Archive by Author

The specificity of expertise: For whom is the clave pattern the “key” to salsa music?

L. Getz, S. Barton, M. Kubovy (2014). Acta Psychologica; Volume 152, October 2014.

Each Latin salsa music style is associated with a characteristic clave pattern that constitutes an essential structure for performers. In this article we asked what types of expertise are needed to detect the correct salsa–clave pairing. Using two clave patterns (the 3–2 and 2–3 son clave) and three manipulated alternatives, we asked listeners to choose the correct clave pattern for a variety of bombacalypsomambo and merengueexcerpts. The results of Studies 1 and 2 show that listeners unfamiliar with salsa were unable to detect the correct salsa–clave pairing. Listeners who had some music training or were familiar with salsa detected the need for syncopation but not the specific pairing. Only musicians well-acquainted with salsa correctly detected the salsa–clave pairing. Studies 3 and 4 showed that incorrect choices were not due to an inability to distinguish between the alternatives: both adults and five-year-olds could easily tell apart the various patterns we used. We conclude that the distinction between the 2–3 and 3–2 claves is not inherent in the music itself, but rather is a convention to be learned through exposure and training. We discuss the results using an analogy to language learning. link to paper


The Human, the Mechanical, and the Spaces in between: Explorations in Human-Robotic Musical Improvisation

S. Barton (2013).  Published in the Proceedings of the Ninth Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment International Conference (AIIDE 2013)


HARMI (Human and Robotic Musical Improvisation) is a software and hardware system that enables musical robots to improvise with human performers. The goal of the system is not to replicate human musicians, but rather to explore the novel kinds of musical expression that machines can produce. At the same time, the system seeks to create spaces where humans and robots can communicate with each other in a common language. To help achieve the former, ideas from contemporary compositional practice and music theory were used to shape the system’s expressive capabilities. In regard to the latter, research from the field of cognitive psychology was incorporated to enable communication, interaction, and understanding between human and robotic performers. The system was partly developed in conjunction with a residency at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago, IL, where a group of human improvisers performed with the robotic instruments. The system represents an approach to the question of how humans and robots can interact and improvise in musical contexts. This approach purports to highlight the unique expressive spaces of humans, the unique expressive spaces of machines, and the shared spaces between the two. link to paper

Opus Palladianum: voice and drums

Winter, 2013

2-channel recording; 7:00

I am fascinated by organizations that consist of contrasting elements. I am interested in the surprise that such juxtapositions create, and the musical forms that result from their statement. I am interested in the musical parameters that contribute to such percepts. The piece explores kinds of contrast, from those that are clear, such as the juxtaposition of opposites (soft, loud), to those that are ambiguous, such as the juxtaposition of synthetic and intimate. Here, one of the main ways that contrast is created is by presenting the voice in a variety of rhythmic, harmonic, and technological settings. Percussion elements are treated similarly, which results in a variety of rhythms, meters and genre references. The piece also explores how one can create unity and connections among such disparate elements through lower-level musical parameters, such as rhythm, timbre and harmony, as well as through higher-level musical associations, such as means of production (acoustic, electronic) and genre. As a result, there is connection despite heterogeneity; there is fluidity despite disruption; there is peace despite agitation; there is continuity despite discontinuity.

Breeding in Pieces

Summer – Fall 2009

2 channel recording

Breeding in pieces combines compositional and production practices from rock and electroacoustic music. The piece creates (dis)continuity and form through higher-level feature (here, genre) contrast. Here, compositional and production practices from rock and electroacoustic music are combined and contrasted to create a diverse set of textures and relationships. As a result, each section of the piece can be represented on a continuum defined by poles of synthesis and preservation. In regard to synthesis, one musical world is filtered through the other from a variety of angles and proportions (and vice versa). In regard to preservation, the piece recognizes that commingling sometimes has the unfortunate by-product of dulled edges. Thus, the piece presents gestures as if in their natural habitats. The extent to which the music preserves these habitats speaks to the gestures themselves as well as the surrounding contexts (that which is implicit in and external to the piece). Almost all of the music is generated from the same progression / theme, creating unity among a diverse group of elements.

Figure <-> Ground

two channel recording; 2:39

Fall 2013

Figure <-> Ground interprets the idea of negative space in the context of rhythm and time.  In one formulation, the subjects are percussive sound points and the negative spaces are the durations that connect those sound points.  As the piece progresses, the elements that constitute a sound point are increasingly displaced in time, filling adjacent negative spaces.  The original metric positions and rhythmic identities become more ambiguous as a result, inviting us to both find boundaries between a subject and its negative spaces and to superimpose remembered structure on an increasingly diffuse texture.  The idea of negative space is also explored in rhythm by sonifying sound points and silencing intermediary durations, and then sonifying intermediary durations and silencing sound points.  Negative space is further interpreted in the context of rhythmic stylistic conventions.  The rhythmic configurations in the latter half of the piece are beat-based but also convey quickly-changing meters, syncopations, cross-rhythms and an avoidance of repetition on smaller time scales.  This sort of rhythmic expression inhabits a space between subject-points defined by contemporary Western art music and popular music.

