When you give musicians new technology, they find new ways to congregate around it and create new music–and new business opportunities. The next technology poised to do this is AI.
The rock band as we know it wouldn’t have sprung into being were it not for the electrifying of guitars and basses. The two MCs and one DJ format gave birth to what we now call hip-hop. The 808 and the mass accessibility of production software sparked EDM, as well as a whole slew of new genres and scenes. Musician-focused cutting-edge tech is what keeps music evolving.
AI is about to do something similar to the drum machine, to the DAW, to turntables, to name just a few recent innovations impacting the sound of popular music writ large. Just imagine: looking at history and what musicians have done with these creative technologies, we’re likely to be on the brink of another moment in musical history parallel to the birth of rock or hip-hop.
Like previous revolutionary tools, AI is not, let us emphasize, not about to replace all songwriters, composers, audio engineers, or any other number of humans creating music. In fact, with the advent of the next world-dominating popular genre or culture comes a net positive economic impact for the industry and creators. AI may create new lucrative opportunities, just as technologies like sampling launched a whole new sub-industry for beat makers and licensors. The tools just need to be made and harnessed by the right creators. At least, this is what history tells us.
A carefully structured collection of algorithms and data, AI can perform specific tasks at lightning speed and digest large amounts of information in ways extremely challenging to individual humans. Because of their speed and scale, AI processes can uncover complex patterns and come to unexpected conclusions.
In creative industries, the pattern-finding side of AI is important, in that machines are learning to perceive things we grasp intuitively, but not consciously. These patterns can be employed to generate novel iterations of set forms, like a sequence of tones that make a melody (what we have worked to get our AI to do at Amadeus Code). They can also find what deviates in set ways from a pattern, something truly random and perhaps inspiring in its unexpectedness.
The peculiar answers AI programs can generate are sometimes the key to their success in beating humans at their own games. Alpha Go, the DeepMind-powered machine that beat the world champion at the complex game, did one small thing in every game it won: It made a move that the master player thought was ridiculous. It was so out of the blue, so out of the usual context and rhythm and practice of the game, he thought it was a mistake. Instead, it won the computer the game. Yet humans do this all the time: How many chess or gymnastics moves new to the ancient field are named for people who suddenly, inexplicably, come up with them–and perfect them until they work?
This is, in fact, the often-overlooked wonder of AI: It can come up with things no person would come up with, over and over and over. It can change our perspective through these wild suggestions, these seemingly ridiculous moves. It promises to do this very thing in popular culture, especially in music.
Yet it is an intimately human endeavor, even as melodies come to us from the interplay of algorithms and the rich melodic data of the past. We’ve discovered this, as we’ve taken our tools and used them to create finished songs.
We generate melodies. But then we have to take the next steps, and here is where things get interesting. As we’ve created demo songs, we’ve gotten questions from singers: How do you want me to sing this? A human composer will have the answer ready, as she wrote with a motive or purpose. She can describe the topic, the emotion, the story of the song. But there’s nothing behind a computer’s melody. That’s why directing the vocals for demos was an epiphany for us. In the end, we had to ask, what was this song actually about?
AI cannot automate this connection. My AI, for example, will not tell you about its struggles. It will not illuminate your inner worlds. It can only expand your memory and give you some ideas that might allow you to express these things in a novel way. That may become your next song or an entire new genre of popular music. It can give you an infinite string of notes; only you can interpret them.
This is the right role for AI, the most inspiring and gently disrupting place for this new technology to push culture in a fresh direction. This could be a very welcome thing in a time when many are complaining about the narrowing of sonic ideas in pop, perhaps due to the data-driven nature of labels’ approaches to artists and tracks. Having computers generate whole tracks, as some AI engineers propose, or write whole albums or programmatically switch a track from one genre to another…these are cool gimmicks. They aren’t going to give musicians that new cutting edge that leads to radical departures from what we hear today. AI can and will do so much more–and will benefit many creators in the process.