photo credit: Forrest Copeland
Thanks for having me. Symphony of Science is a music video series that remixes the powerful words of influential scientists and makes them sing about their subjects, through the use of auto-tuning techniques. The series was born in Fall 2009 when I created a remix of Carl Sagan's classic PBS series Cosmos and Stephen Hawking clips. That first video, A Glorious Dawn, garnered an unexpected amount of success and praise and amassed a million views in under a month. Due to the overwhelming response, I decided to expand upon the idea and establish a recurring series that would cover many disciplines and scientists. Since then, I have released nine videos on topics like evolution, the brain, space exploration, the big bang theory, and more. The success of the series is attributable to the passion with which the scientists speak about their disciplines, which translates well to musical phrasing, and to the novel idea that science and music can be combined in such an unexpected manner.
I'm sure there are many people out there, of my generation, at least, who aren't familiar with auto-tune. [Auto-tuning? What's the correct terminology here?] Can you please fill us in on what it is and how it works?
Auto-tune is the generic name of the software, auto-tuning is the verb used to describe it. Either will work in your context.
Auto-tune was developed in the late 1990s by an engineer working for Exxon; it was designed principally to digitally correct the pitch of off-key singers, and quickly became a popular tool for producers. Over the years, musicians began using it in creative ways, as an effect, most notably by the artist T-Pain who popularized the overtly obvious pitch correction capabilities of the software. Then in 2009, people began pushing the use of the technology to new levels, by manipulating the natural pitch of spoken word into melodies where they weren't intended. Symphony of Science uses this novel technique to create the melodic vocal passages in the music videos from scientists' speech.
It's such a creative melding of science, music and video, John; I get why it's been so popular. How did you become interested and learn the different skills necessary to pull off a remix of this sort?
When I was 16, I took my first foray into music by beginning a hobby as a turntablist/DJ. This introduced me to fundamental concepts in mixing audio elements together. Shortly after, I began to expand into other realms of music, primarily composition and audio production. I took a year of piano lessons at age 17, which is my only formal training in music or video production, and continued to focus on my hobby throughout college. After graduating with a degree in Economics in 2008, I kept producing electronic and acoustic music, and started to learn the basics of video editing and videography. In early 2009, I first experimented with auto-tune, and became adept at using it in versatile ways. By fall, I was competent enough in audio and video editing to produce the first video of the series; since then, the project has helped me grow both as a musician/producer and hone my skills as a video editor.
I'll say! You graduated college and relatively soon thereafter burst onto the music video scene with the first installment of your Symphony of Science project. Since then, you've put together eight more, garnered lots of media attention as well as 14 million views online. What's that been like? Has all that fame gone to your head yet?
It's been an amazing year and a half for me; the popularity of the videos was entirely unexpected, so it has been a nice surprise. A whole array of new opportunities have opened up and I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of talented people. Above all, the whole experience has helped me narrow down what career path I'd like to take in the years to come, and has given me the contacts and credibility needed to do so. Internet popularity is almost always fleeting, so I don't think it should go to anybody's head; I'm happy to have made an impression on anybody and grateful to find myself where I am today.
You sound pretty grounded to me. Can a person actually make a living doing what you're doing?
While the project does not bring in enough income to support me directly, the publicity it has given me has allowed me to make a humble living from commission works. It's been a lot of fun working with different people and organizations doing similar style videos, while still having time to work on Symphony of Science. I hope to keep this up for as long as the project lasts, and ideally segue into a career in music/video production. The popularity of the series has given me the crucial contacts and exposure needed to do so.
I was afraid you were going to say that. What else would you like to talk about, that we haven't touched on yet?
There will be more videos on the way, so if you like what the project has to offer so far, stay tuned. If you have suggestions for later videos, drop me an email, or get in touch through Facebook, Twitter, or the forums at symphonyofscience.com.
Thanks for talking with me, John. I can't wait to see what you do next; you've made science fun!
Thank you, Joan, my pleasure! Cheers!
Thank you, Jill Bolte Taylor, for the heads up about the Ode to the Brain youTube.