Mothers of Invention

AI Got Algo-Rhythm: Smart Music-Making Machines

Digital picture of Taryn Southern

Artificial intelligence gets creative credit on the first music album collaboration between a human and machine, changing the way artists make music.

Taryn Southern’s song “Break Free” opens with a fat cinematic chord, stuttering on the downbeat. A thumping pulse sets a tense heartbeat tempo. The three-minute song swells and recedes, transitioning between brooding and empowering.

Southern wrote and sang the lyrics. But Amper, an artificially intelligent composing machine, did the rest.

“It started out as a creative challenge,” said Southern, a performer and content creator. “Every tool has its own constraints, but it became clear I could use this technology to create something really awesome.”

Southern, a Kansas native now transplanted to Los Angeles, first rose to prominence on YouTube, where her mix of music, comedy and commentary videos garnered millions of views.

“Break Free” is the first release from Southern’s album I AM AI, which will be available in November. Touted as the world’s first album entirely composed and produced by artificial intelligence, Southern says I AM AI is more of a human-robot partnership.

“All of the actual composition — the chords and rhythms — that’s all Amper,” she said. “Where I lend the greatest force is in creating song structure, and pulling in and out certain instruments to build a song the way my ear wants to hear it.”

Tools like Amper learn from analyzing existing music, parsing patterns related to rhythms, chords, tempos and other musical building blocks, and recognizing ways that they correlate with different moods and musical genres.

Amper can use Amper’s understanding to create new compositions that fit these same patterns.

Like classical music, pop music often features formulaic structures and patterns that lend themselves to algorithmic creativity.

For Southern, that means she can provide Amper with parameters for tempo, mood, style, instrumentation and other factors, and let the AI take it from there. The process is iterative, with Southern tweaking and adjusting with each round.

Finding the Right Tool

An early tech adopter (with more than 456,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel), Southern spoke at the 2017 TNW Conference about collaborating with robots through augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and how AI could change the future of storytelling.

For years, Southern researched new AI tools, driven by a strong sense that the tech could help her develop as a performer and artist.

She explored products like Flow Machines from Sony Computer Science Laboratory, but ultimately settled on the open-source Amper system. She used a MacBook Pro with an Intel Xeon processor to manage her music, digital and 360-degree video editing.

Taryn Southern speaks at conference
At the TNW Conference, Taryn Southern shares how technology can enhance content creation. Photo courtesy of Taryn Southern.

Intelligent machines have been blurring the line between artificial and human creativity. In addition to companies like Sony, which ventured early into the world of AI-created music, Google supports an open source project called Magenta, which uses machine learning algorithms to generate original music, video, images and text.

So far, many people in the industry view AI as a tool for enhancing, rather than replacing human creativity.

“Machines can come up with ideas we as humans would have never thought about. They provide new tools that can enable more people from various backgrounds to be creative,” said Luba Elliott, a British researcher and producer who specializes in AI in the creative industries.

On their own, Elliott said, the current generation of intelligent machines are better at delivering formulaic songs instead of creating truly original work.

“If you’re operating in a field where the output is governed by a set of rules and formal constraints — such as classical music — it is very possible to develop an algorithm that will compose new work within the parameters of the genre,” Elliott said.

“But the output will be similar to previously composed music. It is unlikely to break new ground.”

While a human stills need to intervene to get the final product where they want it musically, machines are getting smarter and more creative all the time.

Creativity and Adapting to the Future

What happens when computers can write pitch-perfect hits all by themselves? Will there still be jobs for songwriters?

“I’m an artist, so I want tools that augment and fortify my creativity,” said Southern. “I don’t want anybody telling me I can’t play the game anymore because an AI can do it better.”

But even if machines get really good at what she does, she said, creative people will adapt.

In fact, forward thinking people in the creative sector are already building strategies to capitalize on what Brandon S. Kaplan, CEO of Skilled Creative agency, calls “a cottage industry of human nostalgia.”

“We always want what we don’t have,” he said. “You can list any transaction where you currently interact with a human and think about how an AI could kill that job. But also, what are the subtle nuances that we may miss as a result of no longer interfacing with a human?”

Southern agrees that the future will be shaped by how artists and creatives respond to new AI developments, not just by the new tech.

“AI could potentially create new genres and new sounds,” she said. “As these emerge, maybe it will force people to think outside the box as a response.”

The very unpredictability of artificial creativity, she said, could be a rich source of human creativity.

“The best thing you can do is stay educated, and play and experiment as though you’re a 10-year-old kid,” she said.

For her, that means more than being open-minded. It also means letting go of long-established connections, experiences and resources.

“As we look to the future, we have no idea what will come. But if you look at the past, technology tends to disrupt in some ways and also to create new opportunities that we can’t see now,” Southern said.

“Humans are really genius at adapting.”


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