The computer composer

If there’s one thing that sets human intelligence apart from the cold calculations of computers, it’s our ability to compose music.

Not so fast, gray-matter-for-brains.

As it happens, computers have been composing music for a couple of decades now—and not only that, doing so in the style of some of the greatest human composers that ever lived, so effectively that non-experts can’t tell the difference.

The leader in this field is David Cope. Cope, a music professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, was already an accomplished composer and musician back in 1981 when he first decided to experiment with computer-assisted composition as a way to overcome “composer’s block.”

He had the idea of creating a computer program that would have both a sense of his musical style and the ability to track the ideas present in a work-in-progress, so that if he got stuck, he could ask the program to suggest a next note, next measure, or even next ten measures.

The resulting computer program, formally known as Experiments in Musical Intelligence and familiarly known as Emmy, has evolved over the years.

The first thing Cope coded into his program was the rules of basic part-writing. After a lot of trial and error, the program was able to produce what he called “a kind of vanilla music which…while basically correct in terms of how the voices move one to another…seemed, at least to the educated ear, lifeless and without musical energy.”

Rather than add new rules to the program for each different style he wanted it to produce, and additional rules to make the music more interesting, Cope decided to take a different approach: he revised his program to draw on music stored in a database for its “ideas.”

“Every work of music contains a set of instructions for creating different but highly related replications of itself,” he writes on his website. “These instructions, interpreted correctly, can lead to interesting discoveries about musical structure as well as, hopefully, create new instances of stylistically faithful music.”

Emmy uses three basic principles to create new works: deconstruction (the program analyzes pieces of music and separates them into parts), signatures (it recognizes things that various pieces of music by the same composer have in common and retains those as signifying the composer’s style), and compatibility (it recombines parts of the music into a new whole, based on the recognized elements of style).

As Wired Magazine recently wrote, Cope this year premiered a new 12-movement piece created by Emmy from its analysis of Vivaldi—a composer Cope had avoided until just five years ago because he thought his work was too simple. Instead, it turned out to be too complex: whereas the human ear hears similarities in Vivaldi’s seemingly repetitive patterns, there are in fact subtle, unpredictable variations that threw Emmy for a loop. Only in the last couple of years has Cope managed to tweak Emmy to enable it to take on Vivaldi.

Interestingly, as with other composers, Cope found that if Emmy simply drew on Vivaldi’s own work, the resulting compositions sounded bland. Only when he threw in pieces by some of Vivaldi’s contemporaries like Tomaso Albinoni and Giuesppe Tartini did the music come to life—and in the process, sound more like something by the real Vivaldi.

In addition to virtual Vivaldi, Cope’s computer program has come up with “new” pieces by Mahler, Scott Joplin, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and more. In 2002, Emmy was used to create “The World Anthem,” an inspiring ballad synthesized from the similarities the program found in the national anthems of the world. Conceived by John Guillot, a Denver music producer, and formalized and orchestrated by Los Angeles composer and arranger Gary Guttman, “The World Anthem” was recorded by the Prague Studio Symphony Orchestra in the Czech Republic.

Cope’s computer-created compositions have, he writes, “delighted, angered, provoked and terrified those who have heard them.” Accorded to Wired, at a conference in Germany where Cope presented one of Emmy’s Bach-based pieces, a professor yelled at him, declared that music was dead, and accused Cope of killing it.

But Cope doesn’t see it that way, and doesn’t believe the composers and audiences of the future will see it that way, either.

“Ultimately, the computer is just a tool with which we extend our minds,” he writes. “The music our algorithms compose are just as much ours as the music created by the greatest of our personal human inspirations.”

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