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Music composition: A work of art or a force of nature?

Daniel Gumble
Music composition: A work of art or a force of nature?

The role of the composer is being brought into question by Imperial College London Professor Armand Leroi, who is stating a case for the natural evolution of sound as the driving force behind new music, as opposed to the artistic endeavours of the songwriter, BBC News has reported.

While many believe the art of music composition still lies with composer, Leroi is of the opinion that a natural process of audio evolution could truly belie the age-old art form. “What we are trying to find out is whether you need a composer to make music,” said Leroi. “And we don’t think you do. We don’t often think of music as evolving, but everybody knows it has a history and it has traditions. But if you think about it, it really has evolved; it is changing continuously.

“There are all the same forces of change, variation, selection and recombination as different musical traditions join together, transmute and fuse and divide again, he continued. "This is all the stuff that is familiar from our understanding of the biological world, but we see it here in music as well. We believe music evolves by a fundamentally Darwinian process - so we wanted to test that idea."

In order to put this theory to the test, Dr Bob MacCallum, mosquito researcher at Imperial College London and creator of DarwinTunes, conceived of a way to explore the idea further. This involved a computer programme that randomly produced two short loops of noise. "The notes are in any place, in any order, and the types of sound - the instrument - is completely randomly generated as well," said Dr MacCallum.

These original loops were then allowed to “breed” over time, to recombine and mix up their material, resulting with some random mutations thrown in to create four new loops. Subsequently, the four loops “reproduced” 16 new loops, and so on, until 100 random tunes were created.

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Following this process, volunteers were asked to listen to and rate the tunes, with those that were mostly disliked thrown out, and those that were liked kept and allowed to “breed” to create more new songs.  "In the beginning, [the loops were] pretty horrible," explained Dr MacCallum. "But occasionally, one was slightly less horrible, so the volunteer would give that a higher rating, and that loop and a few others that were slightly less bad than the others would go forward and have offspring. And then as evolution proceeds the music does get better."

The team found that the music had improved significantly from the original loops, with better rhythms emerging over time.  A few thousand generations on, and the music continued to improve. Meanwhile, the random mutations that occurred from time to time also started to present a few surprises. Dr MacCallum noted: "After about 3,000 generations had been listened to, there starts to be a kick drum or a bass drum, and that just spontaneously came, we didn't put any drum sounds into the algorithm."

However, the standard of the songs then started to plateau, according to a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). According to Leroi, this was partly due to some limitations with the programme, but it was also reflective of a process that can occur in life.

"Evolution of all sorts, whether you are talking about out there in the wild or in the lab, you always find you get a rapid phase of very fast evolution, and then it slows down," he said. "Of course it never slows down forever, it never just stays there. Eventually you will get another burst of evolution as something new comes along and breaks through a boundary, and we think that will happen here too."

Furthermore, the influence of peers, or absence thereof, is a factor that may also have affected the results. He added: “We know from studies that when kids are allowed to see what other people are choosing, what they choose is very different from actually what they decide themselves is the best. And it turns out that when that happens you get very different evolutionary dynamics, and if you throw marketing into that equation, the influence of big business then it changes all over again."

Yet, despite some of the test’s limitations, Professor Leroi claims that the DarwinTunes experiment confirmed his suspicions. "You can evolve music without a composer," he explained. "It's just a matter of market forces. It tells us that market forces - consumer choice - is itself a creative force, one that is actually much more important than we appreciate.

"I've no doubt that if we ran this experiment for longer, using bigger, faster computers, and millions of people rather than thousands, and for years, instead of months, we could evolve fantastic music,” he concluded. "Would it be Mozart? No, I don't think so. It would have no composer behind it, it wouldn't be the act of any individual musical genius, it would just be the people's music in its purest form."

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Tags: bbc news, imperial college london, darwin, dawrintunes, music composition

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1 comment

Fascinating study, this. Please let us know what you think. Could the role of the composer one day be made redundant?

Daniel Gumble

Daniel Gumble API STAFF
Jun 19th 2012 at 3:54PM

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