Tag Archives: Computer-generated music

Is It Musical?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-54) was among the first to propose that computer programs would someday simulate human creativity. He argued that the hardwiring of computers and human brains were essentially the same, and that the “thought processes” of both could be reduced to mechanical calculations. This concept of disembodied cognition gained enthusiastic support in the initial wake of the computer revolution. Among other things, it spurred predictions that programs would be able to compose pieces and improvise jazz in a way indistinguishable from human musicians. Some even anticipated a machine that would match Bach or Beethoven.

These conjectures failed to recognize the embodied nature of the musical arts. Phrasing is structured on patterns of breathing. Articulation and tone length are imitative of language. The functional morphology of hands informs the range of a musical line. The emotional mind directs melodic movement. Many of us intuitively discern human performances from computer-generated music, even when a digital creation uses samples from live instruments. Our humanity detects the unhumanity of the piece.

Computers cannot, by themselves, generate the musical in music. They may excel at translating a sequence of symbols into audible information, but they do not grasp or communicate structural or affective musical meanings. They produce precision without spirit.

In a similar fashion, human performers can be judged by their musicality, or the feeling they bring to a given piece. As listeners, we make connections between the music we hear and extra-musical images, ideas and sensations, such as drama, poetry and passions. If we do not sense these layers in a performance, we withhold the label of musical. An assiduous player can master instrumental technique and conquer challenging literature. But unless something of that person’s interior life is heard, the playing will come across as dull or dry. This is largely what sets impassioned artists like Jascha Heifetz apart from many other skilled musicians.

In contrast, popular singers often lack the dexterity and tone quality typically looked for in Western music. If assessed exclusively for their voices, they would be deemed mediocre or worse. However, they possess what might be called a musical soul. Their innate sense of sound—and their sense of self projected in that sound—is both palpable and seductive. Their instruments may not be conventionally beautiful and their music may not be objectively artful; but their presentation is thoroughly musical. Singers fitting this description include icons such as Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.

Impressive range and technical acumen do not always amount to musical music. Meticulous performers who convey little emotion are akin to exacting computers: the notes are polished and the passages precise, yet the essence is wanting. In the end, it is difficult to articulate or quantify exactly what this essence is. But we know it when we feel it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.