Music seems to be such a human thing, and, although as we’ve shown in our previous posts it does follow mathematical patterns, a computer couldn’t ever write good music could it? And if it could we’re miles off, right? Think again.
He expanded Emmy from the basic, prescriptive Bach chorales to incorporate many other, more complex composers, from Mozart to Scott Joplin, and even himself. Once again, many pieces were indistinguishable. Below are excerpts from two ‘Chopin’ Mazurkas, one genuine and one composed by Emmy. Can you tell the difference? Which one is genuine? We will tell you at the end which is Emmy, but how about you take the poll on the sidebar before you find out?
This has massive implications for many musicians. If a computer can write music just like, and as good as, theirs, then what is it that makes their music so great? Most identified with the soul and passion that they put into their works, but the computer can’t do this! The computer is just following mathematical patterns and algorithms. Does this mean that, ultimately, Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, and every other composer in the world were just subconsciously following similar algorithms?
Cope’s answer is an unreserved yes. He says that the emotion isn’t in the music itself, but that it triggers the emotion in our own heads. As the songwriter Irving Berlin said, “Life is 10% what you make it, and 90% how you take it.” A human composer may feel they are putting in the emotion themself, because they are feeling that emotion whilst writing it, but the emotion is triggered in them in the same way it is triggered in the listener. A computer could trigger those notes in the same way. However, people’s perceptions are very important: people are very biased when it comes to computers and emotion. When one music professor was played a piece by a later version of Emmy at a concert, having not been told it was written by a computer, he described it as “one of the most intense musical experiences of my life.” However, a year later, when played a recording of that same piece at a presentation by Cope about his work, this time knowing it was computer generated, he said, “You know, that’s pretty music, but I could tell absolutely, immediately that it was computer-composed. There’s no heart or soul or depth to the piece.” For some people, the emotional origin of the music is important, for others it is only the result.
Cope found it difficult to get Emmy a recording contract. It was just so controversial that agents wouldn’t let their artists touch it. Many also felt that with so many thousands of pieces being generated by her, the pieces didn’t seem special enough. There was simply an overload.
Cope had to move on. In 2004, he deleted Emmy. He kept the original algorithm backed up, and a small sample of the database, but for all intents and purposes, she was gone. He replaced her with the more human sounding “Emily Howell,” so named so that critics would not realise instantly that she was a computer. He used all of the scores used by Emmy as a starting point, and fed them in. Emily then has a musical conversation with Cope: she comes up with a phrase, and she responds to his positive or negative feedback. Emily learns his style, and gradually creates better and better music. Cope understandably does not want to give away to many of the precise details of how Emily works, but the results are truly amazing: original, moving music. Her first album, “From Darkness, Light”, is available on iTunes and Spotify.
This music moves me deeply; I don’t care that it comes from a computer. It is excellent, and innovative, it’s just that a computer made it rather than a human.
Emily Howell doesn’t just do pastiches, her style is recognisably unique, and adapts depending on Cope’s feedback. For this reason, Cope feels that the program is essentially an extension of him: he is just teaching her his biases, and she is speeding up the job for him. In fact, she may be better at the job with him: the element of randomness in the rule-breaking is very important in music, and humans are notoriously bad at being random. Almost everything we do is extremely predictable. In a way, computers are better at coming up with original ideas than we are.
Emily Howell may make you look at music differently. Music is emotional for us, but that emotion comes from us, not from the music itself. The music merely triggers that. I write music to express emotions and feelings, but I listen to music to feel, myself, whether or not someone intended me to feel it. That’s not important to me.
Emily Howell is an absolute miracle of AI. She is probably the first program that could really make people feel, that could bring people to tears, and Cope is a genius. He has found the essence of music, and reproduced it like never before, and we can only wait and see what he and Emily will do next. And by the way, the second of the two sound clips was Emmy.