[Smt-talk] Aesthetics of Computer-Generated Music

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Fri Apr 8 12:02:00 PDT 2011

It seems to me that the case of computer-generated music is much akin to 
that of fakes in art. This is all the more interesting that, according 
to Nelson Goodman, fakes cannot exist in an allographic art such as 
music. What would be faked, in the case of computer-generated music, is 
its intentionality. The extent to which such music could produce an 
aesthetic effect strongly depends on the intentionality of the listener. 
For this reason, I doubt that an experimental study would produce any 
interesting result: the listener's answers would not depend on the music 
itself, rather (a) of their awareness of it being computer-generated; 
(b) of their opinion about this. I would think, therefore, that the 
question must be approached from a semiotic and/or philosophical point 
of view, not from a merely empirical/experimental one.

Consider these cases:
– At a not too recent conference in the Sorbonne, one of the papers was 
read by a guy who had written a piece of software generating what he 
thought was (good) tonal music. He explained that he had come to love 
this music so much that he couldn't hear any other any more. The 
examples he made us listen to where awful – or so thought several of us. 
Obviously, neither this guy nor any of us judged the music on its 
inherent aesthetic value: we were guided by our personal convictions.
– Suppose that a real piece of music, written by a real composer, is 
presented as computer-generated. Many a listener might dislike it merely 
on the basis that it is (erroneously) thought to be a fake.
– Inversely, suppose that a computer-generated work is made to pass for 
the work of an interesting forgotten composer: many critics will praise 
it and praise the rediscovery of an unjustly neglected master.
– Etc.

I do believe that common-practice tonality can be modelized with much 
more satisfying (and more precise results than what Marcel de Velde 
believes. Examples do exist (e.g. Mario Baroni, Rossana Dalmonte and 
Carlo Jacoboni's Legrense software described in their /Regole della 
musica/, successfully modelizing arie by Legrense).

I don't think that intonation has any important share in this matter. 
After all, there exist recordings of, say, /The Art of Fugue/, on early 
synthetizers (Moog) which played in ET: I did not feel that the music 
suffered so much. The problem remains that just intonation isn't really 
usable in tonal music because the directionality of tonal harmony 
produces an unavoidable shift in pitch in just intonation. I suppose 
that one might construct a harmonic functionality that would balance the 
shifts in pitch, and that just intonation in that case might produce 
some sort of consonant effect that might seem of aesthetic value; but 
that would not be tonal music.
     Marcel, your experiment in just intonation seems to me to sound 
much more like "modal" polyphony of the 16th century than like tonal 
music, precisely because your algorithm probably makes no provision for 
a tonal directionality of the harmony – and because limiting the range 
to the 5-limit-harmonic did not confront you to the problem of having to 
prepare and resolve 7ths, which one of the main causes of tonal 


Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne

Le 8/04/2011 16:35, Marcel de Velde a écrit :
> Hello Sandeep,
> I'm personally not aware of any computer algorithm that can generate 
> compositions that are comparable aesthetically to something like 
> common practice period music.
> For modern / more atonal music or drone music etc it's a different 
> story, but current algorithms have huge problems with a coherent tonal 
> side of music.
> I think it is also a sign that music theory has not reached the level 
> yet that it perhaps could.
> My understanding is that if one writes an algorithm (let's say for 
> composing a string quartet) on basic rules of counterpoint and 
> functional harmony, that the output of this algorithm will still 
> generate many unmusical / confusing notes and can not compare to a 
> human using those same rules + his/her ears while composing.
> On top of that, you will need real humans with good ears playing the 
> strings to perform the composition "in tune", as 12 tone equal 
> temperament will not sound as good, and current music theory can not 
> describe just intonation (only Pythagorean yet this sounds even worse 
> than 12tet).
> I have been studying just intonation for the past few years.
> And I personally think it could make good musical algorithmic 
> composition possible. (infact I think it could eventually become a 
> true revolution in music composition)
> The point is that the algorithms should work the way our ears and 
> brain work, use the same language.
> And 12 tone equal temperament is definitely not the right basis for 
> this language.
> I've done a small experiment myself with computer generated 
> composition (really small nothing serious, just for research purpose).
> It is a true algorithmic composition.
> The rules were these:
> 1) a sequence of completely random permutations of the harmonic series 
> up till the 5th harmonic.
> 2) hold at least one note from the current permutation to the next 
> permutation
> 3) i set a limit for the lowest frequency and the highest frequency 
> possible
> That's it, only a few lines of code, no fine tuning whatsoever.
> I would have taken me more code to even simply define 12tet, let alone 
> do anything useful with it.
> Here's the output:
> http://soundcloud.com/justintonation/9-12-2009-5limit-harmonic
> It's just a random selection, the algorithm goes on forever.
> Rendering was done with a sampled choir (Kontakt sampler)
> I've since progressed considerably with my just intonation research 
> and know now that the output of this algorithm is not correct just 
> intonation in many (if not most) parts, and so it also does many 
> unmusical things that sound random and confusing (and to put it in 
> correct just intonation would mean different and much more complex 
> ratios in many places).
> But the output is far from random notes in 12tet (which would output 
> random 12tone atonal music in comparison).
> In a few months I will hopefully begin writing a serious composition 
> algorithm based on correct just intonation.
> The way it's looking now it's output will be real music, fully 
> emotional and coherent.
> But in any case..
> I think it would be a good idea to use common practice music 
> (renaissance / baroque) as the music used for comparison between 
> computer and human compositions.
> It's music with where the tonal language of the music is clear.
> And I think you will find that the computer algorithms have not yet 
> mastered this tonal language, and that the human ear / brain is 
> currently still needed :)
> Marcel de Velde
> marcel at justintonation.com
> Zwolle, Netherlands
>> Dear Collective Wisdom
>> could anyone refer me to studies done on computer-generated music as 
>> aesthetic entities ?
>> I would be especially interested in [double-]blind studies where 
>> listeners were asked to rate "meaningfulness"
>> or emotional richness of music that was a) either composed with an 
>> intent to convey emotion or b) fully generated by computer.
>> Of course, the method of delivery (computer players/ human 
>> performers/ purely electroacoustic etc.) should be equal for both 
>> musics.
>> I am aware that, of course, making and listening to 
>> computer-generated music is in itself an aesthetic statement, 
>> regardless of the emotional import of the music.
>> But while this is certainly of interest to me in general, for this 
>> particular research I am not interested in that aspect.
>> I am interested in what you could call the "emotional reality" of 
>> music as it is experienced by listeners.
>> Do listeners perceive a "message" in music even if there is no direct 
>> human intervention in its "composition"?
>> Can listeners make out if something is composed by computer or by a 
>> human composer (perhaps using the computer as a tool, or without any 
>> computation at all)?
>> My hunch is they cannot, and do not really care - but I would like to 
>> learn more about it.
>> Any hints ?
>> Thank you in advance
>> Sandeep Bhagwati
>> Canada Research Chair in Inter–X Art
>> Concordia University Montreal
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