Human-Robot Improvisation

I have been developing software that allows humans to improvise with the robots built by EMMI and the Music, Perception and Robotics Lab at WPI.  The bots have interacted with some wonderful performers:

Performance at Clark 2o-21 with Matt Jaskot, Peter Sulski and CADI / modular percussion instruments, Oct 30, 2013

Performance excerpt 2 at the Urban Canyon with Chris Fisher-Lochhead and Jenna Lyle, July 2013

Performance excerpt 1 at the Urban Canyon with Chris Fisher-Lochhead and Jenna Lyle, July 2013

Rehearsal 3 with Chris Fisher-Lochhead, Matt Orenstein and Alex Temple at HCL Chicago, July 2013

Rehearsal 2 with Chris Fisher-Lochhead, Matt Orenstein and Alex Temple at HCL Chicago, July 2013

Rehearsal 1 with Ammie Brod and Matt Orenstein at HCL Chicago, July 2013

Understanding Musical (dis)continuity

S. Barton (2012).  Dissertation.  Published by ProQuest.


While our experience of musical (dis)continuity is often powerful and clear, articulating the relations that inspire such percepts is not always easy. Part of the reason for this is that our experience of musical (dis)continuity is influenced by a number of physical, cognitive and perceptual factors, and thus is complex. I will therefore explore (dis)continuity’s character by applying ideas from psychology, music theory, algorithmic information theory, and statistics to a variety of musical compositions, including my own. These explorations will describe (dis)continuity as primarily dependent on five key elements: how we bring entities into relations, holistic associations, perceived (dis)similarity of intra- and inter-entity attributes and relational structures (which we can describe in terms of type and degree); hierarchical organization; and context.  These various elements work in isolation and in combination depending on the particular musical situation. Because (dis)continuity is multi-faceted in this way, no singular approach will illuminate the full extent of its richness and complexity. Instead, we must be able to approach (dis)continuity from a number of different perspectives; the one that we choose depends on the specific musical scenario. I will therefore incorporate ideas from the aforementioned disciplines, including structure mapping, transformational distance, and parametric dimensions, to describe, represent and eventually quantify the nature of these characteristics and how they interact to produce (dis)continuity percepts. Such a varied set of tools, which can be used in isolation or in combination, will allow us to describe (dis)continuity in a wide variety of musical styles.  This may prove useful not only in identifying commonalities between stylistically diverse musics but also in providing an analytic approach to musics that are resistant to traditional tools. Such flexible, yet rigorous, approach will allow us to illuminate the nature of (dis)continuous relations so that we can analyze and compose (dis)continuous music more thoughtfully. link to paper

Solar House

Spring, 2013.  A piece I composed for a video documenting the construction of Solatrium, a solar house project that WPI helped to design and build.

from here to there


for the musical robots AMI and CARI; 5:00

From Here to There explores the transformational distance between contrasting entities. The idea of transformational distance, borrowed from psychology and algorithmic information theory, measures the similarity between entities as a function of the list of instructions that is required to transform entity A into entity B. The shorter and simpler the list, the more similar the entities are; the longer and more complex the list, the more dissimilar the entities are. The piece explores how such (dis)similarities affect the perception of musical (dis)continuity by juxtaposing and morphing between four themes. The piece explicitly measures inter-theme contrast by exhibiting the number of steps it takes to transform one theme into another. While we can interpret the idea of transformational steps in a variety of ways, in this work, I consider the number of compositional steps it takes to transform one entity into another. These steps are designed to be perceptually relevant and musically meaningful. In additional to transformational distance, ideas are expanded, manipulated, and developed according to compositional intuition and aesthetic considerations. Thus, an artistic context surrounds an experimental exploration.

Push for Position


for saxophone, bassoon, PAM, MARIE and electronics

Push for Position comprises a number of core trajectories that are defined by sound source (in this case, human-played instruments, robotic instruments, and synthesizers), high-level associations, and thematic material. These trajectories intertwine with each other so that when one rises to the surface, the others are eclipsed. In addition, the trajectories influence each other so that when one becomes prominent (the speaker), the others (the listeners) incorporate features of that illuminated gesture, which are exhibited when those listeners eventually speak. Thus, the piece has memory: its components learn from and influence each other. The result is a collection of highly discontinuous moments that become increasingly relatable as the trajectories of the work interact over time. In regard to the juxtaposition of trajectories, that is, when one speaker interrupts another, (dis)continuities are created according to feature (dis)agreement. An entity will share some features with its neighbors, but it will also exhibit unique characteristics. The balance between shared and contrasting features creates various kinds of (dis)continuity. In conjunction with the aforementioned type of organization, the piece’s proportional durations are partially governed by contextual identity. A gesture that is interpreted as unrelated to the rest of the piece may be the longest (durationally) and vice versa. Thus, the piece’s form experiments with notions of proportional aesthetics. Such conclusions are, of course, a matter of subjective judgment, so the listener plays an important role in determining the piece’s form.

