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Musical DNA

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Which came first: Language or Music? We're still not sure, but now we'll ponder what comes next. Producer Jonathan Mitchell brings us a piece about David Cope, the composer and professor at UC Santa Cruz, who cured his artist’s block by writing a computer program to do the dirtywork for him. His program, named EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence), deconstructs the works of great composers, finding patterns within the voice leading of their compositions, and then creates brand new compositions based on the patterns she finds. But it's not just copy and paste. She brings something new to the pieces. Drift along to the eerily enchanting music of EMI Mahler and ask yourself this: What would Mahler think of an EMI Mahler score? Brillant music? A forgery?

Comments [21]

Jacques Brierre from Oxford

Not sure what this would be a threat to. It certainly is better listening than the commercial garbage heard on the radio, sold on CD, streamed, or on TV -- though not all day; it has its limitations :-)
But it is experimental and has some built-in curiosity aspect.
How did EMI become Emmy?

Dec. 25 2015 10:56 AM
Erik B. from Silicon Valley

I'm a software engineer and (was) a piano and clarinet player. I find this project absolutely brilliant.

An algorithm that analyzes a composer's works (or, at least the ones fed into it) and then comes up with common themes is brilliant. What an incredible research project. I wish I had been involved as mapping human creativity to machine-understanding is exactly the kind of project I would love to do.

Amusing to read peoples' comments about how the machine-composed music is soulless, that the machine is threatening to humanity, and so on.

I think the critics are judging the machine against criteria that were not part of the original goal (like complaining that Archimedes just didn't Einstein's work) and are also failing to remember that the musical masters also created a lot of garbage between masterpieces, which is perfectly normal for anyone developing his or her art. This is true in sports and other endeavors, too.

So, if you don't like the generated music, perhaps you should accept that not everything is a hit, and that research like this, while an amazing leap forward, is still not complete, and you should just appreciate the genius of this research.

Nov. 02 2015 03:01 PM
Bill Andersoot

Breathtakingly horrible. Every time I thought a piece might go somewhere, it went nowhere instead. The beauty of music comes from human knowledge and the human heart. Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Mozart, Brahms--these composers wrote great music because they knew what we expect and they understood how to exceed or to play with our expectations. This garbage is utterly emotionless and nonsensical. It sounds precisely like what you would expect from a machine. Reminds me of the PDQ Bach piece that's nothing but endings. Excruciatingly bad.

Oct. 31 2015 05:56 PM
Will from Washington

Does anyone know the EMI Bach piece from around 8:30?

Jan. 19 2015 05:58 PM

I like the way 'Spencer from Texas' put it; and it is usually like the pop music in advertising, where they loop a 'signature riff' from a popular song. It is characteristic, but lacks actual character, perhaps distilled until it has no sense (scents). It has promise, but cannot deliver any kind of message or meaning, because it has no intellect driving the style into a useful experience. I wonder if the programmer has tried letting composers 'wear' one another's style, to present their own musical ideas. What to the fans of the impersonator and of the impersonated think of the result?

Jun. 22 2014 03:36 PM
lkbjazz433 from bk

what is that bach piano piece at 4 mins in? is it a chorale or prelude or something?

Apr. 23 2014 02:27 AM
Spencer from Texas

I just spent a few hours listening to David Cope's work with his program and in my opinion, it certainly lacks the genius of it's benefactors. Where this program could have been a great stepping stone, it sounds like a long crooked crutch. Everything sounds one-dimensional and occasionally there are these discordant flubs which sound like random notes. Basically, it comes across as too unguided, too unedited, too unmolded to be good. Aside from that, he likes to garnish his work with terribly sub-par cg-visuals, which really cheapen the music. Hearing the radiolab program filled me with hope and interest, but the real product(as propigated by his videos) is largely garbage. If he would just hone a piece to completion, there is potential in each I have heard, but most really sound amateur . . . and he is a professor. He should know better. I am no composer, nor am I famous, nor do I have any right to say what I say as more than a mere opinion. I am just one guy who knows what he likes when he hears it. None of this remotely scratched the itch better than the real thing. Keep trying. Maybe one day the program will be able to create music, if not with more verisimilitude to genius, then perhaps with more quality and complexity of soul.

