Sunday 25 August 2013

Food for Thought on a Summer Sunday Morning (and Music, too!)

You all know how much music gets played on this blog. Likewise, I also write about music and today I would like to bring your attention to this short, but very interesting, article on the future of music. Reproduced here without any permission, I hope you enjoy this piece. Thanks, I'm still on holidays.

Evolutionary music doesn't mean the death of the creator - by Victor Keegan

Is this the end for music as we know it?
We know that internet technology has disrupted the music industry, but could it disrupt music itself, or painting, or literature? Armand Leroi, professor of evolutionary development biology at Imperial College, London, believes music is already in the frame. He told Radio 4's Today programme today: "What we are trying to find out is whether you need a composer to make music … and we don't think you do."

The idea is that music can evolve: a computer programme randomly churns out two short loops of noise which, if judged pleasant by a human participant, are allowed to "breed" and recombine, mixing up the material to create four new loops, and so on. The surviving, thriving loops end up exhibiting some of our favourite musical traits: major chords, rhythms and so on.

Whether similar techniques could produce paintings or poems remains to be seen but art, especially non-representational art, is already facing an identity crisis. For some time it has been difficult to tell the difference between paintings created by apes and those made by humans, as websites which allow you to compare them – such as An Artist or an Ape ( confirm. Now that computers are generating random shapes and colours it is becoming impossible to distinguish between human and machine-generated work.

This doesn't matter if you merely want something pleasant to look at, but it does raise the perennial problem "What is art?" in a more challenging form. Does it matter if art can't pass some kind of Turing test, in which human endeavour can be separated from chance? And who gets the credit – the creator of the software, the person who presses the button to produce myriad random patterns or the person who chooses one of those patterns as their art?

With some photo applications such as Instagram, which applies filters to pictures prior to them being shared on a social network, it can be difficult to know whether you are looking at a photo or a painting. Maybe it doesn't matter. The digital revolution enables almost anyone with an idea to become a creator of art. Who knows, in the future, people may decide they would prefer to have their own randomised art at home rather than the work of an established painter.

Sculptors are already using computer-generated three-dimensional photos to create their artwork and then getting someone else, maybe far away, to print them out on the new breed of 3D printers. If you think this is all pie in the sky – there is now an app for the iPhone, Sculpteo, enabling anyone to design their own sculptures from photographs on their mobile and have them printed out as fully formed objects on remote 3D printers. Being computer generated, it will be easy to create randomly shaped sculptures, thereby blurring traditional demarcation lines in sculpture.

Words have so far been immune to digital disruption despite there being only 26 letters of the alphabet to play around with compared with billions of colour combinations in a digital picture. This is because the output of language (words and sentences) is much more formalised than in other art forms and the maths of random generation is against you. More than 12 years ago I set up a website,, (it doesn't work well on all browsers) to see if a computer would randomly replicate two lines of poetry. A coder colleague at the Guardian, Noll Scott, predicted it would soon reach 12 or 13 correct letters (out of 48) and then take many years to progress. He was right. The programme is still running, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but it hasn't improved on 13 correct letters at one go for over eight years.

There have been lots of randomly produced poems but few are remembered. As for a computer-written novel, that is strictly for the birds unless it just extracts material from existing texts – or if the Imperial College experiments in Darwinian music can be applied to sentences.Meanwhile, in judging what is art, we would do well to remember Julian Huxley's observation – paintings by apes are pleasing to look at, and the point is they don't pretend to symbolise anything.

Next Post: "Food for Thought on a Summer Sunday Morning (and Music, too!)", to be published on Sunday 1st September at 10am (GMT)


  1. That was a very interesting article, thank you. I am glad that so far poetry cannot be manufactured by a computer or an ape. I am off to check out that ape art site now......

  2. It is indeed an interesting article. There's something of a science behind creating drawings/paintings and music. It becomes art when heart and soul put into it.

    Along the lines of artists and of predictions.. Andy Warhol was right. The internet gives everyone and everything their fifteen minutes of fame.