Street Meetings

composed with Steven Kemper, Fall 2010

interactive installation for the musical robots PAM and CADI

Often, we shape our behavior in response to the ambient noise created by machines.  This piece explores a reconfiguration of this type of interaction: here, machines respond to the ambient noise created by people (and other machines).
There is an open microphone that invites passersby to utter songs, stray notes, speeches and unintelligible nonsense.  PAM is always polite to offer a response to such gestures.  The installation also monitors the ambient noise of the street and responds with rhythmic and melodic gestures that complement this contextual input.

Drum Circle

composed with Steven Kemper, Winter-Spring 2010

for the robotic instruments MADI, CADI and assorted found percussion instruments

Drum Circle features the robotic instruments MADI and CADI playing a diverse percussion ensemble that includes beer bottles, woodblocks, metal bowls and traditional drums in the woods of Virginia. In some sense, the colocation of machine and nature strikes us as a juxtaposition of things that cannot coexist. Indeed, machine / nature interactions often result in dramatic transformations where nature is displaced to make way for some unlike object(s) of human will. This is not such a story: here, the robots tuck peacefully into the landscape. This contextualization allows us to see and hear robots not as imperialist amalgams of electromagnets and plastic, but rather as agents that are governed by the kinetic and acoustic characteristics of our physical world that can cooperatively interact and coexist with surrounding objects. The lines between nature and machine are made fuzzy. Compositionally, the piece integrates unpredictable physical systems, machine listening and algorithmic responses. Over the course of the work, musical ideas are stated, absorbed, re-interpreted and stated again to create a cyclic yet developing story.

A video of the work is featured on the eco sono DVD Agents Against Agency

…for steps that grow when climbed

Fall 2008 – Winter 2009, rev. 2011

for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, tom-toms, marimba, piano, viola, double bass and electronics; 7:30

for steps that grow when climbed looks at (dis)continuity as syncopation within longer durations. The piece’s structure is characterized by perpetually expanding sections (thus, the title), with each section articulated by a discontinuous moment. At the same time, movement and (dis)continuity are also voiced within sections. As a result, the piece illustrates how multiple continuities can simultaneously occur on different hierarchical levels, which can be interrupted and restarted to create various kinds of discontinuities. One of the ways that the piece achieves these (dis)continuities is by juxtaposing the acoustic ensemble with electronically-processed versions of its gestures. The piece also asks the acoustic ensemble to mimic computer processes, such as algorithmic duration alteration, to further illustrate how human and electronic elements can interact. In this way, the electronic interprets human gestures, and the humans interpret electronic gestures. These moments of synthesis are juxtaposed with moments that are purely acoustic and purely electronic. The result is a variety of relations that are characterized by different distances relative to a continuum defined by the poles of acoustic (human) and electronic (computer).

The Arc of Braided Movement

Fall 2007 – Winter 2008

for flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello; 7:00

The piece’s motion is at times analogous to points along a pendular arc; directionally independent vectors occur in a general context of acceleration and deceleration (temporal structure is also exposed to accelerating and decelerating forces). My interest in the oscillation between coordination and dislocation creates a “braiding” of instrumental lines (although sharper juxtaposition is also a device of interest). In terms of the music’s grooves, I find the rhythms physically compelling but “tweaked” enough to sidestep the type of overt periodicity that is typically associated with groove-oriented sound. The formal organization of the piece represents a kind of porous sectionalism where clearly defined moments are strung together by recurring ideas.

Decay to Primitive

Fall 2007

4 channel recording

In my experience, the texture present inspires meditative reflection. Alternatively and / or relatedly, this texture nudges one’s state of consciousness gently enough away from “equilibrium” (that state of consciousness to which one naturally reverts) that one could mistake the texture-induced state for equilibrium after some amount of time. The referencing of “true” equilibrium from the perspective of the texture-induced state creates an interesting perceptual contradiction. I believe this phenomena is enabled by the music’s density. The second section is an augmentation of a single event in the first section, with sonic content exchanged.

Assemblage of Gears

Fall 2006 – Winter 2007

for flute, clarinet, piano, electric guitar and double bass

It seems that the ways in which we have come to work and play have propelled us away from our physicality. I find physical experience can act as a panacea to the frustration of both existential angst and the skeptical approach to the questions of life. Music can be a wonderful conduit for physical experience.

