Menus Subscribe Search

Write a String Quartet? There’s a Program for That

• June 14, 2012 • 11:48 AM

Reboot, Beethoven: One group of Canadian concert-goers enjoyed computer-generated works as much as those written by humans.

A few years from now, as you take your seat in a concert hall, you might open your program and find a puzzling announcement: Tonight we’ll be hearing works by André Previn, Henry Purcell, and Hewlett Packard.

An annoying example of product placement? Actually, it could be an accurate, if incomplete, indicator of authorship.

And without that notification, we might never know the difference.

Most of us like to think we could easily differentiate between a piece of music written by a human being and one generated by a computer. But a paper just presented at the International Conference on Computational Creativity 2012 suggests otherwise.

In it, three researchers from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver—Arne Eigenfeldt, Adam Burnett and Philippe Pasquier—describe a real-world test of their ongoing collaboration, the Musical Metacreation Project.

A metacreation, as they explained when launching the initiative in 2009, “is software which, using aspects of artificial intelligence, cognitive modeling, artificial life or machine learning, displays creative behaviors; that is, behaviors which would be considered creative if performed by humans.” (For an in-depth look at how software can write symphonies, see our 2010 feature “Triumph of the Cyborg Composer”.)

This past December, the trio presented a public concert of world-premiere compositions, which were performed by a professional string quartet, a percussionist, and a Disklavier (a mechanized piano that can interface with a computer).

“Ten compositions by two composer/programmers were created by five different software systems,” they report. “Two of the works were human-composed, while a third was computer-assisted. The audience was not informed which compositions were human-composed.”

Performances of some of the compositions can be viewed here:

In Equilibrio
[youtube]x5fIdHbqEhY[/youtube]

One of the Above #2
[youtube]gAIjQOiMG54[/youtube]

Gradual
[youtube]HZ2_Pr35KyU[/youtube]

Experiri
[youtube]Gr5E7UVUoE8[/youtube]

Fundatio
[youtube]rNXt8b-kLMQ[/youtube]

The 46 audience members were asked to indicate on a one-to-five scale their familiarity with contemporary classical music. They then rated how “engaging” they found each of the 10 works, again using a one-to-five scale.

The key findings: “The audience did not discern computer-composed from human-composed material.” Listeners generally considered the works appealing, but they found the human-composed works no more enjoyable than those created by computers.

What’s more, the listeners who described themselves as musically knowledgeable were no more likely to discriminate between the two than were the musical novices.

Needless to say, the digital Debussys weren’t doing this on their own. As Eigenfeldt and his colleagues note, the compositions reflect “the artistic sentiment of their designers.” The approval of the audience suggests the systems in question “were successful in portraying the goal, aesthetic and style of the two composers who generated them,” they write.

This raises an enticing, albeit ghoulish, prospect. Could an aging genius composer program a computer to turn out a continuing stream of “his” or “her” works, long after their death? The mind boggles. Roll over, Beethoven, and reboot.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.