Art of Noise

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Slick Rick was robbed.

Matt Daniels created an infographic that was nearly omnipresent in my Facebook feed for a couple days. Using the number of unique words to plot some of hip-hops greatest lyricists and using Moby Dick and Shakespeare as guideposts, he highlighted who rocks the mic like a living thesaurus and, well, who does not. But Slick Rick wasn't included. Nonsense. Robbery. Insult upon ignorance.

In addition to "The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop," Matt Daniels has graphed the etymology of the term "shorty" and several Outkast data sets. - MATT DANIELS
  • Matt Daniels
  • In addition to "The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop," Matt Daniels has graphed the etymology of the term "shorty" and several Outkast data sets.

Still, the chart highlighted the verbal expertise of some of my favorites in the game. Wu Tang Clan members, Kool Keith and the Roots rank very high (Melville zone), while Outkast and the Beastie Boys rank lower, in the realm of Shakespeare. No surprises, really, but the chart shows graphically why this English major might be picking those folks as his favorites.

That's the beauty of analyzing music via measured graphs. Music infographics lay out what is special about big trends and tiny data sets, elucidating why we do or do not enjoy the sounds coming from our stereos or why some records succeed and others fail. They also offer viewers the chance to learn about sonic minutiae in a manner that's more accessible than spending hours reading a rock historian's 1000-page book on the matter or listening to friends who think they know everything about music blather on. They simplify and provide a chance to complicate our understanding of music.

Here are a few of my favorite music infographics -- and a bit about why I think they are worth looking at more closely.

Andrew Kuo is the grandmaster of music infographics. He's one part beautiful design, one part esoteric music data, one part quirky highly personal analysis and one part just hilarious. His infographics are serene and crisp, seriously examining the quirkiest of recorded music's quirks. His original blog, created before the New York Times brought him on board as a regular contributor, was named for the second shortest NBA player ever, Earl Boykins, but he is the Dikembe Mutombo of transforming popular culture into charts. Here's his most recent NYT contribution:

Striking design is a hallmark of Andrew Kuo's musical data and opinion charts. - ANDREW KUO FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • Andrew Kuo for the New York Times
  • Striking design is a hallmark of Andrew Kuo's musical data and opinion charts.
The new wave of app advertising? Sonos' "Working Jams" flowchart aims to help you find the ideal professional soundtrack. - SONOS
  • Sonos
  • The new wave of app advertising? Sonos' "Working Jams" flowchart aims to help you find the ideal professional soundtrack.

Sometimes, you just want someone to tell you what to do. Flowcharts exist to simplify decision-making with just a modicum of input from readers. Some of the most fun but flawed infographics are flow charts, but the one excerpted here, created by Sonos (an app that is meant to put all your music services into one navigable space), is designed to help you select music to work to. No need to listen to office chatter when someone has sorted that workaday detail out for you. 

While Matt Daniels may look at the quantity of words, Nickolay Tamm instead focuses on a few very specific words. By examining the popularity of keywords of Billboard-charting songs, he found that some words were used more frequently than others. Unsurprisingly, "love" is at the top of the list. But even that most uttered lyrical word choice experiences ups and downs. As his chart demonstrates, the Bush years were hard on love. But it looks like it's been making a comeback in the last few years.

Love has its ups and downs, lyrically, as demonstrated in this Nickolay Tamm chart. -  - NICKOLAY TAMM
  • Nickolay Tamm
  • Love has its ups and downs, lyrically, as demonstrated in this Nickolay Tamm chart.

Want to dive deeply into the history of The Beatles? There's an infographic -- or a few, really -- for that. A Kickstarter project, Visualizing the Beatles, aims to create a book of full of Fab Four information, presented in simple ways. Designers John Pring and Rob Thomas released a sneak peek to build momentum on the project. And it's a beautiful design that truly lets people quickly get information about the band without having to read.

Want to see more? Pinterest has boards dedicated to designs about records, listening habits, pop genres and more. Fast Company's Infographic of the Day often showcases high-quality infographics. Rock icon David Byrne actually introduced last year's The Best American Infographics, and, fittingly, there are a few great music-themed examples in the book (The Popification of Top 40 is really, really good). Good design is all around, apparently, and sometimes it even lets me appreciate my favorite performing art -- music -- with my eyes instead of my ears.

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