Mapping music's DNA 

Ken Lemons invents a new way of visualizing music

"People ask me all the time, 'Were you high as shit to come up with this,'" Ken Lemons says with a smile, leaning back in a chair and sipping tea in his office in the Stutz Business Center overlooking Capitol Avenue. "And actually, it was just the opposite. It was about a three and a half year period of my life of abject, 100 percent sobriety on purpose, trying my best to breathe deep, really focus all of my power, have a clean house, no distractions and really work hard.

"I broke my hand before my senior piano recital and I was recovering over the summer, had the summer to myself," Lemons continues. "And I sat down and said to myself, 'You know what, if I'm going to take my musical learning to the highest realm, I'd better have as firm a grasp as possible on the language.'"

What Lemons came up with is his software program for diagramming music, Musical DNA. Lemons gave the command presentation to me at Musical DNA headquarters, an open-plan office at varying stages of completion located on the third floor of the Stutz. He also travels, carting along a MIDI-based keyboard and (sometimes) digital projector to toy conventions and classrooms, presenting to those who have had years of music theory (like graduate music technology students in an IUPUI classroom) or just an appreciative listener with a little knowledge of scales (this author).

"Music is 12 notes in a circle," Lemons begins, playing up and down his keyboard from middle C to high C, lighting up 12 dots arranged equidistant around a circle that correspond to the 12 pitches (C to B, with all the sharps in between) on the chromatic scale. The circle looks much like a clock, only with 12 o'clock replaced by C natural; one o'clock replaced by C sharp.

"One at a time, you see the notes light up on a circle. Two notes together gets you a colored line. One step away is red." Lemons plays C and C# simultaneously, sounding a half step or minor second; both notes light up on the circle, and a red line appears to connect the two.

When every note on the chromatic scale is played simultaneously - the equivalent of pressing all the black and white keys in one octave on the piano - colored lines, coordinated to the system of intervals used in Western music, light up to connect all of the notes. Lemons calls this colorful shape the Master Key, and it's depicted on most Musical DNA materials - the cover of a Musical DNA workbook and primer self-published through AuthorHouse, on business cards, on signs and on the Web site.

Lemons believes that all music can be adequately represented within his Master Key: "In that rainbow dodecagon, or rainbow gem, that looks like a Spirograph, that shape is every composition in the history of the world that's ever been made."

Another main component to the Musical DNA system is that which gives the company its name. Graphing notes onto a circle only depicts one octave - or if it's understood to depict more than one octave, middle C and high C on the piano look the same; it's all just C on the circle. Lemons - and some others before him - solved the problem of graphing the 10 and a half octaves in human sound by stacking those circles one on top of one another, and then drawing lines between those notes. The result looks somewhat like a double helix, the most familiar graphical representation of DNA.

Some of the concepts that Lemons draws upon have been in the air since Medieval philosophers spoke of the "music of the spheres," finding geometric order in both musical intervals and the cosmos; since Newton developed the color wheel, and immediately tried to match up ROY G BIV with the intervals of a musical scale; and since some nineteenth-century thinkers attempted to expand upon the chromatic circle by conceiving of music as a cylinder much like Lemons' helix.

In a sense, Lemons shares the fervor of some of those same philosophers who tried to understand both the order of the universe and the order of music with a single system. For Lemons, these diagrams aren't just "visual translations" of music. Just as DNA is the blueprint for all living organisms, according to Lemons, "Musical DNA is what music is." "Sound is circular in nature," not just on the page. And while Lemons isn't seeking to supplant musical notation, he does think he's developed a more efficient method of understanding and systematizing music than ever before conceived.

Follow your bliss

While straightening out a photo on the wall - the third or fourth time he'd done so during my second visit to the office - Lemons mentions that he's obsessive-compulsive. The Musical DNA office is warm and inviting, full of carefully cultivated collections - an urban jungle worth of plants riding atop the partial walls that separate offices, walls covered with photos of artists and cultural figures who Lemons says represent a "follow your bliss" philosophy (a term coined by mythologist Joseph Campbell for those who follow their dreams). Most charmingly, baoding balls (the clanking iron balls rotated in the palm of one's hand), can be found throughout the office, including two pairs in Lemons' office, on the left and right of his computer keyboard. Lemons says that he's just about collected every type of baoding ball set on the resale market - raiding eBay when a different style comes up for auction - and stores them on a bookshelf at home.

