By Ariana Hwang
Musicians, programmers, composers, and scientists gather on the last Saturday of each month for Monthly Music Hackathon NYC. February’s theme was Science of Music and ended up being held at Spotify’s Lower Manhattan office. Coming in, I didn’t really fit the criteria of an experienced musician or “hacker”, with the exception of my mediocre guitar skills. This didn’t hold me back from going though, because I knew there was some value in spending an entire day with a diverse group of strangers, ripe with ideas, and without any other incentive besides learning.
During the brainstorm session I had, seated at a long marble table with white boards, people pitched their ideas on post it notes. Each idea would make use of music and technology, especially Spotify APIs. This means retrieving data from Spotify’s music catalog: information on artists, albums, tracks, and user-related data like personal playlists. Originally, I shared my idea of a user-generated playlist in real-time at coffee shops, in which customers can anonymously vote on the next song that gets played out loud. From another person’s comment, I discovered a formerly existing social media site issuing a similar concept called Turntable.fm. The company didn’t last and eventually shut down as a result of copyright limitations and after spending much of its focus on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act instead of signing deals with record labels. I didn’t pursue this idea after all, but I found another idea and team to start things off.
Crowding into a separate room named after The White Stripes’ song— “Hello Operator”— my team of seven listed their individual strengths, weaknesses, and the roles they’d take on. Our goal was to employ a webcam that converted motion and color into musical sounds. Combining our brains, the DJ, Christina, asked if we knew what a theremin was. Some of us knew, some of us didn’t. A theremin is an electronic musical instrument, usually consisting of two antennas, controlled without physical contact. The performer can control oscillators for frequency with one hand and amplitude with the other. The theremin then sends electric signals that produce musical sounds. Thus after everyone knew what a theremin was, we had a better picture of what we wanted to do. We wanted our project to be a theremin emulator, except fast and slow movements would change the frequency. Using open source code from a site I found (https://femurdesign.com/theremin/) and hours later of building on each other’s ideas, we were able to come up with a working version of what we called “The Virtual Theremin”.
Our Prototype Code:
Hackathons are so enriching for their short time frames. I almost wish my college business lectures would stress invention and mimic engaging competitions like these with snacks, prizes, brainstorm sessions, and laid back presentations. During presentations, one guy humorously showcased his project on different sounds that were produced by the movement and trading pattern of crytocurrencies. By the end of the event, I had learned a lot despite lacking programming experience and even made a couple of friends too. Competition doesn’t always have to be stressful. It’s when you want to be there, that it feels like you’re playing a very fun, co-op video game.