Designers and DJs who want to stand out


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Familiarity bias

As I already said in my PhD I had to work with blind users to design a web browser that would help them access the information on a web page easier. Basically read the web page more efficiently. The domain of designing systems for people with disabilities is part of a bigger area in IT (and beyond) called Human-Computer Interaction. In this domain, people research how they can create interfaces (web pages, apps, etc.) in ways that are easy to use effectively and efficiently.

Research so far has provided a number of different patterns that are followed widely and people recognize automatically. For example, if you have a question with a yes and no answer as buttons it makes more sense to colour the yes button green or blue and the no red. Mentally we have connected colours, places, sizes etc. with different attributes and we make the connection easier. That is why when someone wants you to buy a product, they will put a big button with buy on it and then provide the free option as a smaller link somewhere else.

This leads to many designs of interfaces to look quite similar. Designers who want to differentiate themselves try to deviate from these patterns and often fall victim to what is called familiarity bias. If you put for example the contact information of a website on the bottom but in the middle left area people will take more time to find that information. If you do so because you think you need to differentiate from others then you may end up with a highly unusable site and frustrated visitors that leave and never come back. But don’t worry. This is a blog about Tango so… Let’s get to it.

Cracking the code of… a memory

I was in a milonga where a famous tango DJ was playing. I have heard him before but I never remembered having an amazing time like I do with other DJs. I didn’t know why but this time I realized it! He was different from the others. He would play many tandas which would fit nicely together as songs but they would oftentimes contain songs that are widely known by other orchestras. How many times have you heard Malena or Una Carta from Canaro in a milonga? Not many. Well… when he plays, you are guaranteed to listen to such versions.

What is the problem with that I hear you say? Well… nothing if the version played is a good one but this music has been around for almost a century now and the fact that some versions of a song are preferred more by some orchestras than others could be a good hint. Could it be that we collectively got it wrong all these years? Let’s see.

In one of his tandas from Orchestra Tipica Victor (OTV), I heard him play Recuerdo. Yes… There is a version of Recuerdo from OTV. I was dancing to it and I immediately felt this strange sensation. I knew the melody… I love the melody of Recuerdo… but something was off. I couldn’t get it at that moment so when I went home I sat down, listened to it and started taking notes. I put it back to back with the most famous version of Pugliese and the one of Salgan which Pugliese himself admitted to be the best.

I started by analysing the bigger picture first. The way the parts of the melody were arranged. I didn’t need to go much further. You see… Recuerdo has 3 parts A B and C and the way OTV arranged them was AABBCC adding to this the fact that the two consecutive parts did not have significant changes in how they were played. For example, passing the melody from one to another instrument. This means that you start dancing the first part for 30 seconds and when you expect to have a change in the dynamic… in the melody… you get back the same thing on repeat for another 30 seconds. Finally, when the melody changes after 1 minute, you again have to dance it twice for another whole minute. Not to mention that once you danced the melody of A two times you never get to dance it again. This way the song loses one of the basic elements of repeatability and cyclical reference and becomes a bit stranger. Probably you can’t get a song to be more boring and strange than this.

HCI research, musicality and DJs

The design patterns you see all around you on web pages are not created by chance. There is a lot of research behind what you see. It’s not like someone decided today to paint all negative buttons red. The research has provided proof that this will be easier to understand by most people. Musicality is like the research that led to those design patterns. When you analyse the musicality of songs you can understand why some versions are preferred over others and what makes us feel in certain ways when we listen to each version. After almost 100 years of Tango, we have enough proof that musicality can indeed explain our collective wisdom and preferences.

Now as a DJ when you want to design Tandas and use versions of songs that are not widely played, ask yourself. Why is this so? Am I the first genius DJ to discover this amazing version? Or am I a designer who thinks it will create something amazingly novel that in the end will end up leaving frustrated users? It may be counterintuitive but the advice is that if you want to be a beloved DJ don’t use music that stands out. Use music that is widely known. So many people… so many years… can’t always be wrong! Trust the so far collective wisdom! That doesn’t mean that you should be discouraged to differentiate yourselves here and there but it doesn’t need to be on every tanda.

Finally, when a DJ has studied a bit of musicality can easily identify why some versions of songs are more popular than others. Musicality is like the key that can help you unlock all this magic that you feel when you listen to a song but you don’t know why and how it happens. It is like someone showing you the backstage of a magician and all the tricks they use. When you know them, you know how to use them to your advantage to provide a magical experience to your dancers.

Tonight’s Goodnight Tango

Tonight’s Goodnight Tango is of course the song mentioned and analysed in the text. It is Recuerdo from OTV. Maybe I got all this wrong. Maybe it’s just personal taste. But feel free to let me know what you think of this version compared to all the other ones.

So how about you? Did you ever have similar experiences with DJs? Are you a DJ looking to be different from others? How do you do that? Do you analyse or search in the arrangement of songs to see why some versions are more popular than others? Do you think that knowledge of musicality helps in becoming a better DJ or not?

Do you have something to say on the topic?

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2 responses to “Designers and DJs who want to stand out”

  1. davidtangotribe Avatar

    I’ve noticed this but didn’t have the background or inquisitiveness to understand it. Thank you for these insights. (And! Thank you for providing the text as well as the podcast.)

    1. Christos Kouroupetroglou Avatar

      Hi David.
      Thanks for the comment.
      I think looking into how music is arranged and played can help us understand a lot better many more things than just how to dance it. It’s like cracking the code that musicians use to play / manipulate our emotion / reactions. And it goes far beyond Tango music. You can transfer and reflect on so many other genres.
      As for the text of the podcast… it’s funny that you mention it like this… because actually I am not recording any podcast. I am just writing the text. The voice you listen to is just a text-to-speech plugin that takes the text and speaks it out… making it look like it is a podcast!

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