Episode 116 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with information architect Bob Kasenchak. Even though Bob’s work mostly deals with taxonomy, his background is in music theory. In this conversation — the first of two on the subject — we discussed the structure of music and how it relates to information architecture.

Bob pointed out that music is information, even when devoid of explicit texts (lyrics):

What was Beethoven or Sun Ra trying to tell me in this piece that doesn’t have any words? Interpreting those things is an entire discipline of academic music, but it’s very culturally contextual and it’s very subjective and therefore subject to critical theory and all those things.

That information can be conveyed via a piece’s structure: its parts, chord sequences, melodies, etc. Composers put together sequences that elicit particular effects. As Bob put it, “Composing music is a design problem. It’s just a very abstract design problem.”

This is true across different cultures and traditions. It behooves composers to understand how musical structures work so they can achieve effects intentionally. But as a listener, understanding how music achieves its effects can also change your relationship to a particular piece.

Understanding the structure of a musical piece is one of those “seeing the forest and the trees” situations:

looking at music from those perspectives and trying to answer just that question: how many sections does it have, and, how do they relate to each other, is a great place to start. That gets you out of the microscopic note-to-note thing and brings you up to look at the whole thing from the top down as an entire structure so that you can begin to parse it. Because you can’t begin to parse it by going one note at a time.

There are analogs between these ideas and other information structures. We discussed restaurant menus as an example, perhaps because Bob and I shared a memorable meal at N7 in New Orleans earlier this year.

Information architecture is a disciplined defined by overlapping fields. It was great to spend time with Bob talking about what we can learn from music to better design and appreciate information structures. Check out this conversation, and stay tuned for part 2, which will be out in a couple of weeks.

The Informed Life episode 116: Bob Kasenchak on Music, part 1