7 Lessons from humans on making AI music that means something

POSTED BY   Will Darbyshire
24th January 2018
ai music

As advanced technology increases its presence in our world, we are seeing more and more industries, sectors and arts be touched by Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Music is an industry that has relied on innovation and technology since the earliest days of man. A musical instrument, is, after all, an innovation. And since 1877, the technology required to record and share music has been a constant field of innovation, leading to today when music can be recorded and globally shared in a heartbeat.

And since the 60s, musicians have been looking for ways to use technology to help create new and different sounds that we can attribute musical notes to in order to add a new dimension to the ways in which we can express human emotion through sound and melody.

But today, something different is happening. We are no longer satisfied with using tech to help create new sounds and record them. Today, we are looking at how to make computers and technology actually create and compose the music we listen to.

Now, a new album has been released; a collaboration between legendary French composer/songwriter Benoît Carré, and a computer, built by Sony, called Flow Machines.

It’s a sloppy and emotionless album of semi-AI composed music, yet marks a dawn of a new era, an era which it shares with Hatsune Miku, a computer-generated, 16-year-old pop star that has been taking Japan by storm for a few years already.

I hope the future of music is not in the hands of scientists – dear God, please – but that’s not up to me. So I guess the only thing I can do is try and offer my advice, as someone who lives for music, to those scientists and their crazy machines as they pursue their ambitious goal.

To that end, here are seven moments in musical history that I think truly represent the highest standards of what many are expecting Artificial Intelligence to be able to do, one day. It might even be enough to make them realise that their goal is futile, that music composition and the human experience are inseparable, but if not, at least it shows the standard that they’ve got to match.

If you can create AI music and performance that channels this much fear, joy, pride, love, and searching, then hats off to you. If you can’t, I hope you learn to leave it alone.

Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit (1939)

Quite simply one of the most important pieces of music ever composed, and one of the most affecting performances ever recorded. Without too much hand-holding on my part, this song protests the public lynchings of black people in America’s south. who we targeted, tortured and then hung from the branches of trees like fruit.

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Holiday is not pretending as her voice cracks and wobbles and searches endlessly for an answer. But she also knows that really there is no answer; at the time of recording, it was difficult to find anybody of power to even realise that the world was goin wrong.

This recording is full of anger, compassion, fear, and loathing, leading to a moment of silence at 2min 7sec which, for a second, makes you feel like the world has stopped turning. Even as we close in on 100 years since its recording, it is an affecting work of art and social commentary that grows increasingly difficult to listen to.

João Gilberto, Águas de Março (1973)

João Gilberto basically invented this style of guitar playing, endless repeating the chords and rhythms in his bathroom with such obsession that his father feared he had lost his mind.

Really though, he was creating a voice for the Brazilian people by helping invent bossa nova.

“Bossa nova is a sacred music for many Brazilians. It’s political and nationalistic and poetic. It’s a form of high modernist art that somehow became one of the most popular kinds of music on earth.”

But it’s not the political and social power of bossa nova that makes me want you to hear this recording, rather it’s the astonishing intimacy of its simple, rhythmic instrumentation and its whispered vocals.

It is as raw as music gets and because of that it is pure, and because of that you don’t even have to understand the (very brilliant) lyrics to understand that it’s a meditation on passing time, changing seasons, and ageing, as the guitar melody follows a declining path from high to low and back again, relentless as the new day is in following the last.

David Bowie, Heroes (1977)

David Bowie, many said, was not even a member of the human race. An alien, surely, so otherworldly was his talent and his voice. But then he died, and the horrible truth was clear, he was human just like you and me.

This song, Heroes, was written in Berlin in the late 70s as the wall was coming down. It has a simple structure and simple refrain and is layered with synths and electric guitars to the point where each of the many layers become one relentless sound that doesn’t let up for over 6 minutes.

But at the 3min 20sec mark, something happens that, each and every time, makes my spine tingle and makes me, once again, for better or worse, aware that love is real because life is incredibly short. Or is life short because love if real? That’s up to you to decide, but when Bowie lifts his voice from the low, almost spoken tones of the first three minutes, he delivers a series of very simple words which reveal more about being alive and in love during a time of fear and anger than you or I could express in a lifetime.