Nov. 03 2013 03:20 PM

is the bach style chorale featured in the radiolab piece on musical dna available other than on youtube? either for purchase or download?

May. 11 2013 01:36 PM

Bach choral located here

or type,Bach style chorale emmy david cope on youtube

May. 11 2013 11:51 AM
Joe Kesselman from Orbiting Boston

I don't find this any more threatening than I do recordings, or player pianos, or written music. There is still an original composer and performer... but in this case it's a meta-performer, the software artist who constructs the tool that generates the music, and who makes the artistic decisions about what works and what doesn't.

All music builds upon what the composer has heard previously. Some of it is specifically styled after other works, either as homage or as learning exercise or simply as a way to bootstrap the creative exercise. All that's really new here is that the machine is helping to pick apart what the elements of those styles are.

It's a nice demo. I'd be more impressed if it could articulate what those elements actually are.

Mar. 03 2012 09:18 PM
Lukis Stevens from Miami

I believe that EMI could be used not only for reconfiguring these classics but could keep an archive of these songs. Another point is how EMI could help create knew patterns that we have not thought of trying and remeber nothing is new only recylced.

Feb. 18 2012 01:47 PM

First off, where can I buy the CD with the Bach chorale, the one sung by the choir?!

Second, I do not find EMI's music a slap or a threat to the music from past or present composers because EMI is not capable of creating a new style or a new genre of music.

EMI is only capable only of mimicking it and only after the original composer has produced quite a number of his/her original pieces (the higher the number of pieces, the more accurate EMI becomes in creating its own theme variations).

The geniuses of music (the Mozarts, the Beethovens, the Bachs, the Chopins), on the other hand, are so because they broke away from their own respective music tradition and created something completely new (new as in original, new as in never even be aware of). It's a subtle difference of "newness" the one that created by EMI and the one created by great composers.

If anything, the lesson we (and today's composers) can learn from EMI, is that of mediocrity. I can see how the mediocre, the non-creative composer can feel threatened by EMI (and rightfully so). But the geniuses, no. They have no reason to be at all concerned.

Oct. 31 2011 06:42 AM
Jonah from Seattle, WA, USA

Where is the chorus piece that was show during the podcast - the piece that was constructed from the piano piece that the guest thought he didn't like until he gave to a choir? I've been searching the file page and I haven't been able to find it. I thought it was so beautiful. Please let me know where I can find it. Thanks!

Oct. 09 2011 12:46 PM
Nicole from Stuttgart, Germany

I think EMI might be way too under appreciated. Technology has eliminated a lot of process and enhanced the access of things. No one says, "Cell phones (especially the tough-screen phones) have taken away the feeling of dialing on the phone with its spiral cord attached to it." Because cell phones allows people to readily make and receive calls much faster. Or photo copying a book instead of hand-copy everything on paper, taking the airplane instead of riding a horse or taking a ship.
I think EMI may be one of those things that allows whoever with creativity to create without being able to access to an expensive musical childhood. The understanding that EMI took away the human touch is not the point. EMI may allow creativity in the musical field to be more exciting and interesting as more creative ideas are enabled to flow into the scene faster, and generate a more competition and devotion.

Sep. 16 2011 06:37 AM
Jorge Silva from Richmond, VA

This reminds me of something similar done in the analysis of art.

Technology provides us the opportunity to see what's behind the work of the 'genius' or genius (as you which to call it).

Aug. 21 2011 09:33 PM
Roq from Seattle, WA

Ah, just re-listening to old episodes. They're still fun. In regards to this segment, I sympathize with Cope and EMI, and I think people should just chill and enjoy music if it sounds good. However, he presents his creation as if it somehow diminishes the mystery or rareness of composing talent, and his detractors are, I think, very mildly presented as stuffy old bores. At the least, they're never defended robustly.

So I'd just like to say: EMI hasn't created anything. Everything she makes is cribbed from the masters (I'm more impressed with Cope's algorithim skills). Without that initial input that she broke down into math, she'd have nothing. This is self-evidently true, as the music she creates using the formulas of Bach sounds like, well... Bach.

