“Ugh,” my dad used to grunt when I switched on Radio 1 . “This music sounds like it was written by a computer”.
It’s a criticism that’s been levelled at synthpop for years. But what if it was true?
Taryn Southern, a YouTube star and content creator, has just released a song she wrote with the help of artificial intelligence.
Called Break Free, it’s a brooding ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Hunger Games soundtrack.
Southern wrote the lyrics and melody, but the backing track was built by her laptop, after she punched in a number of settings for the song’s mood, tempo and instrumentation
“My new collaborator is not human,” she grins. “It’s an AI algorithm”.
As a YouTuber, Southern is used to adapting new technology, and her interest in AI was sparked by an article on The Verge, describing how programmers at Sony had fed the Beatles’ back catalogue into a computer and urged it to write a new Lennon-McCartney track.
The result may have been hilariously naff, but it prompted the headline: “This AI-written pop song is almost certainly a dire warning for humanity.”
Southern was less sceptical.
“I’m a naturally curious person,” she says. “So I did some research.”
Last January, she started downloading open-source programmes which promised to write songs from scratch.
“Most of these algorithms work by ingesting a large amount of data from a certain genre, so the AI can learn the ‘rules’,” she explains.
“What chord structures are most common, that sort of thing.”
Pulling out her laptop, she fires up one of the programmes. We ask it to write a Reggae song, using Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer as inspiration.
The result is… well, as terrible as the description sounds. But there’s a recognisable bounce to the bassline, and a distinct progression from intro to verse to chorus.