He blinded me with non-linear music theory

First of all, just take a look at this and then we’ll talk some more:

Okay, now you have the background around which this post revolves.

I sometimes play trivia at a restaurant near my house and every time the category happens to be science, the whole room erupts with the distinctive tone of Thomas Dolby’s voice reiterating the word in his epically fabulous early 80s hit. 

“It was a flippant song that I wrote,” Dolby told me standing in the middle of Snell Library a couple weeks ago. He was on campus to give a lecture on Monday morning, but that Sunday he was touring the library as groups of sleep-deprived gamers vaguely reeled after a weekend of intense coding and creating for Global Game Jam.

Dolby had the honor of introducing the final products to the gamers themselves as they wildly munched through the largest buffet of Chinese food take-out I’ve ever seen. But before that, I and a couple of students from NUTV cornered the one-time pop star for an impromptu interview.

Dolby told us that in addition to his forays into music video stardom, he is also an electronic music composer, producer, and programmer. Actually, it’s all these things that he’s much more interested in and more accurately define him. She Blinded Me With Science was just a kind of accident, he said.

MTV was the new big thing and it had become common knowledge that getting a song on screen pretty much sealed the deal for top Billboard rating and a spot on the radio. So he drew up a story board and presented it to his producers. They approved it and then, unsurprisingly, asked for the song. He wrote it over the following weekend and the rest is history.

But while SBWS may be Dolby’s claim to mainstream fame, it’s his intellectual interest in music that I found more compelling when we talked. “Music had been so linear for decades,” he told us. “But new environments were starting to appear that were much more in-the-moment, with less of a story arc…and it seemed to me that to enhance that music required something more than a linear use of music. You needed some way to do it interactively.”

So he and some collaborators developed a new file format called “Rich Music Format” that could play small chunks of music with high fidelity. He also developed a “mini-synthesizer” called Beatnik to play those files. And as I said in a quick post on Friday, that synthesizer is installed in almost all of our mobile phones these days and is responsible for the impossible-to-forget Nokia ring tone.

This tiny file type could now be stored in various places around a virtual environment and called up at whatever point a user happened to encounter it. So, imagine you’re playing an internet based game. It’s one of those exploratory games where you wander around a world and basically create the storyline as you go. The game doesn’t know when you’ll get where so it needs to be at the ready to play any associated music or sound as soon as you encounter it. Enter Beatnik and RMF files.

Dolby has dabbled in a bit of game-making of his own. In the most notable case, he developed a game to promote an album he released in 2011. Both are called “A Map of the Floating City” and the game’s objective is to successfully steer oneself to the North Pole, which is the only habitable place left on earth after climate change has wreaked its awful havoc. Players are invited to interact with each other and form tribes, as they do, they earn the ability to download music samples from Dolby’s album.

Lucky for Dolby, people took kindly to the game and started talking about it and its outcomes in online chatrooms before he even finished making it. “They had conspiracy theories about the game and I would lurk around the chatrooms and if something was a cool idea I would just print it and it became the truth,” he said. In this way the players defined their own destiny. Pretty cool.