Of course, what's pathologized as OCD can also manifest itself as scrupulous and devoted commitment to an idea, a passion for following through a project to its end. Tevlin Schuetz, a childhood friend who joined Musical DNA shortly after its launch, explains that, when he was young, Lemons "would get so excited about whatever it was he was speaking about that he would literally talk himself out of breath."

Born in Denver, Colo., in 1974, Lemons moved with his family to Indianapolis in 1977. His father, James, is director of the Neonatal/Perinatal Medicine Division in the Department of Pediatrics at Indiana University, and was recently involved in raising more than $2 million to build a mother/child hospital in Eldoret, Kenya, through the IU/Kenya partnership. His mother, Pam, is a nurse practitioner.

Lemons still has a childlike passion for some of the things that went along with him becoming a self-described nerd: Star Wars memorabilia festoons the office, a Kermit the Frog stuffed animal sits on his desk, every employee has a rubber band gun and is encouraged to use it at every opportunity.

Musical DNA: the video game

During that summer spent recovering from a broken hand in 2000, Lemons sketched out the first version of the Musical DNA system on notebook paper with Crayola markers. That illustration was enough for Lemons to try teaching it to one of his piano students, Cameron Behringer. "He was 12 and a half years old and brand new to music and to the piano when he began. He didn't know the names of the notes or anything. It took him three and a half months - he did not play any songs, except when he was on his own, sneaking it - and he learned every position of every single shape, and every fingering of every scale."

Lemons then shared the concept with his high school music teacher, then-choral director at Pike High School Jim Fronczek.

"I showed him a pamphlet, a three-ring binder of notes, and he suggested that we get that software up and running to help communicate what we were doing," Lemons explains. "I approached a good buddy who was running a video game company in town, and he said he could put it together for us. Wrote a proposal, my dad lent me three grand and six months later we were looking at a 2-D circle lighting up, and that sparked everything."

The program gave life to Lemons' system, clearly demonstrating his concept to a much wider audience. By 2006, Lemons had moved into an office in the Stutz Building, hired a few intrepid friends and begun meeting with patent attorneys.

"I remember when the patent guy came to our office - this is out of Woodard, Emhardt, Moriarty, McNett and Henry, out of the Chase Tower," Lemons says. "I remember three hours into the presentation, into all the ridiculous stuff this could eventually do, far beyond just games and toys, my dad told me to shut up and say, 'Mr. Patent Attorney, is this really patentable?' And the guy was wringing his hands saying, 'Oh yeah!'"

Musical DNA doesn't yet have a revenue stream or any products on the market beyond the workbook, so aside from the research, development and groundwork that employees have done over the past three years, the patents are the most concrete evidence that the company is legit, that Lemons' claims about discovering an original way to diagram music aren't just flights of fancy. The core patent for the Master Key has been approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, with another 20 waiting in the wings for approval.

Baby Einstein and Bela Fleck's DNA

But plenty of patents for a better mousetrap sit rotting in the bowels of the Library of Congress without ever reaching the production stage. By early 2008, Lemons and his team were ready to try to attract investors and pitch their products and concept to the outside world.

Lemons separates different applications for Musical DNA into three classes: music education, entertainment and science and medicine.

In music education, the company is developing an improved version of the visualization and music pedagogy software Lemons has been demonstrating for several years. Lemons says that the second version of the software will be slicker - the current program is somewhat buggy and primitive - and will incorporate mini-programs and games that will help a student to learn intervals, triads, scales and all other basic components of music theory. And Lemons has global ambitions.

"In the end, maybe instead of a choo-choo train for your kid, maybe it's $25 a month for an interactive master class with Bela Fleck with 3 million people tuned in, and Bela Fleck's DNA of the licks that he just shared with you. You can take them home and play against them and practice. And now you're composing music on a worldwide scale, sending it to your friend in Sri Lanka, who's adding their bit and then sending it back. This links up potentially with cell phones and video games and computer platforms."

Entertainment applications for Musical DNA, including toys, are most likely to reach the market first. The company hopes to launch up to three apps for the iPhone in the coming months.

When talking science and technology, Lemons heads into territory into which he didn't expect to venture when he first picked up markers and notebook paper. The company is looking into science and technology applications in science and technology that could use the colors and geometric ideas to map other things than music.

