The Perfect Thing

What's next for music

More than an entertaining tale about the birth of the iPod (which it is), this book is a 12-horn hallelujah chorus celebrating how this “perfect thing” is propelling music from the past into the future. What’s perfect is not Apple’s porcelain white gizmo, but the new roles and ways of music. Veteran tech writer Steven Levy explores this new “always on” culture with intelligence and ease.

-- KK 01/4/07


As The New York Times' music critic Kelefa Sanneh put it, "Obscure ain't what it used to be... it's getting harder to find any music at all that's hard to find."

Ive believes that a key to that Zen-like goal was the color of the original iPod. The subject of the iPod's glossy white polymer finish is something so deep that it reduces the normally articulate Ive to fits and stutters. ..."If you just think from an Apple point of view, we started out as the color company" -- here he is talking about the first iMac, which added color to what had been the drab beige prison of computing -- "and then we came out with these sort of unapologetic, perfect white products."

Now Jobs was reflective again. "The iPod is three years old next month," he told me. "When we started this, nobody really knew what it was, and people that did really didn't believe it would be a big hit. And when we were trying to do the iTunes Music Store, it was" -- he paused, groping for the phrase -- "such an uphill battle. Everybody in the industry [thought it wouldn't work]. It was almost impossible. And to see it blossom into what it's become, and to see U2 performing at our event, it was just --" He stopped, and an extremely rare moment passed when Steve Jobs was at a loss for what to say next. "I'm trying to think of the word," he finally said. Another long silence. "I don't have a word," he concluded, obviously moved, giving an Academy Award level performance, or both. He gave a long sigh. "When they were on," he continued, "I was sitting next to one of my close colleagues at Apple and I socked him on the leg really hard and said, 'We're going to remember this for the rest of our lives.' That's how I felt. It was really great."

Similarly, the music industry will remember iPod for the rest of its life. However long that is.


Every time a song arrives in this musical DNA shop, an analyst will devote twenty to thirty minutes of intense concentration to identifying as many as four hundred distinct variables, or "genes". Just to capture the emotional metrics of the singing voice, there are thirty-two variables-- things like timbre, vibrato, pitch, and range. "Any voice can be understood as the combination of these genes," says Westergren. When this system is applied to all the instruments as well as the traits of the song -- tempo, amplitude, etc -- the analyst produces a precis. if done right, says Westergren, another analyst can look at and virtually play the whole song in his or her head. More to the point, using this Music Genome Project, you can automate what a disk-jocky does to customize a set according to your tastes.

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