Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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