Cope may say that he doesn't have ten years to create things as beautiful as EMI creates, and that's all well and good. But I'm reminded of an early memory of grade school. One of our students (we were 11 or 12, I believe) was a very good pianist, and also very shy. After much cajoling, our teacher prevailed upon him to give the class a little show. His fingers flew across the keyboard for a couple minutes and the class was suitably amazed; then he slunk back to his seat. Our teacher knew quite a bit about music, and with a knowing smile, asked which composer he'd played. He had just made it up on the spot. He was studying Beethoven, and he formulated something that sounded very much like it on command because he didn't have any sheet music with him.

So... Cope may not be able to create things that sound like the work of famous composers with ease, but I guarantee you there are people who can do it. That doesn't make them better or worse than EMI: in both cases, it takes knowledge of the original work to create the fascimile. I certainly took a great deal of pleasure in my classmate's show, even if it wasn't written by Beethoven. But the true genius is contained within the first composition.

This is, I think, the essence of people's objections to things like EMI, even if they don't know how to put it in words. She ends up getting more credit than she deserves. What she creates is different technically, in the sense of such and such a note goes up here instead of down, is louder here instead of quiet, etc... but the spirit of the work is merely borrowed.

All that being said: this objection can go too far, and to some degree I think we need to a) understand the limitations of the creation, and b) enjoy it anyway.

Jan. 31 2011 01:04 PM
sfkaufman from New York City

Brilliant! The original intention of the composer can now be fully realized through the advent of the primary reason for computers to exist - the elevation of man's soul into the gift bag of the Creator. When we have genuine breakthroughs in consciousness then we will be able to restructure our own inclinations, but until then, "beam me up Scotty."

Sep. 19 2010 10:21 AM
Erica Johnson from Bemidji, MN

I always thought that when listening to an artist's work (Bach, for example) you're actually hearing a piece of thier soul: You get a real feel for how they think, imagine, etc. It's a way to have a conversation, in a sense, that is timeless. This was a nice piece Radiolab. Thanks!

May. 26 2010 10:51 AM
Nick from Oakland

What a great episode! I was hoping to hear to full vocal performance of EMI's Bach chorale. Can anyone help me out?

May. 11 2010 01:28 AM
Konstantin Pogorelov from San Francisco, CA

When you say "we" is that a royal "we" or do you presume to speak for more than just yourself?

I believe that a defining quality of a work of art is that it is structurally whole and this whole is "more than the sum of it's parts": it embodies the thought of the creator.

It is generally agreed that musical composition relies on musical theory, and no one "owns" the elements outlined therein. SImilarly, no one "owns" any particular existing word or poetic meter. However, creating a "Finnegan's Run" out of a Keats poem by rearranging the words or phrases only succeeds in muddling the effect of the poem. Similarly, I believe a replication of a Bach praeludium approaches perfection in direct proportion to it's fidelity to the original composition, the most perfect solution being the original one.

Thus, ethical considerations aside, such efforts can not be considered artistic or creative from a logical standpoint. It is this that in my opinion the man who flicked Prof. Cope on the nose understood: rather than being disturbed by the success of "his" music, I feel it was brought on by contempt for someone who did not understand this principal, without which art is no longer.

Jul. 19 2009 08:42 AM
Carlo Maley from Philadelphia

I think that the people who get so upset upon hearing and learning about EMI (e.g. the colleague who poked Cope in the nose), are fundamentally misunderstanding what he has done. Cope has basically developed a way of riffing on other composers. Much like a scratch rap artist resamples old music to make a new work, Cope's program recombines bits and patterns of a composer to make a new work. If we like it, if it sounds good, it is because the music of the original composer sounds good and Cope has done a good job of figuring out a way to recombine the pieces in a pleasing format.

Contrast what Cope has done to an automated text generator. They are very different things. When a text generator analyzes a large set of texts and then generates a new text, the result is almost impossible to read because there is no intent to communicate behind the words. There is no point in reading it.

When EMI produces a derivative work of Mozart, it probably lacks the patterns within patterns within patterns of the maestro's intellect, but it may still sound nice and be interesting because it is the fruit of the maestro's seed. It may also be surprising because it does not take some expected turns. We should rejoice that there is more music in the world in styles that we appreciate because of EMI.

Nov. 05 2007 05:26 PM

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