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What Happens When Music Sampling Goes Digital

Graduate Center student Mason Youngblood (Psychology—Cognitive and Comparative Psychology) typically studies birdsong. But something about a methodology often used in his field led him to apply it to another kind of sound: music sampling.
Music sampling can most readily be found in hip-hop and electronic songs. Artists borrow snippets, beats, or hooks from other songs in order to create their own. Take, for example, Kanye West and JAY-Z — they each borrowed from Sister Nancy’s song “Bam Bam” to create “Famous” and “Bam,” respectively.
While geographic regions, like California’s Compton and New York’s Brooklyn, served as the primary means for such cultural transmissions in the ’80s and ’90s, Youngblood argues that the internet shifted collaboration. Using a methodology called network-based diffusion, he set about to learn more, publishing his results in the prestigious journal PLOS One.
Graduate Center: What does music sampling teach us about cultural transmission?
Youngblood: It’s a good research model because of the amount of data we have available on music sampling, as well as the fact that cases of music sampling are easy to identify, which is not always the case for cultural traits. Usually, there’s not a transmission record, or the presence of cultural traits is harder to identity. Having both of those things in one place is helpful.
GC: How else would culture be transmitted?
Youngblood: In humans, the different modes of cultural transmission are basically limitless. Information is culturally transmitted every time you read a book. In other species, it’s clearer that it exclusively occurs when behavioral observation occurs, but in humans all bets are off.
GC: How does collaboration happen online?
Youngblood: It’s the communities where people meet and interact. Artists on Soundcloud often find each other’s music and message each other. Things like streaming platforms — like Spotify and Bandcamp — might impact the cultural transmission of music tastes, but they probably aren’t changing the cultural transmission of music sampling much because they aren’t impacting the community of music producers. The results indicate that the transmission of music samples still primarily appears to be occurring through collaborations between artists as opposed to artists independently discovering samples online.
GC: What are the broader implications if this now takes place digitally?
Youngblood: You would expect it to increase the kind of musical diversity you experience in local music scenes, which has definitely happened here in New York. Even now in the experimental club community, you’ll hear music from Brazil, China, South Africa; 10 or 20 years ago, you mostly would’ve heard house and techno.
GC: What follows after this study? 
Youngblood: I’m planning on doing a follow-up study about whether or not there’s conformity or anti-conformity bias happening. Are individual artists more or less likely to use a music sample if it’s already being heavily used by other artists? For that, I’m using a simulation-based method from archaeology, which has been really interesting, but I’m still working on tweaking the methods and everything, and it hasn’t been written up yet. I’m really excited about that project. 
GC: Speaking about your methodology, why did you choose to use network-based diffusion analysis for this particular study?
Youngblood: I discovered that method because I primarily do animal behavior research. People have been using that method to research the cultural transmission of behavior in birds and in whales and in chimpanzees. People hadn’t really applied it to humans yet, probably because of the fact that there aren’t very many data sets like this, where you have access to a social network and behaviors spreading through time. I knew that the data was out there, and it seemed like a perfect mixing of a really nice new method and a data set that hasn’t been used before.
GC: What do you hope readers take away from this study?
Youngblood: I guess two things: One is that the internet might be enhancing human interaction rather than transforming it. It’s that idea that the same kinds of cultural transmission mechanisms are probably at play with the internet, and are just expanded and heightened and made a bit more complicated as opposed to being completely changed. The other thing is the value in interdisciplinary research, so the value in trying to apply methods in one field to a data set traditionally used by another field. Not being strictly limited by the methods that are traditionally used to research a particular topic.

Submitted on: MAR 28, 2019

Category: General GC News | Psychology | Student News