The Fear Monger’s Guide to Robot Composers

By Mark Goldfinger

Beep-boop-beep. That’s the sound robots used to make. Not anymore.

David Cope is a composer and computer scientist, probably fending off women left and right. In 1980, he was commissioned to compose a (non-rock) opera, and when he couldn’t think of anything to write, he did what we all do. He went to dick around on the computer. But seven years later, not only had he completed the opera, but he’d created a computer program capable of composing original music almost by itself. All it needed was some historical works by Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms, and EMI (Experiments in Music Intelligence) would spit out a piece of music that sounded similar to the pieces it was fed. EMI analyzed the source material and combined it in new and interesting ways. It created original, new compositions that actually sounded good.

Scared yet? No? Just wait.

So after years of creating scores of Bach-like music, Cope decided it was time to stop leaching off the masters. He dumped everything EMI had learned. But he kept all the original works she’d produced, and only fed her those pieces as source material. If you’ve seen Michael Keaton in the 1996 comedy Multiplicity, you’ll no doubt remember that cloning a clone turns out to be a disaster. A hilarious romp of a disaster, but still. However, the works EMI turned out were critically acclaimed successes. She had developed her own voice and was renamed Emily Howell. Her first album From Darkness, Light dropped in May 2010.

One Amazon.com reviewer praised Emily’s debut album as, “... an experience that would be akin to losing a lover and child,” while another admits, “I took it off of my iTunes after playing it twice.” Indeed the fires of controversy burn bright on this issue.

We already use computers to edit films, process photographs, record and enhance music. Artists actually have a great working relationship with technology. So what’s the hang up with introducing computers into music composition? Composers use writing programs like Finale and Sibelius to put their musical ideas on digital paper. But there’s something about allowing the program to do most of the creating on it’s own that crosses the line from a platonic professional partnership to a place of adulterous android sodomy. Sure I can use Photoshop to Gaussian blur my freckles into an even tan, but I’m the one at the controls making the artistic choices. Not a bunch of mindless zeros and ones.

But music is different. It’s so rooted in math and science that it seems to make more sense to trust computers with it. Harmonies are measured in pitch ratios, time is subdivided into precise fractions, and equations can determine whether tones will be pleasing or dissonant to our ears. I’ve been relying on computers for everything math related since my TI-83. Isn’t it time we moved from the fallible counting abacus to a state of the art Texas Instrument? I have a natural skepticism when it comes to computers. Google is still suggesting links for Sunset Segway Tours because of that one time I googled “How to break up with your girlfriend.” But when I listened to Emily Howell’s music, my fears of a cacophonous brainwashing anthem faded away like a Sting ballad. Here’s a sample of Emily Howell’s work.

Chances are you couldn’t call out this piece as being particularly unfeeling or mechanical. And if you can’t tell the difference, and it causes you to feel something, then the piece has done it’s job and it’s another example of robots joining the workforce and stealing American jobs. This program could theoretically produce a near infinite number of original works and odds are some would be comparable to the greatest human composed music of all time. And if a robo-composition can be just one person's favorite song, I feel like the robot could sleep well at night. It works at the rate of 100 live composers, at a cost of practically nothing, and doesn’t bitch about royalties. From a business standpoint, we can’t afford not to use this software. But from an artistic perspective, knowing that the piece was created in a lab does make it feel pretty soulless.

But if a human wrote the software, and the software wrote the music, then didn’t the human technically still write the music?

No. When your boss tells you to write something, and you do it based on her directives, you still wrote it. She might get some sort of story credit, but let’s not short-change the computer. It’s not simply doing things David Cope would have done, only faster. It’s analyzing, recombining old ideas, and creating new material in ways Cope hadn’t imagined. Nice try, Cope. Now hand the money over to the computer. I don’t know, try jamming it in the CD tray.

There’s still a natural inclination to be freaked out that a bloodless computer program is capable of creating art. After all, art is an expression of feelings, and computers aren’t supposed to have those. But the thing that’s upsetting about computer composition is that David Cope was able to take the magic of music and boil it down to it’s basic mathematical components. By creating Emily Howell, he pulled back the curtain and robbed artistic creation of some of it’s specialness. He answered a question that nobody really wanted answered. Music can tug at your heartstrings, and we don’t want to give machines the power to manipulate our emotions. I think that’s what Terminator was all about. So what’s the solution? Either we concede that there is no magical element to art and accept the new and beautiful robot operas (roboperas), or we smash the computer, burn David Cope at the stake for being a witch, and pretend like this never happened. I think we all know the mature decision. So don’t forget your robopera glasses. 

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