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Could a Monkey with a Computer Compose Beethoven’s Fifth?

A friend sent me a link yesterday to an article about a Man named David Copes, who has created artificial intelligence software that composes music. So far, so good. The issue is that Cope’s software composes music that is, in some cases, virtually indistinguishable from the work of a human composer. Music in which the software derived Bach’s rules to produce music in the style of Bach, for example, has fooled an audience unable to distinguish “real” Bach from music composed by the program.

This really ticked people off.

Cope, who began his project because he genuinely wanted to create beautiful music, takes the view that there is no inherent superiority in music or writing created by a human artist rather than a computer. (Apparently,  in addition to composing music, software can be created to replicate Shakespearean sonnets, among other things).

In his view, all music — and, really, any creative pursuit — is largely based on previously created works. Call it standing on the shoulders of giants; call it plagiarism. Everything we create is just a product of recombination.

Despite being lambasted by many in the artistic and scientific community, Cope continues to use his software for the purpose he originally envisioned: working with it to compose original works that he hopes will move and enchant listeners as traditional compositions have done for centuries. In response to criticism that a machine can’t possibly create art that speaks to the receiver in the same way as Rilke or Rachmaninov, he answers that humans do not create art from some magical hollow tree of the soul; they assemble and build from what came before, consciously or not. The finished product may be a breathtaking assemblage, but it is always, always based on and related to every sound the artist has ever heard, every word she has ever read, and all of the other art she has observed.

[Cope] is now convinced that, in many ways, machines can be more creative than people. They’re able to introduce random notions and reassemble old elements in new ways, without any of the hang-ups or preconceptions of humanity.

“We are so damned biased, even those of us who spend all our lives attempting not to be biased. Just the mere fact that when we like the taste of something, we tend to eat it more than we should. We have our physical body telling us things, and we can’t intellectually govern it the way we’d like to,” he says.

In other words, humans are more robotic than machines. “The question,” Cope says, “isn’t whether computers have a soul, but whether humans have a soul.”

I am happy for Mr. Cope, in a we-are-all-humans-let’s-embrace-humanity kind of way, and I agree with him that the art that we see does not spring whole from the head and heart of an artist, but is made up of bits and pieces of everything the creator has ever heard, seen or experienced. Sometimes it’s very clear – Vivaldi did write a lot of very similar works in the process of growing and refining his composition, and it is nearly impossible to write anything without the influence of everything you have ever read. It may be true that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and I’m okay with that.

I admit, though, to a sense of loss, and to feeling foolish for believing that I have found, in art, the messages of artistic souls yearning to be heard. When I read a short story that stuns me with its beauty, am I really just reading a sliced and diced version of all of the Carver, James and Elliott that the writer read in the past? If I sit listening to Vaughan Williams “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” and watching the falling snow, am I moved by nothing more than Vaughan Williams regurgitation of Tallises regurgitation of some other music he had in his subconscious? Are the artists that I love really nothing more than masterful assemblers of the flotsam and jetsam of life, giving me not a unique expression of their visions, but a skillful packaging job? Do they really have less soul than computer software?!

There is also, of course, the question of whether a person like me should bother to write. I have long believed that I was telling stories that were unique to my experience, and filtering them through some spiritual lense that was as unique to me as a snowflake or a fingerprint. I knew I had influences, of course, but now I wonder whether I am actually creating or inventing anything new and useful, or merely shining a light on what was already there, relying on ideas, turns of phrase and syntax that are already filed in my mind (and, possibly, in yours). If I delight myself because I have  found the perfect phrase, am I just a deluded idiot who is channeling something I heard on the bus, or read in a poetry anthology years ago? If it is true, as Cope claims, that I am “more robotic than a machine” by virtue of my inability to master my biases and impulses, that I may, in fact, have no soul, yearning or otherwise, what’s the point?

Here’s what I think, what I can accept and live with. All artists are building on the sights, sounds and experiences of the natural world, and the art of their predecessors or contemporaries. The assembly of those influences is, perhaps, the art – there is a voice, there is a desire to communicate, to create an emotional response or make a statement, but the creative act involves our own (non-artificial) intelligence, and yes, or souls. It isn’t important to me, really, that a painting, a poem or a string quartet was imagined in some hermetically sealed artistic vacuum; it matters that the artist used and built on the world around him to make something new and unique in its evocative powers. If a computer can do it too, I can live with that, and who knows; I might come to love music composed by artificial intelligence as much as I love Brahms and Monk. I will never, however, believe that it has more soul, or that it has been wrought to form that beautiful, filamentary bond that exists between an artist and her audience.

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

19 responses »

  1. Not wanting to get into what it means to “have a soul” there is a fundamental difference between an artist and a computer; one doesn’t have to conform to a predetermined set of rules, the other one does.

    Take a painter like Picasso, for example. Yes he used materials that were common to painters of his era but his development of analytic cubism came about precisely because he abandoned the previously established views and rules of painting. A “Picasso Painting Program” on a computer might be able to “create” a cubist painting that even seasoned art critics could not identify as made by anyone or anything other than Picasso. However, what the computer cannot do is come up with the idea of analytic cubism or some completely new form of painting, on its own. This holds true for other art forms as well: music, writing, etc.

    Being an artist does not mean that you have to come up with a completely new way to interpret your medium. There are varying degrees of creativity. A true artist takes their medium in a new direction that captures the listener/viewer/reader’s attention. An artist who does completely alter the way his/her medium is done/viewed belongs in the category of artistic genius. For the vast majority of artists they will never attain this distinction. But being able to affect someone with your work is very powerful and a distinction that should be honored, cherished and celebrated.

  2. Reductionism run amok.

    Part of the power of art, music, or literature to move us is the context of it’s creation.

