, most of which I had never encountered, I only picked ones I had heard before (my first conquest: Message in a Bottle). It wasn’t perhaps the most courageous way to begin playing the game, but it was certainly one of the most illuminating.
Virtually real: Guitar Hero can teach you beats and chord patterns.
Simulating the songs on Guitar Hero, it has been pointed out, forces you to actively listen to the music, even to anticipate it. For me, that process revealed less about unfamiliar songs and more about the songs I thought I knew. It turned out that I really only knew the lyrics and the simplest layer of the tune of Message in a Bottle. It took Guitar Hero—and the sort of close listening I would otherwise never have devoted to Message in a Bottle—to teach me how the chord patterns shifted and what the beat structure was.
The American composer Michael Gordon recently wrote about his idea for Orchestra Hero: “What if I could ‘play’ the horn solo in Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks on a ‘controller horn’ or the bassoon solo at the opening of The Rite of Spring on a ‘controller bassoon’?” I must chime in to plead for a Carnatic Hero game, which could prove invaluable for amateurs seeking to understand how ragas work. What if I could “play” the “Ma Ma Ga Ri Sa” phrase of the Raga Begada or the pentatonic scale of Hindolam or the distinctively shaken Ni of Nayaki? They’d be imperfect approximations, but they would let players wander inside the framework of these ragas, touching and feeling the music around them.
The other major, technologically inspired effort to break music into its constituent parts is under way at Pandora, a website that streams free music, at present, to listeners in the US. Pandora is an intelligent, inquisitive service. Analysing as many as 400 attributes of the music you like, it profiles your taste and serves up music that it thinks you’d appreciate. Often, as Rob Walker discovered in a terrific New York Times Magazine article, Pandora vaults past your conscious tastes into your subconscious preferences by giving you Celine Dion, however much you claim to abhor her.
In response to requests, Pandora is now beginning to include Indian music in its database. Walker watched its musicologists sit around taking apart and scrutinizing a Bismillah Khan rendition of Raga Ahir Bhairav. A website streaming the Indian classical music you like is exciting enough. But how much more exciting if, based on your affinity for the Carnatic song Endhuku Peddala, Pandora streams you some Scott Joplin ragtime, and you discover that what appeals to you, even across such disparate genres of music, is the use of deviant beats of syncopation. Despite being seemingly innocuous avenues of entertainment, both Guitar Hero and Pandora go some way towards explaining why we like the music we like.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org