"Altogether, this is a dynamic mapping tool," Lemons says. "And in this visual grid, we can do a hell of a lot of things. We can map the shape of a mouth - some of our neat applications have to do with maybe being able to help with language translation and speech therapy by visualizing the human voice in a better way than before, and that opens up some crazy avenues in the world of Bluetooth technology and security."

Those products weren't yet developed when the Musical DNA team headed to New York City in February 2008, toting along video screens, keyboards and slick furniture to create a booth at the American International Toy Fair.

"We didn't have finished software, but ... we definitely opened up a lot of eyes with that at the fair. An hour and a half in, in walks the senior partnership manager, worldwide developer relations person from Apple Computers, took a look around, and she gave us our contact information.

"Soon after we were talking to this person from the iPhone, and that precipitated our first meeting with Apple. We've met a ton of companies now. We've now met with Apple, Konami, Yamaha, Remo, Fisher-Price, Mattel, Spin Master, Sony, more than just a casual introduction with Nintendo, Sesame Street, Nokia, and have further introductions that we can pull the trigger on at any moment."

Not about the money

When I visited Lemons in December 2008, he dropped the name Lana Israel, followed by a string of her accomplishments: writing a book about mind-mapping at age 12; founding a company, Brain Power For Kids, at age 13; graduating from Harvard with the highest honors in living memory; being named Brain of the Year in England; earning a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Oxford. She first met Lemons when she dropped by the Musical DNA booth at the Toy Fair, and the two kept in touch.

When I returned to the offices at the close of March 2009, Israel - who was working in the music industry in New York City - was sitting at the table in a messy boardroom, a new hire at the company and recent transplant to Indianapolis. Lemons told a group of graduate students at IUPUI the night before that he was "happy to say that we're attracting people of that caliber, and that it's not a crazy piano teacher from Indiana saying this could do some damage."

"I came to Musical DNA because I'm extremely excited about what the company's doing and the potential of all the wonderful concepts and ideas that have been developed and are floating around inside the company," Israel told me. "For me, it was almost like a dream job in the perfect company, in that there was an opportunity to merge my passion for music and my passion for learning, science and research and infomatics."

It's also a chance to return to a passion of her youth, the subject of her book published when she was 13: mindmapping.

"I've done a lot of work with a technique called mindmapping, which is a visuo-spatial way of mapping information," she explains. "Part of the premise behind that - and this is to speak in a little bit of an analogy or metaphor - is that it's a whole brain learning technique. It incorporates various modalities and mental functions in one learning process, as opposed to linear methods and modes of learning, which can be characterized as left-brain and not as integrative and wholistic. When I first saw Musical DNA at the Toy Fair, I was there with a colleague of mine who turned to me and said, 'They're mindmapping music.'"

Lemons talks about reaching outside the company to begin to develop more sophisticated products, finding experts to help Musical DNA narrow down its goals and finally bring some products to the market. The subtext of that goal might be this: He's learned the lesson to not only hire from his friends, who may or may not be the most experienced or capable people for the job.

Last year, the company expanded to 19 full-time employees, many of them Lemons' friends, before contracting back to nine employees by the end of the year, partly at the suggestion of a board that thought Lemons was spending too much money without results. So Lemons is looking outside the company to develop software, hoping to interest Electronic Arts in his product once the software is at a beta stage where another developer could get involved.

But if the company is at a stage where Lemons sees the importance of developing a revenue stream and seeking out experienced people to handle the business side of things, there's certainly no absence of warmth, energy and eccentricity in the work environment that reflects Lemons' personality.

As Israel puts it, "It is such a creative environment to work in. What people see from the outside, as far as Musical DNA's output, is what we're looking for and striving to do on the inside. There's that authenticity, the sense of adventure, creative discovery, empowerment, enrichment, excitement that exists inside the very premise and concept of the Master Key and Musical DNA; that all exists inside this company."

And like a mindmap, Musical DNA hasn't developed linearly: one application has led to another, one brainstorm has given birth to a wealth of different ideas.

"We don't have a plan; our initial plan ain't no plan," Lemons says. "Our initial deal intuitively was that we need to keep making this more and more tangible and we need to keep telling the story long enough ... I'm a piano teacher not a businessman."

Just as Musical DNA is seeking out experts outside of the company to help them design products, Lemons is also looking for help in developing a business strategy that will yield actual revenue.

