Robotic Art

It’s a good thing humans are imperfect. There was an article recently on fonts, and how one must manipulate them in minute ways to compensate for our eyes. The gist is that we perceive boundaries rather poorly, heavily influence by how long the boundary is. The result is that circles which have the same height as a square looks smaller. Type designers know this; “O”s and “H”s are actually slightly different in height.


This made me wonder, whether computers can artistically over-take humans in the future. With the advent of melody generations, music composition is certainly possible. Algorithms like Emily Howell certainly start to sound like a sonata from the classical age or one of those new age piano tunes, with its pleasant melodic progression.

But what distinguishes us from robots is that we are not governed by patterns. We don’t remember Beethoven for composing like anyone else in his period. If you listen to the composition above, it’s highly repetitive. Rules for the computer to pick the next notes. Unfortunately, the computer might never know how humans perceive these sounds, so it might never know how to break the rules (unless assisted). This is the same idea as our perception of borders.

There’s mathematical reasons why some sequence of tones sound good to us. Usually, it has to do with rational and irrational numbers. Tritones are basically Pythagoras’ worst nightmare. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t used in music. Jazz frequently have tritones, and they serve a purpose even in classical periods. Until the first day true AI becomes possible, I’ll believe that art is an inherently human subject.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe algorithmic music will be upon us in a few years, and I’m just too blind to see it. That’ll be an extremely interesting world though; I’ll gladly be wrong to see what that world holds.

Is Music Inevitable

Many discoveries in physics and mathematics seemed to occur concurrently, with a few people uncovering (or almost finding) the important concept. The standard example is how Gauss and Newton simultaneously developed calculus, albeit in a different notation. I have also read that if Einstein never existed, contemporaries of him would have found the same relationships in physic, albeit a few years later.

So does this apply to music? Is Beethoven’s 5th inevitable in a sense? Is the development of Romantic music automatic? What about contemporary music?

In a sense, yes. There are a finite number of melodies to be played. That finite number is quite large though. One can argue eventually a composer, let’s call him Waspthoven, would stumble upon the sequence of intervals and rhythms which is the melody, but that is not all of a symphony. Chords and “transitions” play an equally important role in any form of music. Waspthoven would then have to piece together the correct sequence of silence and sound, dissonance and consonance.

But then, would the period be ripe for the publication? Would the public have accepted Waspthoven’s composition? After all, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was met with such horror that riots broke out. Besides the public opinion, the matter of logistics also plagues our hypothetical composer. Will there be enough high-quality instruments to play what Waspthoven wanted? Would there be a concert hall to play it in?

Certainly some music are highly period dependent. Bach’s come to mind, when writing for religious purposes is the sole motive; a symphony as abrasive as the 5th would have never been performed then. That means if a genius like Stravinsky was born in the wrong time period, his or her work would be forever lost. It’s kind of poetic to think of unappreciated genius, but also sombering to think of where we could be now culturally, and scientifically.

I guess a correct way to phrase what I’m asking is that is music primarily driven by “Great Man” or is development primarily from the social period? Maybe some other theory of history?