    Would Van Gogh have the same poignancy without his madness? Or the tragedy of Mozart dying young? Keats? I cannot imagine a server crash, or a dead motherboard, being on the same par.

    A computer will never love, shed tears, or laugh for sheer joy of being alive. Or wonder why it exists, or what It All Means.

    Keep writing.

    • You, s.p.o.d. I answered already – still not sure what I think about this. You are right, but I don’t like it that I feel more when I know stuff about the creator. Hmph.

  3. Ann,

    Wont do it often, but you simply must read the short story called’The ultimate melody’. It is the final extention of this thinking.

  4. Ann,

    My sister faced this same realization (to her horror) when, after writing a passage for her next book, she came across an almost identical passage from another author she had read years ago and had to self-evaluate her whole line of thinking: was it original or just stored in her brain from another author to surface years later as her own “work”. I think this was a bit of a crisis for her and she began the scary loop of second-guessing everything she had ever written. I agree with the notion that “repackaging” is “original”. The Harry Potter series took all kinds of myth, fairy tale and saga-type imagery and plot and presented a modern story that millions upon millions of kids and adults loved. That’s really my only (personal) litmus test–do I like it? If so, then, well, I like it. ‘Nuff said.

    • Wait – what kind of books does she write?! I did read what you wrote, but now I’m obsessed with the answer to my question.

      You’re right, of course…I like the “original repackaging” idea. It may be the answer to this cosmic question.

      • ooh, you’re letting me plug her first published novel on your site, yay! She’s only had one book publlshed “The Space Between Trees” by Katie Williams coming out in April (I think) by Chronicle Books. I got to “pre-read” it and I loved it. I’m so proud of her.

        Machines will never be able to duplicate the human acknowledgement of our own mortality–they can’t die and we know we will. Somehow we’d sense the difference between the two–this is my faith.

  5. But could the computer make a Bach-like composition without Bach having existed? Or a Beethoven-like composition without Beethoven having existed? I’m not surprised that a computer can create a composition that accurately mimics the style of a particular composer. When a computer can come up with Wagner without the benefit of Wagner’s compositions, but only the composers that came before him, then I’ll believe it’s “artificial intelligence.”

    I agree that human artists absorb what they’ve experienced and change it, often in a recognizable pattern. But the question is whether the computer (that still must be programmed by a human or a team of humans who understand music and its structure) can create something nearly wholly new, like the breakthroughs made in various arts by the greats like Picasso, Woolf, Joyce, Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, etc.

    It reminds me of the time back in the nineties when IBM’s Deep Blue beat Kasparov in a game of chess. This was decried/hailed. What most people missed is that Deep Blue (like all computers) is a human-made machine with a specific purpose that is essentially a collection of zeros and ones. In the case of Deep Blue, a whole team of engineers programmed the possibilities for winning and losing a match based on a given set of circumstances (placement of the chess pieces on the board). So Kasparov didn’t lose to a computer so much as he lost to a team of of very intelligent and talented engineers armed with an extremely powerful calculator.

    • Rich – I think the answer to your questions is “no,” although Cope’s goal all along was not to program the computer to compose Bach-like or Beethoven-like things, but to give it his own ideas and have it compose “Cope.” I don’t understand how it works well enough to explain better, but I think the duplication of other composer’s styles was mostly just the development of the software.

      It is less clear to me that the computer could create anything wholly new involving words, but music, because it is inherently related to math…maybe. I’d like to know the answer to that.

      I think the Deep Blue story coincides with what I think I think (?) about this. The computer can make something, but it’s ability to do so is inextricably tied to humans who…create what gets fed to the computer.

  6. “Believe” is a pop song by American singer-actress Cher. It was released in most countries at the end of 1998 by Warner Bros., as the first single from her twenty third album, Believe.
    It became one of the best-selling singles of all time.[1] having sold over 10 million copies worldwide.[2] It won the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording and was also nominated for Record of the Year.
    “Believe” is noted for its use of the Auto-Tune pitch-correction software on the singer’s vocals to create a peculiar sound effect, sometimes referred to as the “Cher effect”.

    I recognize Cher’s voice. I hear the computer “enhancement” and I fell in love with this song.

    I don’t know what this proves or says about the topic of this post, but Cher was the first to use this computer enhancing of her own voice to such HUGE success…

    • That’s a great point – and actually bears on an aspect of this I’ve been stuck on, which is that even if the computer could come up with something that touched us as art, would we be able to evaluate it on its own if it was performed in a way that required a human intermediary, like music or drama. in this case, the music was composed by a human but partly performed by a computer…so what if it was composed and performed by the computer?

  7. Yikes! Platonic contamination! We don’t create in a vacuum, but are influenced by what we’ve read and experienced. That is not the same as plagiarism or parsing bits and pieces of published work to make an “original” composition. These programs remind me of a community college student I had who lifted an essay from the text and substituted his own subject.

    Anne, your essays are sublime, regardless of the subject, because your style is so elegant and analytical. Brava!

    • Theresa – I still see pros and cons in the kind of work Cope does, mostly because what he clearly, really wants to do is create something that moves other people the way he was moved by great music. I would do it differently, but I guess if I hear some great computer composition and it moves me like Mahler…who am I to say it isn’t “real?”

      Thanks for the kind words. I can assure you that these pieces are NOT written by computer software, but by a tired and cranky old lady who really just wants to sit in a lounge chair and read the NY Times….

  8. Nice Nice Nice…Blog

    Thank You

  9. I think, for me, the mere fact that a person was involved in creating the piece of art involves imagining what sort of emotional reaction that person was having while creating that piece of music . That factor, of being able to step into someone’s shoes and experience feelings that other people have, differentiates the software created music and human created music. Not that the software music is in itself bad. Its just that there is little to understand in the music other than that it is an amalgamation of notes in the right order.


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