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Bach, Beethoven, and R2D2

Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - 12:07 PM

I’m not surprised to learn that Emily Howell, a computer program, can compose convincing pieces of classical music.  But I’m also not surprised to learn that this fact gives some people the willies. 

Technology has always caused problems for people when it’s moved into the artistic arena.  Remember how the synthesizer was going to put real musicians out of work?  Walk down any street in Williamsburgh, teeming with musicians, and tell me how that worked out.  And I’m sure there were similar cries of outrage when player pianos were first introduced.    

Of course, Emily Howell is different – this isn’t about a machine playing music; this is about a machine creating music.  Creativity is something we like to think is specifically human.  And the idea of creativity being programmed into a computer sounds like something out a William Gibson cyber-punk novel.  But really, is it that different from computers that play chess, and can beat the human champ?  Deep Blue was able to beat Garry Kasparov back in 1998 because it could sift through an insane amount of permutations and possibilities to come up with the right move.  Neuroscientists have shown that music is essentially the same thing – our brains are born able to listen to any range of sounds, but as we grow we learn to focus on just a relative few, and the creative geniuses are the ones who can combine those elements in new ways. 

Looked at from that perspective, of course Emily Howell, or any other computer, can create music.  Can the computer create great music?   Well that is where the real human element comes in.  If Emily Howell manages to write something that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, then it is great music.  Not because of what the computer program wrote, but because of the very human reaction it provoked. 

Music, wherever it may come from, will always be a human endeavor, because it’s not really music until someone responds to it.    


What do you think of artificial intelligence in the world of music?  Leave a comment.


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