Imagine for a moment, a world without iTunes, without Spotify, or without CDs. What has become de rigueur for so many was a distant fantasy back in 1960 when a group of musicians and computer engineers came together to make music.
This crazy idea of merging computers, music, and sound was revolutionary 50 years ago, according to Andrew Nelson, associate professor of management and author of the new book The Sound of Innovation: Stanford and the Computer Music Revolution. So wild, in fact one professor lost his job over it (but got it back).
“There were a lot of moments in history where this could have gone sideways,” Nelson said. A musician himself, Nelson earned his undergraduate degree in 1998 in Music, Science, and Technology at Stanford University, the scene of the music revolution detailed in his book.
“It’s only by bringing together groups—from very different backgrounds, very different cultures—that you get something transformative like digital music.”
In the book, Nelson details the founding of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics or CCRMA (pronounced “karma”), including an anecdote about professor John Chowning, CCRMA’s cofounder who lost (and regained) his job. CCRMA went on to form a unique and robust collaboration with the keyboard and synthesizer maker Yamaha, among other accomplishments in the digital sound and music landscape.
Nelson described an interest in entrepreneurship and the origin of new technologies, businesses, and new kinds of organizations as inspiration for the research.
“The power of an interdisciplinary approach is that no matter where someone is coming from, they have something to contribute,” he said. “I teach my entrepreneurship students that. In that sense, it opens up innovation as something that’s not limited to engineers. Instead, it’s something different people from different backgrounds accomplish collectively.”
The book is a culmination of a long-term idea for Nelson. Amusingly, he first pitched the idea for the Sound of Innovation for his PhD dissertation, but the timing wasn’t right. Before the iPod and iTunes—and in the wake of Napster being shut down and college students being sued for illegal file downloading—an advisor told him digital music was a “dead space” with little to study. So Nelson picked up biotechnology and shelved the digital sound project.
“It’s a bit of a vindication,” Nelson quipped. “Sixteen years later, digital media and digital music are simply part of everyday life. We take for granted that we can access our entire music libraries anytime and anywhere.”
Music services like Spotify, Pandora, and the like are becoming ubiquitous. These strides are due in part to renegade thinkers like those making digital music at Stanford in the 1960s.
“It highlights the role of universities in the innovation process,” Nelson added. “Yet it wasn’t the university acting on its own. It was in collaboration, critically, with groups and people outside of the university. Ultimately, I think this work shows another role that a research university can play, not only in educating students and conducting research, but also in launching entirely new technologies and entirely new fields. That’s pretty cool.”
The book’s corresponding YouTube page features dozens of examples of digital sound in action, including this cell phone symphony.
What’s next for Nelson? He plans to explore the drivers behind the resurgence of older technologies. In particular, he is interested in why vintage 1970s synthesizers and vinyl records are hot items among 20-somethings in 2015.