Music Apps Gone Wild: The SXSW Recap

Music Apps Gone Wild: The SXSW Recap

After my panel at SXSW today, several people asked for copies of my presentation about the wildest, wackiest music apps we’ve seen over the past year. The presentation went well, and I even got some laughs and applause, which is always sort of the ultimate goal.

I figure if that many people who were there want copies of the presentation, other people might want to see it too – not to mention people who aren’t in Austin today. To that end, here are my pretty-much-unedited speaking notes from today’s presentation, as well as screenshots of each app I discussed. (Also, If you were there and took a photo, please send it to me and I’ll include it in this story along with an attribution link.)


The same thing that happened to music in the ’90s, when it turned in to ones and zeros, is now happening to the music player. None of the apps I’m going to talk about today would exist if people had to make hardware in order to sell them, because they could end up costing hundreds of dollars, which nobody in their right mind would pay. Now that the music player is a digital app, it can do just about anything the mind can imagine. The apps I’m going to talk about today are pretty wacky, which is to prove a point: that we’re just now only scratching the surface of what is possible with consumer-facing music technology today, and it’s only going to get better and weirder from here.


There are a bunch of really interesting apps like this starting to emerge for letting groups of people choose the music that plays in a venue (see also Roqbot, PlayMySong, WeTheDJ, and others), but we’re highlighting crowdjuke here because it’s so easy for people to use. All you have to do is RSVP to a party on Facebook, and Crowdjuke takes a look at your listening preferences via Facebook’s open graph API and helps shape the playlist. Ultimately, Crowdjuke makes a playlist that reflects an amalgamation of all attendees’ musical taste, so it should make everyone at least a little bit happy. We also like Automatic DJ, an app that lets you take a picture of anyone at a party. It uses facial recognition from to figure out who the person is, then grabs their listening preferences from the internet so that basically, they’re DJing the party.

Pug Synth

This one uses dogs as synthesizers in a sort of game that lets you play along with your own music. It’s actually pretty musical — you can change the pugs’ outfits to generate different tones, pick the key, and play along with your own music.

Frederic — The Resurrection of Music

Somehow this one got really popular — at one point it was the most popular music game in seven countries, despite the fact that it’s a rhythm game featuring a dead classical composer, Frederic Chopin. The game features an actual keyboard that you play on to defeat nine bosses, including a French electronic artist with as cyber-banjo. You also has to deal with the fact that Chopin’s muses want to go do commercials for a fast food chain.


This is an online music scoring app for writing songs, which isn’t too weird or wild, but its autocomplete feature helps it qualify for this list. You can enter parameters, like which century’s style of music you’re trying to compose in, and it will fill in missing notes once you’ve added some of your own. This basically lets you write music with the help of artificial intelligence that mines the history of music to figure out what notes should most likely go where.


There are plenty of apps out there that replicate real-world instruments, which is great, but we think it’s more interesting when designers invent completely new interfaces for touchscreen devices. There are a bunch of variations of Thicket, and each one includes multiple instruments, but basically, they all let you fingerpaint with sound. It’s not only a cool way to make sounds and music, but it’s pretty relaxing, and anyone can play it, unlike a violin.


This one is sort of a joke. It analyses your MP3s to find out if there are satanic messages in there. We won’t spend much time on it, but it’s definitely a weird concept, and shows the potential for music apps to analyse the music on your device in all sorts of ways.


This one is from a genius coder guy named Tim Soo, who also makes Invisible Instruments like a guitar and a violin that you can play using motion-sensitive controllers like the iPhone and Wii controllers. Heartbeat came from the Music Hack Day series, which The Echo Nest (publisher of helped found a few years ago. Music Hack Days bring together lots of coders like Tim Soo to make weird and awesome music apps in a single weekend, and then present them to each other. There’s another hackathon going on with Lady Gaga’s and Justin Bieber’s managers going on today at SXSW, which i’m going to check out later. anyway, heartbeat makes our list because it can being down the heart rate of patients who suffer from chronic pain by selecting the appropriate music from youtube and to keep the patient’s heart rate in an acceptable range.