Musical DNA is currently consulting with Max L. Siegel, an Indianapolis resident and Notre Dame Law School grad (the first African-American to graduate from that institution). Siegel is currently president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., and worked as an executive with Sony BMG and president of Indianapolis-based athlete management firm SCA Sports and Entertainment.

Siegel is just one more mind that could help Lemons realize his visions for Musical DNA, and could give him the tools to make those visions a reality.

"I have always had great dreams of using Musical DNA [since I thought of it] to break down boundaries and facilitate communication on a worldwide scale," Lemons wrote in a Statement of Purpose crafted while hiking in Muir Woods. "Music, after all, is universal to virtually everyone on the planet. That music is sacred, important and magical is perhaps the one thing we can all agree on, as humans. I think we're all overdue for a little spiritual uplift, here in the world, and I think that we [with Musical DNA] have a chance to do something very special and noble for those who perhaps need it the most."

Local academics weigh in

I asked two local academics to critique Musical DNA , wondering if the system is theoretically sound, if it's unique in the music world and what kind of potential it might have for beginning and advanced students.

Frank Felice, an associate professor of music at Butler University, doesn't agree that Ken Lemons' system reveals the underpinnings of all music, or that music is necessarily a universal language. He thinks that Musical DNA can only accommodate pop music or classical music written before 1850.

"There's really unfortunately no one theory that explains all music ... What ends up happening is, especially tonally, there are a number of different musical languages to be spoken. A very dissonant language doesn't necessarily conform to the linguistics of another tonal language. If I'm learning how to be a jazz pianist, there is a particular, inherent musical language - from swing to be-bop to fusion - this is similar enough that they can cross boundaries. But some of Ornette Coleman was way outside of the box - a particular language for him, or a particular kind of dialect. But that's not the same language that Stockhausen speaks; it's not the same language that even Mozart speaks; and it's not the same language that even a Medieval or Renaissance composer would speak. And then, you would get further outside the box, and say it's not the same as a Bushman from the Kalahari would speak.

"Then, knowing that there is a particular kind of system I've been taught that doesn't allow for those kinds of languages to be readily taught, they're excluded, and people will say that's strange, that's other, that's not music.

"The fun part is, kids have no filters to begin with. They'll sit down, and you'll say, 'Let's sing a song about mountains.' And you'll have some making up words in tune, you'll have some who want to just jump up and down and you'll have some who'll come up with these really off-the-wall soaring kinds of things that have no recognizable pitch center. You'll ask them, 'Why did you do that?' And they're like, 'Well, this is the mountain, this is the contour and the high stuff was the snow on the peak.'

"It's only when they start learning about the way that we describe music that those filters get put into play, and they forget that kind of unabashed, unbridled creativity, and how to interpret in their own ways. End of the day, end of the world, end of what I wouldn't want to have happen is I want both. I want them to know how to interact with the music of Mozart, the music of Count Basie, but I want them also to have that other thing."

Of course, Lemons has heard some of these objections before: during presentation of the Musical DNA system, he says he's usually stopped at some point by experienced musicians who ask if his system can accommodate microtones, the sounds between the notes on the piano that can be heard whenever a singer misses a note, which can be part of the scale or structure of some non-Western music.

Lemons answers that, "In the end the computer can [plot] a billion [tones]...Music, especially in the West, is 12 notes a circle, but in the end, a computer doesn't have to look at it as a sub-division of 12: a computer can sub-divide to a million." Any pitch can be plotted on the circle, and the computer can draw a line between any one pitch and another.

Jordan Munson, a lecturer in music at IUPUI and founder of that school's Computer Laptop Music Ensemble, wonders if the Musical DNA system might become an instrument unto itself, manipulable via a touch screen instead of a keyboard.

"I'm really interested in these meta-instruments, starting out with interfaces," he says. "I use Wii remotes or iPod interfaces to interact with the computer, to get really expressive computer music performance, and then a lot of times use music to create visual aspects as well, so when you're creating a tone, it's creating a visual cluster or tone, and it creates that sense of connection. I think there's a lot of potential with what they have to do, something that's powerful and sustainable, but it's so early on, it's hard to say what they're going to do with it."

Musical DNA Software: http://www.musicaldnasoftware.com

Lemons demonstrates 2-D and 3-D versions of Musical DNA

Lemons demonstrates a rhythm visualization component to Musical DNA

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