Journalism by Shueh-li
Sonicfreakz  |  23 Jul 2009

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing…

hilltop1 - Coca Cola Ad Pic (c) One of Coca Cola’s most successful advertisements was centred around a group of ethnically-diverse people, perched on a hilltop singing a song by the New Seekers. Entitled I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke, it was Bill Backer’s idea for the beverage to be “a commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes”. Bill – then creative director on the Coca-Cola account – came up with the idea after being stuck in an airport hotel due to inclement weather. This was in 1971. The rest is ad history. (#1)

This is also the story of Ge Wang, music professor and SMULE cofounder.

We meet at CCRMA, Stanford University CA, one sunny day in June 2009, and Ge tells me he wants to teach the world to sing, but with the iPhone.

Who would imagine that one day our cellphones would be musical instruments? Multimedia artist Laurie Anderson did in an interview I conducted with her in 2003. (#2)

Seven years later I meet the man who makes her dream come true. Seven years later, the cellphone has reached pandemic proportions.

Pronounced ‘Ge’ as in Sir, and ‘Wang’ as in Far-ng, Ge studied accordion in Beijing at the tender age of seven using Western musical notation. He has since grown his musical tastes and now lists rock as music he likes, and playing the guitar as a favourite past time. He also loves Guitar Hero and has a system installed at the SMULE office. OK I’m packing my bags for misty S.J,!

Sitting in conversation with me and Ge is Bill Stewart, who used to be a university mate of mine (we looked at new technology in music in Australia) before I left to pursue my version of teaching the world to sing. Bill, who moved from Australia to Cupertino, is a member of the CoreAudio team with Apple who worked on the software for the iPhone that launched in 2007 to much fanfare. They naturally provided the API calls needed to build the iPhone Ocarina and Leaf Trombone. (#3)

I wanted to know what inspires Ge. “New music,” he utters. “What engages my ears (and) moves me, intentional or not. I know it when I hear it.” For Bill, the static and sterile computer was what inspired him to find new music. These two have the know-how and the means to make things, musical things, happen.

Bill and I witness a long line of eager patrons of the new iPhone 3GS at an Apple store one evening at closing hour. For many who do not have the know-how, they wait for that new technology with bated breath and cash in hand.

Does the user dictate what they require of technology or can technology actually drive the direction of new use? The chicken or the egg question begs to be asked once more.

Sometimes there are things people don’t know that they want. Ge calls it the hula hoop syndrome; “you put this ring around your waist [describe what it is they had to do and they wonder] why would I want to do something like that? Then suddenly it’s a craze and everyone’s doing it.”

Outside CCRMA with Ge Wang and Bill Stewart (Apple)

Outside CCRMA with Ge Wang and Bill Stewart (Apple)

This ideal stands behind the social networking aspect of the iPhone Ocarina which has seen a massive interest in downloads from around the world. If we are all trying to teach the world to sing, Ge wants to be the one “to rock the world in a way that it has not been rocked before!”

Ge also loves to cook. But guess who’s coming for dinner? The Luddite who quickly reminds us we don’t need a cellphone that makes music.

All is not lost. To those who wish to tread his path of success, the effervescent Ge gives the advice he affords himself: “Do what I am interested in doing and try to learn from as many people around me as I can.”

Any other wise words from Ge? “Eat more!”

Final wise words from Bill and me: “Wear sunscreen!” (#4)

Inside the Listening Room CCRMA

Inside the Listening Room CCRMA

In Summary

I focused on the human story behind the iPhone Ocarina and its cofounder. Facts and figures about the instrument, Ge Wang and SMULE can be found in bountiful supply online. I’d like to thank Ge Wang, Bill Stewart and Stanford University for a very interesting conversation.



6-min Video Clip from the meeting :

  1. #1 Coca Cola Advert “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”
  2. #2 Interview with Laurie Anderson; article by Shueh-li Ong for Singapore’s ‘Arts Magazine’
  3. #3 iPhone Apps built by SMULE
  4. #4 Kurt Vonnegut’s Supposed Address at MIT “Use Sunscreen”

Trivia :

  1. “60% of the World Uses Cell Phones” ~ Mobile Tech Today.
  2. Google phones (like the HTC Dream & Magic) use the Android OS, while Apple uses OS X with the iPhone SDK; the Palm Pre uses the Palm OS which is Linux-based and a programming framework called webOS.
  3. Capacitive Touchscreen. Models like the HTC Dream, HTC Magic, iPhone and Palme Pre have a panel with a sensor made of glass coated with a transparent conductor which only responds to the body’s ability to conduct electricity. Old-school resistive touchscreens require pressure to activate them, are a lot less sensitive than capacitive screens and are more prone to accidental input.
  4. Luddites. Originally a social movement of British Textile artisans opposed to changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. The term has been used to describe anyone opposed to technological change.
  5. APIs. An application programming interface is the code that helps define what an app may request from the OS. The API calls available for the iPhone target different tasks, e.g. OpenAL is the 3D audio API for games while the AudioUnit API is used by the Ocarina. Bill tells me that the Core Audio team works with an idea or an abstraction of an idea of what app developers want.
  6. “Old Computers Making Music” ~ BBC World News America
  7. Ocarina contest pulls in some endearing clips

Photos (c) Coca Cola, Stanford and Shueh-li Ong. Interview done in July 2009.

Apple CoreAudio • CCRMA • electronic music • Ge Wang • iPhone • new music • Ocarina • SMULE •

Press Kit

Members of the press: download Shueh-li’s digital press kit.

Loading Quotes...
Ask a Question

Have questions about Shueh-li’s instruments, techniques, and more?


Send her a question in the Q&A section!