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be Heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day

The Cure, Friday I’m In Love (1992)

At first glance, the lyrics to this song could very easily be written by a computer; they are an incredibly simple examination of the seven days of the week, eventually concluding that 6 of them are shit, because it’s Friday and I’m in love.

But this is also one of history’s most euphoric songs. It is an expression of unbridled joy and enthusiasm and the seemingly simple lyrics are actually incredibly clever in the way that they take a universal human experience (the week) and turn it into a story about impatiently waiting for love and how, once it arrives, you never want to let it go.

Robert Smith screams ‘I’m in love!’ throughout the song in a way that everybody who’s ever been in love wants to do but is too shy. Then, at the three minute mark, all attempts to rationally express joy make way for loopy noises and whoops, just as our brain does when it tries to express something it can’t but doesn’t even care because love is here and love is everything.

Frank Sinatra, Fly Me To The Moon (1964)

Sinatra recorded this song 10 years after it was written; it’s not his song but since 1964, he’s essentially owned it, so strong is the bond between his voice and the song.

I include this one on the list because Count Basie’s Orchestra, accompanying Sinatra here, deliver one of history’s best examples of the power that musicians have when playing together, live, in a room.

The track opens with a single drum. Listen closely enough and you can actually hear the wooden stick hitting the drum skin (something impossible with electronic music, but that’s by-the-by). And then, at 1min 13sec,  marked by a single snare thwack, the song completely explodes. Sinatra steps back and the orchestra punches you in the face with such power and passion that it’s impossible not to smile and, unless you’re a grouch, long to be dancing and swinging across a large, wooden dance floor.

This section opens with horns playing a melody which, earlier in the song, accompanied Sinatra’s words of ‘fill my heart with joy’. This moment, even though no-one is singing the words, does exactly that.

Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert (1975)

Keith Jarrett is one of the world’s leading jazz musicians. A pianist of rare ability, he has recorded and performed about as much as it is humanly possible to do so. Still, this recording, made on Friday, January 24, 1975, remains one of music’s greatest, most romanticised and admired moments.

Jarrett was scheduled to play a concert being organised by Germany’s youngest music promoter, a 17-year-old woman called Vera Brandes. Jarrett arrived at the venue to discover that the piano which had been placed on stage was not the one he had requested; it was small, the low end was too quiet and created a sound much more angular than Jarrett was used to. It was too late to find another piano so he refused to perform and the concert was to be cancelled at the last minute.

But Vera Brandes begged and begged him to play, it was an important, potentially career-defining moment for her. Jarrett felt for the young promoter and agreed to go on. What he then did has gone down in musical history.

On a piano he had never played, he performed music he had never heard, let alone written. That’s to say he improvised an entire 90-minute solo piano performance, not even knowing how pieces started nor finished, let alone which notes would follow the last.

The result is breathtaking. It is as close to pure human expression as you can get. It is being created entirely in the moment and it will destroy your mind. It’s truly phenomenal.  It is unfettered from any external, worldly factors and uninfluenced by any political or social climate. It is one man and one piano in one moment, never to be repeated again. The whole concert is in the video above for you, but if you think music has any worth at all, you will go out and buy a copy today.

Leonard Cohen, Leaving The Table (2016)

There are two reasons for this song being included here; the honesty and the insight.

Leonard Cohen was famed for spending his life in pursuit of understanding love and life when we all know that death awaits us all Pretty dark, yes, but, I’m sure you’ll agree, essential.

This song was written and recorded in 2016, 19 days before Cohen died at the age of 82. A man who had spent his whole life wondering what was coming now knew. He knew that his death was imminent and that he was soon ‘leaving the table’.

This is a rare, rare, thing in life. An artist who has longed to understand life and death presents us with his best answer, first hand and achingly real, moments before he was gone.  So what does he want to tell us, after all these years of wondering and finally knowing? In the gruffest yet most gentle and broken, deep immediate voice, he says:

“I don’t need a lover, no, no / The wretched beast is tame / There’s nobody missing / there is no reward / we’re spending the treasure / that love can’t afford / I know you can feel it / the sweetness restored.”

So there you have it…

Seven lessons from humans to machines on how to compose and perform music that actually matters.

7 Lessons from humans on making AI music that means something

Will Darbyshire

Will is Content Strategist with The Digital Marketing Bureau, writing on all aspects of tech. Will specialises in writing interviews and profiles, as well as all things PropTech.

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