The Song-as-Flowchart: It's Not Only Great, It's Part of the Tradition

The music does not die by being visualized, just as some zaftig Baroness did not die upon being painted.

I took ill last night, so I woke up this morning groggy and slower-moving than usual. I lurched through my apartment, ate some matzah, and eventually settled myself upon the porcelain throne while I turned on the shower. I simultaneously gained consciousness and scrolled down my Twitter feed—and then I encountered the above chart.

I knew not what to make of it. It had been some time since I heard Bonnie Tyler’s nasalized soft-rock warbling, some time since her 1983 worldwide super-hit had fondled my cochlea. I could not remember what it sounded like.

So (I had by this time risen, preparing to get into the shower), I went to my streaming music service, Rdio. I searched for, located, and played the song.

Dear reader, I listened to the entire thing. I followed along. The flowchart brought me to the song, as a sheep to pasture.

And now I have come into work and discovered that Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal—my own editor, my manager!—has maligned this fine if superficial meme genre, the song-as-flowchart. Alexis believes them to be “cleverisms,” little shots of pop cultural remixing meant to trigger a moment of frisson. Look at me, Alexis seems to imagine the song-as-flowchart consumer flaunting. I know of this song and I know of office culture’s propensity for charts! I am hip, culturally literate, and downright attractive! 

Meanwhile, thinks Alexis, they rob the song of its vim, its flavor, its song-ness.

Alexis may be right about the appeal of the song-as-flowchart (henceforth abbreviated SAF). But he is dead wrong, dangerously wrong, about how they work.

Here is the heart of Alexis’s argument:

This kind of metacontent has a fundamentally extractive relationship with the song/art that sits underneath it. This flowchart sticks its proboscis-like arrows right into the soul of the experience and extracts a cheap joke at the expense of the actual song qua the song. The emotion of a singer's voice? Gone. The timbre of the guitar? Gone. The actual feeling of listening to music? Also gone. 

Setting aside his seemingly synaesthetic reaction to the meme—apparently the essence of song, once inhaled by the nasalized flowchart, travels up its eustachian tubes and lodges itself in the chart’s sinuses—Alexis misunderstands here the entire history of Western music.

Alexis is arguing implicitly that to represent some aspect of a song is to deprive it of its song-ness. The SAF enters the room, spots Bonnie Tyler standing by the bruschetta, accosts her and—with a snort and a plop—converts her into a shareable image. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is no more, notwithstanding the 6 million physical singles it’s sold. It has become but a log in the social fires.

But to represent music visually is not to deprive it of its essential songness. The music does not die by being visualized, just as some zaftig Baroness did not die upon being painted. To represent music is simply to represent some aspect of it: to depict what’s happening in the sound of the music visually, such that we can better comprehend it, theorize about it, or simply have fun with it.

The most common form of music visualization? Sheet music: A highly symbolic account of what is required to perform a piece of music. Sheet music, like the prototypical SAF, can omit the emotion of a singer’s voice, the timbre of guitar, “the actual feeling of listening to music.” It does this because (a) for most of human history, we did not have the ability to magick the sound of things across borders geographical and political; and (b) it is a useful way to understand and recreate the song. For most musicians, a good score can more easily be rendered aural—and, thus, musical—than a good recording. Where a recording eludes the listener, always moving on, the sheet music stays concrete on the page. It instructs.

“But oh, oh,” some man, likely thatched, will complain. “Sheet music is formal, basically a recipe! It bears no similarities to this demonic JPEG.”

Not so, my hypothetical and grassy friend. Musicians themselves have long experimented with different ways to represent music visually. The 20th century was full of unconventional adaptations and proposed alterations. The American composer George Crumb arranges his conventional scores in circles, spirals, and patterns. Another composer, Hans Christian Steiner, fashions data visualizations (of sorts) as scores. Other artists have experimented online with alternate, moving visualizations of notes and pitch.

A George Crumb score (The University of Pennsylvania)

And while, surely, composers might sometimes explain to performers how to emote on certain lines—it is within their prerogative—they often do not, and many Baroque scores lack expression markings altogether. It is the performer’s art to interpret and, well, perform music that previously only existed as pictures on a page or screen. I’d even argue that the idea that representations of music should include such information as timbre or emotion is an error that’s made when we try and impose what a recording is like onto our idea of what a score should be.

Besides, visualizations like these don’t often lead us away from the music and turn poor, poor international smash hits sound into empty husks. As happened to me, they often lead us to the music. Socrates’s great criticism of writing, as I understand it, is that the alphabet and writing purported to be a technology of wisdom when it was, in fact, only a tool of reminding. He missed that it’s useful to be reminded: It encourages us to seek out the experience—if it’s still available—we’re being reminded about. And if it is no longer available, if it’s lost, it allows us to glimpse it, to see some part of it, as through a Kleenex darkly, that we might recreate it.