Ge Wang has regretted spending too much time coding and playing StarCraft, but he has never regretted playing a second of music.
He is the mastermind behind the music app start-up Smule, which has released a number of wildly successful apps, including “Ocarina,” “Magic Piano” and “I Am T-Pain.” Dedicated to sharing his love of music and pushing the boundaries of computer music, Wang is also an assistant professor of music and, by courtesy, of computer science. He also finds time to stay involved with a number of musical groups on campus, including the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk) and Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra (MoPho).
Wang’s first exposure to music came when he was living in Beijing with his grandparents.
“My grandmother loved Beijing opera, my grandfather loved Western classical music, and since both were well versed in their respective musical loves, there was always music happening at home,” he said.
Following this initial stimulus, Wang started playing the accordion and the electric guitar. In high school he stumbled into working with music and computers.
“I was writing little ditties, and it just seemed really fun to write music with computers,” Wang said.
He didn’t have any technical experience or programming knowledge at the time, but he made use of whatever notation and production software he could get his hands on, whether it was shareware, freeware or cracked to remove copy protections.
In college, Wang chose to study computer science at Duke University, which he credits to his interest in video games.
“It seemed to me that the one thing more fun than playing video games was making them,” he said. “Software is a good way to express ideas you may have, and it’s easy to get together people around the world to use it. That’s magical.”
Though he had wanted to somehow combine music and computer science in his studies, Wang didn’t realize how he could do so until he took an electronic music class his junior year. Shortly thereafter, he heard a composition by Paul Lansky called “Tables Clear,” which inspired him to pursue computer music in his graduate studies.
“Lansky recorded sounds in the kitchen, from pots and pans to children screaming, and then somehow transformed them so that they magically self-organized into this music,” he said. “It was something you couldn’t make without computers and I knew after hearing it that I wanted to learn how to do it.”
After completing his graduate studies at Princeton, Wang applied for an assistant professor position at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) in early 2007.
“I had known how instrumental Stanford has been in the short history of computer music,” he said. “CCRMA is a place for serendipitously awesome stuff to happen, and the people at CCRMA set the tone for me to move forward.”
One such step forward was founding the iOS music software developer Smule in 2008, which Wang undertook with one of his graduate students, Jeffrey Smith ’89 M.S. ’89 Ph.D. ’13. Though Wang was already simultaneously working on a number of different projects, he was drawn in by the potential academic and social benefits of Smule.
“From a researcher’s point of view, to truly study mobile music, you have to study it from a large scale — in the hundreds of thousands or millions — so a startup made sense,” he said.
Wang also hoped Smule would increase the accessibility of music. Frustrated by the current “few-to-many” state of music making, where a few people are creating music and most people are consuming it, he envisions a future where making music is more widespread.
The main difficulty in realizing this goal lies in the barriers that keep people from making and sharing their music. Wang thinks social pressure is the biggest culprit.
“People either consider themselves to be a musician or not,” he said. “But, as Picasso said, ‘Everyone is born an artist,’ and I really do believe that.”
“As children, we don’t have much inhibition to try new things or be embarrassed, so therefore there is no failure,” Wang added. “At some point, people start classifying themselves, and they almost sell themselves short. I’m wondering if there’s a way to undo that.”
Wang speculates that fear of negative or insincerely positive feedback holds people back from sharing their music.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if the conditions could be set so that you would feel much freer about making music?” he said. “People sing alone in the car or in the shower. How can we get people to socially share that?”
Current Smule app users are already a part of Wang’s strategy to help people get over the initial hump of making music: presenting it as a game in an anonymous setting.
“It’s like benignly tricking people into making music,” he said. “People may think musical instruments are for specialists, but everyone can play a game. Music is human, music is social, and once you have it, you’ll want more.”
Music apps are varied and plenty, but the Smule apps stand out because of Wang’s musical philosophy in sculpting the user interaction. Aside from stellar graphics and the gaming mechanics built into the apps, Wang also makes sure to not shortchange the music-making experience.
“We don’t want to lose that true expression,” he said. “There’s a balance between ease of entry into the experience and leaving enough room for personal expression.”
Drawing from that philosophy, many Smule apps set up a balance between the human and machine by hinting to users how to play certain songs, without penalizing them for stepping outside of the guidelines. Wang compared the structure to “Rock Band,” which he feels is more rigid and less personal. The main difference in Smule’s approach, he argued, is that the app fully preserves the user’s music rather than encouraging perfect imitation of a predetermined piece of music.
Wang is also cognizant of the dangers of instant gratification, which technology often provides. Mastering an instrument requires hundreds or thousands of hours of diligent practice, and he doesn’t want to remove the effort from learning. He described the apps as more like a “gateway drug” — a way to give users the feeling that playing music is worthwhile.
“If it weren’t for a vision, you can’t really justify the process of going through it,” he said. “Hopefully we can still instill this sense that if you put more time into it, you can get better at it. In the end, it’s up to the person. We’re just making it easier for people to get pumped about doing these things in the first place.”
In addition to his work with Smule, Wang is also involved with computer music research at CCRMA, where he studies new possibilities in music due to technology.
He pointed out that computer music is not about recreating existing types of music with computers, and will not replace traditional music. Instead, the intersection of music and technology combines elements of the past and future.
“There’s so much room for everything to coexist, and we continue to add to the palette,” Wang said. “You need instruments and ways to make music we’ve always had.”
With technology’s powerful capabilities, it presents multiple paths for musical exploration. One area of development is mobile phones.
“Hundreds of millions of phones will be connected, and before long, billions,” he said. “What kinds of new music can we make? Can we create an instrument for a million people to join in on and create music meaningfully? I don’t know what that is right now, but it was simply impossible before because the technology wasn’t there to support it.”
This sense of uncertainty is inherent in his research, but Wang is driven by the belief that there is no doubt of the need for music in our lives. Earlier last March, following the earthquake in Japan, more than 3,500 users of Smule’s “Glee Karaoke” app uploaded their versions of “Lean on Me,” creating an international chorus of support.
“Music is entirely different from everything else,” Wang said. “It defies the need for logic, but it’s not illogical. It makes sense in its own way.”