Can a computer write a song? Songwriting has always been a passion of mine (I know, what hasn’t been, right?). My grandparents gave our family a guitar when I was eight along with a Mel Bay Learn-to-Play book. My earliest attempt at songwriting was with a friend from across the street. We were gonna be Huuuuge. We didn’t actually know any chords yet, so our songs consisted of open strumming the guitars while making up words to fit the song we thought we were playing: “Hey Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams. I don’t remember the lyrics we came up with. We thought that since Weird Al could use other people’s songs and just write new words that this was our ticket to stardom.
Writing Not-Quite Hits
The first song I can actually claim as my own was an 80’s rock ditty I called Oil and Water. It contained such gems as “Oil and Water just don’t mix–obligatory guitar riff—Mother Nature’s always playin’ her tricks.” I still have the original notebook page I wrote it on in the back of a church van on a trip somewhere. It is deep in a footlocker. Buried. Hopefully forever.
I’ve kept writing songs periodically, but have only produced one that I think is an OK song. I sent demos of several of my songs out but never managed to generate much interest beyond a phone call with a publisher that said he wanted to show it to George Strait. Since I never heard back, I’m guessing George passed.
I haven’t had my big break as a songwriter (yet!). With advances in computer artificial intelligence, human songwriters may be a thing of the past.
The End of Civilization
Elon Musk, of Tesla fame, raised eyebrows this past weekend with his declaration that AI was “the biggest risk we face as a civilization.” While Musk was addressing the possibility that AI could start wars through a variety of means because of the systems they control, it got me thinking about whether AI is branching out into culture.
I’d read about the AI computers beating us at our own games like Jeopardy, Chess, Go, and Poker. I wondered if intelligent computers were writing their own songs yet. It turns out that computers are not only writing songs, they are inventing new instrument sounds to write songs humans could have never imagined.
A New Frontier
In 1833, Mathemagician and computer pioneer Ada Lovelace predicted that computers would eventually be able to write music. After all, sound is a set of frequencies and computers can hear, translate, and create frequencies. It would be years before her prediction was proven true, but now the marketplace is getting crowded.
There are already several companies that have written AI programs that can write music. Having listened to several I think AIVA (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist) has the most interesting music. Several of its songs have even passed the Turing test (meaning that humans couldn’t tell whether the music had been written by a person or an AI). The AI is registered as a composer and owns the copyrights on its music.
Sony has an AI that writes songs called Flow Machines. Flow machines requires quite a bit of human interaction for a completed project currently, but that could change as the program advances. Their goal is to generate marketable popular music instead of their more classically focused competitors. Another contender is the company Jukedeck. Jukedeck lets you pick a style and it will generate a song in that style. It is already being used commercially to generate music for advertising and other projects. IBM is in the game with its famous Watson AI. Watson listens to a clip and generates something akin to it.
Will Write Songs for Food?
One of Jukedeck’s creators, Ed Newton-Rex, believes that the opportunity for AI music could lead to auto-generated music that is responsive to whatever the situation requires. Theoretically, it could generate a continuous soundtrack for your life on the go. Exercising? Here’s a pumped up motivational track. Romantic dinner? Here’s a love song for you.
Responsive AI music technology is probably a ways off and will not be for everyone. Human songwriters are not likely to be replaced anytime soon, especially when it comes to writing lyrics for songs. Once the computers start writing passable poetry we might really be in trouble. From there it would be a short leap to pairing poetry and music to make songs with no human interaction. But would computers be able to appreciate their creations in the same way we can?
I guess I’d better get back to my piano and guitar before the machines do what I never managed and get a hit song! I just need to break away from my usual routine. I get halfway through the tune for a new song that is running through my head only to realize that it is already a well-known song that somehow my conscious brain failed to link initially with the notes in my head. Sometimes I feel like Roger from RENT. Everything I think is new and unique is actually an echo in my head.
Ah well. Keep on racing against the machine.