On Music and Artificial Intelligence

Aris Setyawan
Aris Setyawan
Posted underartcriticcultural studiescultureessayilmu budayamusicmusikseni

Let’s get to the point: the Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an emerging force, and it’s inevitable. Although its development started a long time ago, AI’s development into its current grandeur scale is indeed unprecedented.

Humans in this century have used dataism in every walk of life. Algorithms are weapons and big data are treasures nurtured to grow and then harvest. It cannot be denied that in this day and age, machines know more about humans than humans themselves. Spotify and its algorithms are the easiest example, with the app’s ability to curate and compose music playlists most appropriate for each listener, or how automation takes place in factories replacing human energy that has been exhausted after the 8-stint, and don’t forget that Donald Trump’s victory was greatly assisted by data collection machines by Cambridge Analytica.

It might be good news that AI is able to help us in many aspects. On the other hand, it might be a scary to imagine that one day the Skynet or The Matrix might just be a reality: the Machine and AI will take over control and turn us into slaves.

AI and the new industrial revolution

In his two best-seller books, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari makes a comprehensive description on the new industrial revolution caused by the rise of an AI. Automation in every aspect is inevitable. Harari predicts that this new revolution will vanish the single social class model and make way for two new classes instead: the working class (proletariat) will perish because the line of works that they previously handled will be taken over by automation, AI, and machines. Henceforth, the proletariat will morph into what Harari describes as ‘useless class’.

This class exists in a tremendous scale all over the globe. They are no longer able to work because all jobs in the market are now controlled by an AI. Specifically, Harari predicts that this new industrial revolution will happen in a not too far future—in fact this is already happening, be it in the factory or in the office.

The other emerging social class is the new bourgeoisie, the wealthiest caste that could control everything. Thanks to their unlimited money and power,they are able to control everything, aside from having the privilege to use AI for their personal agenda: algorithm to predict market, mass surveillance to control people, and so on.Without a doubt, in the new industrial revolution, the segregation between the useless class and the wealthiest class will open wide.

As per Harari’s description, it’s not only jobs in factory assembly lines or office buildings that will be taken over by AI and machines.. Moreover, Harari points out that in the long run, absolutely no job will remain safe from automation. Even the art world is expected to reap the impact. Artists, or specifically musicians, must pay extra attention on the possibility of AI taking over their job.

AI and music composing

For centuries, human have considered music to be a powerful entity for its versatility and its ability to describe our emotions, thoughts and feelings. In conclusion, music is a precious and sacred human product.

However, upon a deeper look, emotion is not some mystical phenomenon; it is the result of a biochemical process. Therefore, in the not so distant future, a machine-learning algorithm might be able to analyze the biometric data streaming from sensors on and inside the human body, determine personality types, mood changes or calculate the emotional impact that a particular music or song—even a particular music key—is likely to have on a person.

Of all forms of art, music probably is the one that most susceptible with Big Data analysis. Why? Simply because music is akin to a mathematical equation. On one hand, music inputs are the electrochemical patterns of sound waves. On the other hand, music outputs are the electrochemical patterns of neural storms. Hence, in the space of decades, the AI and its high-tech algorithm are expected to be able to analyze millions of musical Big Data that have been created for centuries, before predicting how a particular input may result in a particular output.

When AI was born, its ability to take over the work of composing music was also discovered. Logically, music is a mathematics and algorithmic calculation. Thus, AI can easily take over this job.

We don’t even have to look far into the future: in 2018, American singer/songwriter Taryn Southern released an album called I AM AI. The interesting fact is, beside the lyrics, entirely penned by Southern,the music for this album, a mish-mash of pop and EDM, was composed by an AI called Amper. While it follows an easy listening musical pattern and is therefore incomparable with, say, the complexity of Debussy or Mahler’s Symphony, this album is proof that we cannot escape the emergence of AI in the musical creative process.

If we take a look back to the past, we shouldn’t be too surprised by the emergence of AI in the music composition. As researcher Jose David Fernández and Francisco Vico point out in their 2013 Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research article “AI Methods in Algorithmic Composition: A Comprehensive Survey”,:

“Algorithmic composition is the partial or total automation of the process of music composition by using computers. Since the 1950s, different computational techniques related to Artificial Intelligence have been used for algorithmic composition, including grammatical representations, probabilistic methods, neural networks, symbolic rule based systems, constraint programming and evolutionary algorithms.”

With the limitation of computing world at that time, the AI, algorithm and machines already played a pivotal role in music composition. Right now, AI is able to make easy listening pop-EDM. It’s only a matter of time until AI is able to compose the next greatest symphony ever created.


In addition to the conventional ways of listening to music in formats such as CD, vinyl or tape, it goes without saying that digital streaming is the preferred listening method of our time. This is where AI, Big Data and algorithm once again come in handy. Streaming giants such a Spotify, Deezer, Joox, or Apple Music, might know us better than we know ourselves.

For instance, Spotify with its smart algorithm is able to curate the most suitable tunes for every human emotion,with a playlist ready to console you after a break-up and another to elevate your mood. Or remember when Drake’s Scorpion appeared in every playlist and suggestion, as a disguised promotional tool? This means that even if you don’t want to hear Drake, his songs will still appear in your Spotify feed. In the right powerful hand (read: major labels), Spotify and its smart algorithm make for the ultimate tastemaker.

So what can we learn from the new digital revolution, the emergence of AI and how it will shape the music we hear in the future? Do we need to be intimated by the probability of AI taking over the world of art?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, we should worry if we stay silent and refuse to try to broaden our perspective, skills and taste of music. But there’s no need to fear our penchant for pushing our limit beyond border and broadening our musical skills, perspective and taste.

After all, AI and machines are products of our own making: we have the ability to control them, not the other way around. Otherwise, the dystopian world of The Matrix might very well be on its way to turning us into slaves by exploiting our energy resources.

So Taryn Southern may have been able to craft tuneful EDM using AI. But as it stands right now let’s not be ahead of ourselves and worry about AI-generated music surpassing the quality of Tchaikovsky’s work or the exotic sounds of Balinese gamelan or jubilant Afrobeats.


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