Friday, February 22, 2013

2013 MIT Mystery Hunt: "Digging Up Music"

On the Sunday of the Hunt, amidst a tragedy of a Falcons football game, Steph and I stumbled across Digging Up Music, and we knew we needed to try our hands at it. We're both music enthusiasts who consider ourselves at least modestly well-informed about symphonic music, and unlike the last puzzle we tried, we had at least an inkling of an idea of how to start this one.

What we did

Digging Up Music showed a series of thirty-six (!) music excerpts, each a few measures' worth of a reasonably well-known piece from a certain composer. Then, we got a series of one-sentence descriptions of composers, whose names ended up blessedly in alphabetical order. By the time Steph and I started working on this puzzle, our teammates back in Berkeley had made some substantial progress, having identified about three quarters of the composers and a handful of the excerpts. 

As we cleaned up the list of composers (most of which were relatively easily Googled) and hit IMSLP to track down the excerpts we didn't immediately know, one of our teammates noticed a pattern: there was exactly one wrong note in each one. Picking out the wrong notes proved a little more difficult, requiring a sharply critical look at each excerpt. By the time we stopped this one, mostly from fatigue, we had all the composers, around two-thirds to three-quarters of the excerpts, and a handful of the wrong notes. Unfortunately, we couldn't figure out how to extract a solution from there.

What we should have done

We were on exactly the right track here, having nailed the first "aha" in identifying the existence of the wrong note. We were one more "aha" away from cracking the puzzle. According to the solution, the leap we had to make was to assign each letter of the composer's name to his corresponding excerpt. Then, taking all the wrong notes and letters in order would have provided the final clue to solve the puzzle.

Would we ever have figured it out?

This one is tough to say. We came the closest on this one out of any of the puzzles we tried, and because of the "classical music" theme, we were pretty motivated and excited to solve it. But the jump from "find the wrong letter" to "extract the corresponding letter of the composer's name" is one I don't honestly see myself having made. Perhaps I'm just bad at puzzles that require seemingly arbitrary letter indexing.

What can this puzzle teach about good design?

First, a good puzzle should be instructive. It should teach interesting facts, encourage looking at data in novel ways, reward spotting non-obvious but meaningful patterns. "Digging Up Music" did really well as an instructive puzzle. Learning both facts about composers and associating pieces of music with who wrote them made solving this one feel rewarding.

Second, puzzles should belabor their points as little as possible. Once you know what you need to do, doing it forty times isn't any more fun than doing it four times--and after too much repetition, it may start feeling like busy work. "Digging Up Music" toed the line there; thirty-six excerpts felt a bit much, and that was with a few people reasonably well-educated in music solving it. Without any musical expertise at all, this puzzle would have been possible thanks to IMSLP, but it would have taken a much longer time. (Incidentally, "Digging Up Music" wasn't even the most work-intensive music puzzle in the 2013 hunt; I didn't try it myself, but word has it that one particular puzzle involved more than two hundred mp3 clips.)

Finally, there's a big difference between clever and arbitrary, especially when it comes to extracting a solution. Here, taking all the wrong notes and putting them in order would have made perfect sense. Appending the composer's name to the excerpts and assigning a letter to each wrong note was much less intuitive. (Maybe a more streamlined design would have involved playing the excerpt, having it be from an immediately recognizable piece, and having the composer be the answer?)

Sure, to make the puzzle even trickier to solve, there's no end to the number of transforms you could require for a solution. It's completely conceivable to design a variant of this puzzle where you would have to shift each wrong note by half-steps corresponding to the composer's birth month. But by that point, such a puzzle would cease being fun and would lapse into obtuse.

Mini puzzlehunt

If 16 is the root, what do the three composers above represent?