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What Will Happen When Machines Write Songs Just as Well as Your Favorite Musician?

by | Oct 29, 2023 | CST Articles | 0 comments

As Pythagoras discovered about 2,500 years ago, music is deeply mathematical, and it’s possible to represent melody using numbers and ratios. After finishing his undergraduate degree in 2010, Ed Newton-Rex went to visit his girlfriend, who was studying at Harvard. He sat in on a coding lecture and became enraptured with the idea of writing software that could generate songs by harnessing the machine’s ability to semi-randomly recombine numbers. “Why haven’t computers been able to do this yet?” he wondered.

Over the next year, he set out to create a composing machine. Before long, his system, Jukedeck, was cranking out instrumental tunes good enough to convince some investors to back him. Newton-Rex would feed thousands of melodies his team composed—pop, blues, folk, and other genres—into the system. The neural net would decode the deep patterns in the music and crank out new melodies based on what it had intuited.

For years, video makers have licensed tunes from huge “libraries” of Muzak-y stuff produced by humans. Now, AI offers fresh compositions at the press of a button.

Jukedeck has since penned more than 1 million songs, and the tools are point-and-click easy: Pick a genre, a “mood,” and a duration, and boom—Jukedeck churns out a free composition for your personal project or, if you pay a fee, for commercial use. Songs composed by Jukedeck and its ilk are already showing up in podcasts, video games, and YouTube content, “from explainer videos to family holiday videos to sports videos,” says Patrick Stobbs, Jukedeck’s co-founder.

The songs can be surprisingly good. I generated a 90-second folk-pop tune on Jukedeck using the “uplifting” option, with bass, drums, synthesizers, and jangly artificial guitar. The robot composer even threw in a few slick little melodic breaks. The tune wasn’t brilliant or memorable, but it easily matched the quality of human work you’d hear in videos and ads. It would take a human composer at least an hour to create such a piece—Jukedeck did it in less than a minute. All of which raises some thorny questions.

We’ve all heard about how AI is getting progressively better at accomplishing eerily lifelike tasks: driving cars, recognizing faces, translating languages. But when a machine can compose songs as well as a talented musician can, the implications run deep—not only for people’s livelihoods, but for the very notion of what makes human beings unique.

On the upside, the rise of AI tools could spur entirely new genres. Fresh music technologies often do. Cohen, the Orchard co-founder, asks, “If Mozart was a teenager in 2019, what would he do with AI?”