From MPCs to Robots? Technology is Changing How Music is Created

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The marriage of music and technology has been around for millennia, but the major strides made in the last few decades alone have brought music tech to more exciting and progressive places than ever before. In a recent development, a program has been developed that is exploring the realm of musical improvisation without the presence of human beings. Called Melomics, the technology “applies non-conventional evolutionary algorithms to creating original music without human intervention,” but its purpose is not to rid the world of musicians. Rather, the hope is that using the program in research will help to develop techniques in dealing with things like phobias, pain perception,  stress, and countless other biological and psychological processes.

While the idea that using computers and robots to compose original music may mean that one day we will hear works composed by something without human components, the potential for therapeutic benefits are far more pertinent. The concept behind Melomics and other programs like it is called “computational creativity,” which is an umbrella term for artificial intelligence that aims to replicate human creativity, something that has long since been explored in literature, film, and television. Films like Her and A.I. explore the “what would happen if?” trope, but every day there are tangible, real-world applications of computational creativity being used to further scientific, medical, and technological progress. And, while musicians aren’t the only kinds of humans who thrive on creativity, they are some of the most useful for scientists.

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According to a recent article in Mic, Jazz musicians are offering up an endless supply of insight into how a computationally creative system can be built to mimic human processes. A program called MUSICA (Music Improvising Collaborative Agent) “will take cues from a long history of Jazz royalty, including the great geniuses of improvisation, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. The software will play collaboratively, as if it were a human musician jamming at an open mic.” Earlier this week, Mic published another article, this one addressing Melomics and its potential uses. “What’s novel here,” they explain, “is how Melomics treats the data, or the notes and structures, like a similar software would treat animal genomes, sequencing them according to bio-inspired algorithms and rocking out on a digital synth.” One of the benefits of such software would be the ability to create one single instrument that could teach people how to play any instrument (which could also solve the problem of buying expensive, traditional experiments). The prototype multi-instrument could “prompt musicians to teach themselves the fundamentals of instruments they’ve never touched before,” since it could “go from drum set to violin in a matter of seconds.”

In the realm of music, technological advances have brought forth champions and dissenters, perhaps nowhere more visibly than in Hip-Hop. From the Beastie Boys, J Dilla, Kanye West, and countless others, the creation of music is often synonymous with machines and computer-generated software. The implementation of drum machines, keyboards, production software, and samplers are tools with which original music can be made with the help of a computer, so is the future of music tech like Melomics and MUSICA more of the same, or are we headed towards a nuance-free, cyborg-infested recording studio?

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