Bach To The Future: Computer Generated Musical Compositions
Bach To The Future: Computer Generated Musical Compositions

“A good composer does not imitate; he steals” - a phrase attributed to composer Igor Stravinsky and the age-old retort of all imitators and plagiarists of art.

But the idea of imitation of goes far beyond the realm of merely art – it surrounds the world around us. Mother Nature, for example, is the most capable imitator and we see the same successful patterns of natural selection reproduced in living beings separated by millions of years of evolution.

In the same way, the great composers we know and listen to today, continue to be celebrated because of their ability to compose music that is aesthetically pleasing to a great many people. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven et al, are of course still renowned because the genius of their music endures. Celebrated musical works lives on, the rest fade into the distance of the past and obscurity.

And it would seem apparent that Mother Nature kindly bestowed on us humans this very, singular ability – to discern between works of high art and low. Humans have a (largely) collective ability to distinguish something that is aesthetically pleasing by its composition of elements. In music I suppose, these would be appreciation of the composer using just the right rhythms, melodies and harmonies in their work. In the process creating something that can literally make the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end, or indeed move us to tears of sadness, passion or joy.

In this way, should it not be the case that if we could imitate the very aspects of a composer’s music that made their work so appealing and enduring, we might immortalise them in with ‘new compositions’ celebrating their artistry.

It’s a compelling idea but the reality is that such undertakings almost always results in simulacra, or in other words a form that is removed from the original and without its substance or qualities. A parody in most cases.

At Sonatica Classical Radio, we recently undertook our own (not particularly technical or scientific) investigation into this idea using the freely available software packages PushBtnBach and CyberMozart. The software packages purport to produce “algorithmic composition in the style” of the said composers and we have included examples of 2 pieces of music generated below:

The first hurdle we faced was that these packages only function on Apple Mac OS Classic. Cue IT Support for this rather odd request who fortuitously had an ageing Macintosh PowerBook 150 as part of their personal technology collection. This technological relic from 1992 was equipped with a glorious black and white LCD screen of the most appalling contrast, a track-ball, the ubiquitous floppy disk drive complete with other pre-internet capabilities.

I’ll skip significant the challenge of getting the software downloaded to our modern PC, and onto a floppy disk that was readable by the elderly laptop.

Once we had the software up and running it was time to generate some music in the style of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach. Both programs provided some input settings to vary aspects such as Form, Pitch, Rhythm, Harmony, Nuance, Texture and Methods.

Whilst the resulting compositions were somewhat different in each new MIDI file that was generated, we found they most likely followed a standard template of a set duration and in a particular style of the composer’s original work. The examples above are what we considered to the best specimens that the software was capable of producing from about 40 other unique input settings. It seems, at least in this case, that such software relies heavily on what computer programs do best – to put it simply, being programmed to perform a particular task according to certain constraints. 

From our albeit limited reading on the subject it does seem that more recent software is able to produce much greater subtleties and more ‘intelligent’ methods of composition, as opposed to the repetative melodies we generated.

The University of Washington, in Seattle, has recently discussed MusicNet, a system that enables computers to read large numbers of classical pieces and identify patterns. “At a high level, we’re interested in what makes music appealing to the ears, how we can better understand composition - or the essence of what makes Bach sound like Bach,” said Sham Kakade, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the university.

Do you have any thoughts about AI music composition? Let us know in the comments below.


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