  3. You never know could go all planet of the apes or something here. But yeah doubtful, interesting indeed

  4. Ahhh! Didn't we face the same dilemma when we began to print books? Reproduction and imitation are great school exercises; but creativity rests on so many variables, not to mention the context of the experiences from which it was generated.

  5. Pues sigue disfrutando de las vacaciones con esa buena melodía que nos dejas que es todo un arte.
    Un abrazo.

  6. The answers and the pathways into the future will be different, I think, for the particular arts that are mentioned here.

    Given the electronics which already exist, computer-generated music is here now, for all practical purposes. It simply is a matter of continuing evolution in both creation and performance.

    As for art in relation to painting and sculpture, they began to become more a science of marketing than an act of creation in the Nineteenth Century, in my opinion, and have been on a downhill course ever since. I think work from apes and computers might be preferable to that by human hand/mind.

    Poetry and fiction will be the last to be lost by we mere mortals, logically, but who can see beyond the end of their nose?

    Neat post, CiL. My imagination is twisting and turning.

  7. Interesting. John Cage was at it years ago - only he tried to exclude "quality judgements". If the computer is allowing a human to judge whether what it's doing is pleasant/unpleasant then surely the "judge" is the composer? Such a process might be better thought of a "deskilling" the composer rather than eliminating him/her.

    I was always interested in how Cage's chance-based music managed to "sound like Cage" despite the aleatoric processes.

  8. Thanks for your comments. I'm in Shropshire right now and just managed to get Wi Fi. Will be visiting your blogs soon.

    Greetings from Shropshire

  9. see i dont think that tech will ever replace the would def lack the heart and soul that the human in the process puts in...they may prove me wrong but i just cant see it....

  10. i def. agree with bri... all the tech stuff is fantastic and it may help but it has no soul and this is what art is all about

  11. Lovely music and interesting reflection on what is art. I agree that it's more than random paring, although some of the stuff that gets published could have been written by a robot. Have you heard the musical elephants?

  12. Interesting and a little disturbing to think about being replaced by a computer... I have seen some 3-D copier but haven't considered its implication on art. Glad I'm not a sculptor

  13. My own work appears to be very structured and formal, but I try to encourage random into the work as often as I can....what is art. after all?

  14. Music and art can definitely be created by a computer, but I agree with the others that it will always lack the emotion of works by humans.

  15. I'm back in London now but not back on blogland yet. I still have a couple of weeks off but popped in to read your comments.

    My gut feeling tells me that no matter how far advanced technology will be in the future there will still be a little bit inside us resisting that change. Look at vinyl in music records. It's coming back! At a time when we can stream music on our phones and tablets, there are people buying long play records and filling up their houses with the scratchy sound of a needle. :-)

    Many thanks for your thoughts. Keep them coming.

    Greetings from London.

  16. This makes for a great read and definitely food for thought. Thank you for a wonderful post. Enjoyed the video also.

  17. If one is to continue the way it is, music will follow along the same way. Mixing is already happening. Interesting article,CIL!


  18. Interesting sum up. It can be confusing knowing what is real and what is contrived by the computer for sure.

  19. Yes, the computer has rather confused things.
    I often yearn for the 'good old days' before it's invention...when you knew for sure what you were seeing was usually genuine.
    But now, with computer generation, how can we ever be sure...?
    I am off to check out that ape art site now.

    Many thanks for is very, very thought-provoking:)

  20. Computers (at this stage at any rate) don't possess heart and soul. But give it a few years and I shudder to think what will be in store.

    Very interesting article.

    Enjoy your holiday!

  21. Perhaps no one could write elevator music! Or muzak! Or random interesting sounds -

    If it can be done I think it is more attributable to the human willingness to see many many things as art and music and poetry, rather than the genius of the machine. Thanks. Hope you are having a nice break. k.

  22. I love the way you always introduce me to new music. Thank you.

  23. A very engaging post with a sublime music composition. Actually a, literally, mesmerising sound.



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