Video: Hear robot composers resurrecting The Beatles and Bach

Illustration: Christian Tate

There’s been much talk of robotisation of late, but if there’s one thing that surely can’t be simulated by machines it’s that most universal, emotion-laden and uniquely human pursuit: making music. Except when it can, as we found out in our investigation into automation for the current issue of DG, ‘The year of the robot’.

Have a listen to this:

The soprano melody (the top line in the score above) was composed by a human (it’s from the hymn Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, written in 1641 by Georg Neumark), but the three harmony parts below it were generated by an algorithm known as DeepBach, which mimics the style of JS Bach’s chorale cantatas – a particular class of baroque hymns sung in four-part harmony. Mimics it so closely, in fact, that DeepBach fooled musicologists and music students into attributing the works to the real 18th-century composer almost half the time in tests.

Exciting or troubling? Or both? You don’t need to be an expert on baroque music to be unnerved by this increasingly convincing technology. In the article we also report on the first ever pop song composed by artificial intelligence. Computer scientists at Sony CSL Research Laboratory have created a system called Flow Machines that mines databases of existing songs to create original ditties in a similar style. It came up with the first of these, Daddy’s Car, after “listening” to songs by The Beatles.

Is it just us, though, or does this sound more like The Beach Boys than the Fab Four? (Sorry, robots, if you’re getting into songwriting, you’ll find everyone’s a critic – you’d better get used to it.)

 

Humans aren’t quite out of the band yet, though. DeepBach is only adept at reharmonising other composers’ melodies into the distinctive style of Johann Sebastian, and, while Daddy’s Car was created by AI, it still needed French composer Benoît Carré to produce the final arrangement and write the lyrics. In any case, if sophisticated forms such as chorale cantatas and classic pop songs are already proving susceptible to automation, there’s not likely to be many corners of culture that are immune to robot artistes in the coming years. Roll over Beethoven indeed.

For a full, in-depth look at our automated future, from culture-by-algorithm to robotised warfare, read ‘The year of the robot’, in Delayed Gratification #25, available now from our online shop.

 

 

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