I am interested in rhythmic complexity. I enjoy the tension between coordination and subsequent dislocation of rhythmic events. The potential to create unique textures through the combination of varied superimposition rates is exciting to me. Machines can help with this.

Physicality does not preclude complexity.

Etchings in Ice

Fall 2005 – Spring 2006

for 3 disklaviers, string ensemble and 8 speakers / electronics

Etchings in Ice is inspired in form and content by the sport of figure skating. The piece as a whole represents the preparation and presentation of a figure skating routine, the movements symbolize practice of the sport’s more prominent skills. For example, Mental Preparation and Refocus represent the type of skating found in a warm up, or between elements. Held Position represents the gliding element, A Moment Away From The Ground represents the footwork element. Within the abundance of possibility that this metaphor offers for creative expression, I chose to explore ideas of contrast; human / machine, slow / fast, long / short, flowing / jagged, soft / loud and electronic / acoustic.


ummer – Fall 2005

for guitar and computer; 9:30

The idea for Antiprism was inspired during a session with a percussionist friend of mine in which we were exploring the sounds of traditional instruments played with alternate techniques. At one point, the percussionist began striking a ride cymbal with a soft mallet and at the same time, partially muting the cymbal in different locations with his other hand. The result was a strikingly diverse collection of sounds. The potential latent within this single instrument was immediately revealed to me. It also was apparent how delicate component frequencies are and how easily they are lost in the complex combination of spectra involved in ensemble playing. I decided it was of paramount importance to maintain, or further, amplify the subtle indigenous sounds of the instrument so I decided to create a solo piece. My strategy, in keeping with the ideal of using “organic” sounds, was to separate the frequency spectrum into 8 “buckets” and at the same time, control the temporal expression of these buckets by way of a delay based system. I constructed such a system in Max/MSP and discovered the program had instrumental applications beyond that of the ride cymbal. I am composing a suite of pieces using this program, the one featured here features the electric guitar. The frequency parameters and delay intervals are programmable; much of the timbral and rhythmic content is created as a result of alterations of these inputs. The piece, through this program, purports to explore and reveal the “hidden” sounds that are typically relegated to a complementary role in more common spectral configurations.

Birth of a Machine

Winter – Spring 2005

4 channel recording; 11:30

Birth of a Machine is a story about mechanical soul searching. The first section is a gestation period; a stage for pre-developmental processes. The second section represents the fruition of this development as numerous fully-formed ideas strive for prominence through various cycles of combination and isolation. Musically, rhythm is explored through perpetual tempo change and polytempo in the context of an explicit but fleeting pulse. The majority of the sonic material present was derived from the recordings of a single instrument.


Winter 2005

4 channel recording; 6:22

The idea of the piece is one of stasis; of the avoidance of assertive and dramatic gestures. A small number of sound sournces linked by continuous paths creates a form without distinct segments. The interest lies in the subtleties of this journey voiced by pitch change, timbral difference and rhythmic interaction. The music requests attention in a non-controntational manner; without consideration to detail the meaning will be missed.

other works

Process in Autumn (Fall 2004) for flute, viola and piano; 3:00

Clearing of Path (Winter – Spring 2004) for guitar, drumset and recording; 8:00

Race of Man and Things (Summer – Fall 2004) for Electric Organ, 2 Marimbas, Glockenspiel, acoustic bass, bass clarinet, tenor sax and percussion

View from the Woods (2003) for piano, celesta, marimba, acoustic bass, timpani, trumpet, organ, percussive organ, prepared piano, electric guitar and tape

Chair (Spring 2004) for computer and QWERTY keyboard

Bees Turn to Flowers (Spring 2004) for for computer and QWERTY keyboard

Helix (Fall 2003) 2 channel recording

Seven (Fall 2003) 2 channel recording

Songbook Vol. 2 (2001-2002) for guitar, bass, voice and percussion

Evast (1999-2000) for 2 acoustic guitars

Songbook Vol. 1 (Fall 1998-Winter 1999) for voice, guitar, bass, piano, drum set and electronics

Television (the Thief) (Winter 1999) 2 channel recording

Shuffled (Winter 1999) 2 channel recording

5 to 9 (Spring 1998) for piano, re-orchestrated for 2 electric guitars, electric bass and drum kit

Tattered and Drone (Fall 1998) for marimba, xylophone, electric guitar and recording

Stack (Fall 1998) for 2 electric guitars, electric bass and drum kit

Chameleon (Spring 1997) for cello, recording and mixing board

5 Short Pieces: Electric Drip, The Hunt, Shuffled, Dance with Weakened Legs, Return to Moscow (Fall 1996 )2 channel recording

Aquarium (Fall 1996) for keyboard and recording

Early Daze (Fall 1996) 2 channel recording