Sunday, February 27, 2005

Musicians: You Are Now Obsolete.

A new (and apparently a rather dark) blogger named Abner Gromble has brought to my attention that computer-generated music is no longer a pipe dream in Ray Kurzweil’s fertile imagination.

What does a Post-modern composer do when he hits a bad string of writer’s block and can't come up with any new tunes. Why, he makes a computer program that makes up music for him! David Cope has actually created software that can compose music in the form of artists like Bach, Beethoven, or Ragtime in the form of Joplin.

A list of his free mp3 computer compositions can be found here. As you'll listen, you'll notice that the music get progressively worse as you go down the list. This is not due to bad programming, but rather due to Cope's rather strange musical style. "Innovation" could easily be confused for 18th century Bach. The faux Beethoven is an obvious ripoff of the moonlight sonata. The Ragtime is nice; ironically and frighteningly reminiscence of a tune a player piano would make. But the rest sounds like Bjork singing to the theme from Planet of the Apes, or rejected cuts from a Tangerine Dream jam session.

Cope's programs are fantastic and show the extent that software design is going to revolutionize society. However, it helps to keep this innovation in context. The program merely takes apart and puts together existing musical patterns. It cannot (yet) make unique music with its own style.

Of all the sounds imaginable, a computer cannot pick on out and say "this is a nice tune". Software cannot discern beauty. More fundamentally, software cannot make the identifications necessary for creativity. Computers cannot say "This exists!", let alone "This is like that", or "This is a sound. This is good music. This sound is the same as good music." In the end, computers still only can know the information we tell them, the initial identifications we make. Or if you're a believer in meme theory, you would say that computers are breeding grounds for memes to replicate, but not for their creation or significant evolution. I don't believe in meme theory, so I say that computers are still nothing more than tools which fashion what the human mind originally envisions.


At 7:31 PM, Blogger Marcus Cicero said...

So much music on the airwaves already lacks any real artistry, I doubt that anyone would notice the weak points of Cope's software.

I have long supposed that when computers edge into areas of human creativity, it's all over. Cope's code may be lacking, and crude; but fast-forward 20 years, with improvements in software and hardware, and it's conceivable that art is best left to humans' successors. At which point humans will be unecessary.

I'm glad I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and played with dirt rather than ones and zeroes.

Thanks for this post -- I will keep it in my cap for something on Winds of Change.

At 9:25 PM, Blogger Tom said...

I'm waiting until it becomes possible to insert your aesthetic preferences into such a program so that it performs the culling process itself.

Imagine inputting clips of pleasing tone-intervals, textures, tempos, and having the program itself filter out those songs that conform to your preferences!


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