The Spotify Box

This is a hardware app add-on, but it’s so neat we couldn’t help including it. the little discs have RFID chips in them that you can assign to any album or playlist in Spotify. It might seem silly, but it actually might be sort of neat to flip through your music physically, and be able to lend playlists to people. bonus points if the discs spin around.


Granted, not many of us have sensors for monitoring our brain waves, but if we get them eventually, or if someone makes them cheaply for consumers, we’ll be able to use Buddhafy to control Spotify playlists with our minds. If you’re meditating yourself into calmness, this app chooses the next song for your Spotify playlist that reflects that calm mood. Or if you think aggressive, panicky thoughts, you’ll get music that reflects that mood too. Neat.

Bohemian Rhapsichord

Another one from the Music Hack Day series, this one comes from The Echo Nest‘s own Paul Lamere. His app slices and dices Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody into discrete chunks, which you can organise in a number of ways and assign to keys on your computer’s keyboard. It essentially turns this song into a web-based musical instrument/sampler, which you could actually use in live performance, especially if you had a beat behind it. But really, it’s just a super fun toy. Extended

Remember I kid, I kid – plenty of people are still using this service, and now that it’s available on smartphones, it’s even better than before. You can literally carry around a group DJ-ed radio channel in your pocket. The advantage of using it at home in your Chrome browser, is that you can use this extension, which puts tour dates, song suggestions based on what the room is currently playing, and all sorts of useful ways to filter your song queue, making the task of actively picking songs that people will like a little bit easier.

Social Radio for Twitter

This is what I’m talking about, right here. On a basic level, Social Radio for Twitter reads your tweets along with music from any music on your phone – or any music app at all. Pandora, Spotify, Soundcloud,, whatever – when new tweets come in, or tweets on a specific topic come in, the app turns your music to half volume and reads them along with the tunes. What I really like about this is that it adds our ears to information overload. Usually, we just overload our eyes and fingers, but our ears can chip in too.


You might have heard about this one, but in case you haven’t, you should try it out. Basically, Tomahawk creates a super collection out of the music on your computer, all your other computers, your friends’ computers, and a bunch of different music services like Spotify, SoundCloud,, Bandcamp, and more. When you try to play a song or a playlist, Tomahawk looks at all of these different sources to cobble together a playlist that doesn’t care where the music lives. I really like this one, because one problem with being a music fan today is that our music lives all over the place; Tomahawk wants to bring it all back together again.

Song Roulette

This Spotify hack, which is available just as source code, lets you video chat with people who are listening to the same artist as you at the same time. Someone at a meeting yesterday brought up the good point that social ties are actually a pretty poor predictor of the music we like. Just check out the horrifying stuff that your Facebook friends are listening to! Song Roulette flips that upside down, so that you can make friends with people through the music. Hopefully this will roll out as an official Spotify app soon so we can all use it.

Concert 2021

The conceit of this app is that a certain ticketing giant has ruined live concerts in the future so that music fans start to prefer attending virtual concerts online. Actually, those Ticketmaster fees go to artists, promoters, and venues, and not all to Ticketmaster, but that’s beside the point. What’s neat about this app, which is still basically just a proof of concept, is that you can make your character walk around in the crowd, and the sound changes based on where you are standing. You can hear the beer guy trying to sell beer, go to the DJ booth instead of the mains stage or whatever, and the sound changes appropriately. This could be even cooler as a TV app on surround sound for really broadcasting actual concerts. It could even be a photorealistic synthesis of the concert.

Now for two that don’t exist yet, but should.


This would combine train schedules, your calendar, Twitter, Facebook, social games, weather, news, calls, and more, so that you’d be able to listen to music all day to a station that would tell you about things that are really happening in your life. For example, if you’re going to miss a train, it would speed up the tempo of your music so that you’d have a chance of making it.

Windshield Wiper App

Our smartphones have cameras. Can someone please build an app that adjusts the tempo of music so that it’s perfectly on time with our windshield wipers, by using the camera to detect their rhythm? It’s so magical when that lines up the right way, but it’s always just slightly off. This would fix that. Thank you.

Music Apps Gone Wild: The SXSW Recap observes, tracks and analyses the music apps scene, with the belief that it’s crucial to how humans experience music, and how that experience is evolving.

Image: alphaspirit / Shutterstock