Computer Composer

Computer Composer © 2014 Clipart.com

A new computer program can generate an infinite amount of original music.



A songwriter with no soul. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

[sfx: music]

The composer of this music is only a couple years old. It's a computer program, designed by scientists at the University of Grenada in Spain. Computer scientist Miguel Molina says their artificial intelligence system can crank out infinitely long, spontaneous compositions that suit particular moods.

We have different melodic patterns, different rhythms, different instrument combinations, for every kind of emotion.

He says the program could make background music cheaper for businesses like department stores by eliminating the need for licensing fees. But he also thinks the program could be used by human composers, inspiring them with new ideas when they're suffering from writers' block. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

Computers have been used in making music for decades now. Today, they're an indispensable element of hip-hop, rap, electronica, and many other kinds of popular music. They can imitate any instrument, generate drum loops, and mix and match elements like samples on top of new material.

However, all these kinds of computerized music require a human programmer to tell the computer exactly what to do. In these respects, the computer is really like a conventional instrument. In contrast, Molina's computer program (called Inmamusys, short for Intelligent Multiagent Music System) actually puts music together on its own. Although human programmers loaded Inmamusys with all kinds of information about music theory, the computer doesn't need a programmer to create a new tune. It just spontaneously noodles around within the guidelines it's been given, resulting in music that no person can claim to have created.

Inmamusys' compositions aren't likely to win any Grammys or score any top-40 hits. Without a human artist behind them, they can't convey a specific point of view or deeply felt emotion. Instead, they sound like pleasant, non-descript background music that you might hear in a store, or while you're on hold on the telephone. In fact, that's the type of setting that Inmamusys was created for. You see, even though you don't really pay attention to music you hear in these situations, the company that's using the background music has to pay a royalty to the composer. For no more than an up-front fee to purchase the software, Molina's system could generate an infinite amount of background music free and clear of all royalties, potentially saving big bucks.

Of course, human musicians may have reason to worry about Inmamusys, since some musicians get a surprisingly large chunk of their income from Muzak versions of their radio hits, or background music that they compose to order. On the other hand, Molina suggests that the software could be a help when a human composer gets stuck writing a new song: perhaps by providing a random hint as to where the song could go next. If the inspiration pays off, the musician could use it without fear of getting sued by his or her virtual collaborator.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is Inmamusys? How does it differ from other kinds of musical computers?
  2. How is the computer program like a human composer? How is it different?
  3. Do you think computer programs like these could someday compete with human songwriters? Why or why not?

You may want to check out the June 19, 2009 Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: prairie dogs sound the alarm, turning bed bugs against themselves, bird songs vary by climate, and improving forensic voice comparison.

Going Further

For Educators

In the National Geographic News article "Robot Scientist" Equal to Humans at Some Tasks, read about a "robot" that can formulate hypotheses, design experiments, and interpret results on par with the best of its human counterparts.

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