How I Taught My Computer to Write Its Own Music

Supko_BREAKER-2ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN: A screenshot of the author’s software system, which produced oddly beautiful, inside-out, upside-down music.Photo by Kyle Yamakawa

I wanted to build the ideal collaborator. Was I ever surprised.

On a warm day in April 2013, I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen in Paris, trying to engineer serendipity. I was trying to get my computer to write music on its own. I wanted to be able to turn it on and have it spit out not just any goofy little algorithmic tune but beautiful, compelling, mysterious music; something I’d be proud to have written myself. The kitchen window was open, and as I listened to the sounds of children playing in the courtyard below, I thought about how the melodies of their voices made serendipitous counterpoint with the songs of nearby birds and the intermittent drone of traffic on the rue d’Alésia.

In response to these daydreams, I was making a few tweaks to my software—a chaotic, seat-of-the-pants affair that betrayed my intuitive, self-taught approach to programming—when I saw that Bill Seaman had just uploaded a new batch of audio files to our shared Dropbox folder. I had been collaborating with Bill, a media artist, on various aspects of computational creativity over the past few years. I loaded Bill’s folder of sound files along with some of my own into the software and set it rolling. This is what came back to me:

I was thrilled and astonished. It was exactly what I was hoping for: The computer had created alluring music—music I wanted to listen to!—from a completely unexpected manipulation of the sonic information I had given it. The music was at once futuristic and nostalgic, slightly melancholy, and quite subtle: Even the digital noise samples it used—basically sonic detritus—seemed sensitively integrated. It gave me the distinct, slightly disorienting, feeling that the computer was showing me something vital and profound about an art form that I had practiced for over 20 years. This fragile, beautiful music had qualities that were utterly new to me, and I wondered what else I could learn from the computer about musical possibility.

When I returned to the United States, I met Bill in his studio in a repurposed tobacco warehouse on the campus of Duke University, where we are both on the faculty. I showed him the software processes that produced the music that excited me. We immediately began brainstorming workflows that imagined the computer as a full-fledged collaborator. We wanted to invent a silicon-based life form to help make music that mere carbon-based life forms could never imagine on their own. Our rationale was that the computer could quickly navigate vast amounts of sonic information and return results that would have never occurred to us. If we could increase the probability that the computer would deliver compelling and unusual results, we would have essentially built the ideal artistic collaborator: miraculously inventive, tireless, and egoless.

Bill and I had another—you might say lofty—goal. We wanted to spotlight the creative process in both humans and computers. We wanted to show how it was similar, how it was different, and how the two processes together could expand the scope of artistic expression.

As Bill and I saw it, human creativity can be defined as making connections—governed by unpredictable, subjective forces—between seemingly unrelated bits of information. Music is particularly well suited to serve as a model for the creative process. Human composers have multiple components of information—melody, harmony, rhythm—at their fingertips. But composers don’t normally don’t write the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of a piece sequentially. These elements tend to implicate each other and emerge together from the composer’s imagination. Bill and I wanted to emulate this organic emergence of interrelated elements in the computer…



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