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It’s like a cracked record in the blogosphere; an innovative new technology appears and the same headlines pop up all over the www announcing that artist’s days are numbered, we will all soon be listening to music made by machines, and that all those musician types better start thinking about getting real jobs.

It’s happening all over again right now with Taryn Southern releasing her new tracks that are ‘composed by AI’.  Tech bloggers are announcing that the musical singularity has arrived and that composers are now obsolete, but is that really true?

Musical Mutation

…mutation is part of the process of evolution. If humans weren’t so obsessed with building better machines to make music there’d be no Wu-Tang or Rihanna and we’d all still be sitting around the player-piano listening to Henry Mancini.

Taryn Southern used Amper in the process of making her new songs.  Amper is an AI driven composition platform that can generate songs based on very simple stylistic cues. Amper is highly sophisticated software and Taryn Southern’s use of Amper is innovative and novel, but Southern’s new tracks are just like most popular music of the last century – a marriage of humanity and technology – not a replacement of one by the other.

People freaked out when electric guitars gave birth to rock and roll; electrified music was predicted to bring the demise of civilization. When the first synthesizers appeared there was another cultural cringe against electronic music. Sampling, looping, Auto-Tune, digital production, DJ culture; every incremental step in the mutation of music has been greeted by a certain segment of society with disdain and ridicule – but mutation is part of the process of evolution. If humans weren’t so obsessed with building better machines to make music there’d be no Wu-Tang or Rihanna and we’d all still be sitting around the player-piano listening to Henry Mancini.

Some commentators would have us believe that artificial intelligence is somehow different as a technology – that AI in music will make musicians obsolete in the same way robots are taking over the jobs of factory workers.

The tech bloggers point to the accomplishments of Amper, and ask whether these machines are actually better at making music than people. But this new generation of music technology is actually opening musician’s horizons wider, not closing them out.

Can Robots Make Musicians Redundant?

Since the early 2000’s musicians and technologists have been collaborating on the creation of incredibly sophisticated and responsive musical robots. In 2009 the world was introduced to Shimon, a xylophone playing jazz robot built by researchers at Georgia Tech. Shimon is able to accomplish many of the feats performed by great musicians; it can listen to its fellow musicians, improvise with them and interpret some of the subtle physical cues that human musicians use to communicate with each other in real time.

Shimon and its like are amazing and exciting machines but to ask whether they will replace human musicians is, I think, an irrelevant question. At a fundamental level, a machine that makes music will always be a musical instrument, not a musician because music is the expression of human experience.

At a fundamental level, a machine that makes music will always be a musical instrument, not a musician because music is the expression of human experience.

A musical machine can’t express itself in a true sense because it lacks human consciousness – it serves only to express the intentions of its creators and enhance their ability to communicate their inner life. Shimon is not a musician in the same way that a DJ booth is not a musician – you can play records all night long but you don’t create new music until a human starts scratching and looping.

Watch musicians performing live with Shimon the jazz robot at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival:

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