Sounds Like Bach

Douglas Hofstadter is discussing music and artificial intelligence:

Back when I was young — when I wrote “Gödel, Escher, Bach” — I asked myself the question “Will a computer program ever write beautiful music?”, and then proceeded to speculate as follows: “There will be no new kinds of beauty turned up for a long time by computer music-composing programs… To think — and I have heard this suggested — that we might soon be able to command a preprogrammed mass-produced mail-order twenty-dollar desk-model ‘music box’ to bring forth from its sterile circuitry pieces which Chopin or Bach might have written had they lived longer is a grotesque and shameful misestimation of the depth of the human spirit.” I went on and on in this vein.

What do I make of such speculations now, a quarter-century later? I am not quite sure. I have been grappling for several years now with these issues, and still there is no clear resolution.


In the spring of 1995, I came across the book “Computers and Musical Style” by David Cope, a professor of music at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and in its pages I noticed a mazurka supposedly in the style of Chopin, written by Cope’s computer program EMI (short for “Experiments in Musical Intelligence”).


One time, when I gave this lecture at the world-famous Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, nearly all the composition and music-theory faculty was fooled by the EMI mazurka, taking it for genuine Chopin (and the genuine Chopin piece, by contrast, for a computer-manufactured ditty)


But the day when music is finally and irrevocably reduced to syntactic pattern and pattern alone will be, to my old-fashioned way of looking at things, a very dark day indeed.

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Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.