Software Composing Music

David Cope developed a program named Emily Howell to compose classical music.

At one Santa Cruz concert, the program notes neglected to mention that Emily Howell wasn’t a human being, and a chemistry professor and music aficionado in the audience described the performance of a Howell composition as one of the most moving experiences of his musical life. Six months later, when the same professor attended a lecture of Cope’s on Emily Howell and heard the same concert played from a recording, Cope remembers him saying, “You know, that’s pretty music, but I could tell absolutely, immediately that it was computer-composed. There’s no heart or soul or depth to the piece.”

That sentiment — present in many recent articles, blog posts and comments about Emily Howell — frustrates Cope. “Most of what I’ve heard [and read] is the same old crap,” he complains. “It’s all about machines versus humans, and ‘aren’t you taking away the last little thing we have left that we can call unique to human beings — creativity?’ I just find this so laborious and uncreative.”

Emily Howell isn’t stealing creativity from people, he says. It’s just expressing itself. Cope claims it produced musical ideas he never would have thought about. He’s now convinced that, in many ways, machines can be more creative than people. They’re able to introduce random notions and reassemble old elements in new ways, without any of the hang-ups or preconceptions of humanity.

David Cope’s detractors remind me of the people who booed Bob Dylan for playing electric guitar. Is the inventor of the mechanical reaper, Cyrus McCormick, an evil man because he displaced human labor? Maybe the chemistry professor objects only to machines that displace the labor of human minds. Why do people play chess and backgammon when software can play more creatively and better? Developing software requires just as much heart and soul as any other labor and it’s offensive to disparage such a beautiful industry. The art of David Cope, Robert Moog, Dennis Ritchie, and Benoit Mandelbrot is as wondrous as the art of Cyrus McCormick and Leonardo da Vinci.

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