Are Computers Replacing Musicians? | Part 15

A fundamental difference exists between humans and computers (for now): computers don't understand awareness and humans do.

There is a rich, accessible history of the music industry’s Luddite behavior toward new technology. We appear to have a bottomless distrust of its role in the creative arts. Sometimes, this impulse inspires us to pick up machine-manufactured instruments and write songs. Don’t worry, I’ve done it too

The Harpsichord Players Lament


This conundrum of machines replacing human labor has been with us for centuries and is not going away soon, if ever. So we’re forced to ask the question, as Martin Ford did in his TED Talk: is it different this time around?

Recently, I learned that the piano roll MIDI feature in most DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) got its name from self-playing pianos called player pianos. They performed much like a music box, containing literal paper rolls with holes punched in. And like modern MIDI, it played back captured performances of a human being. In some cases, the paper roll was edited for tempo, taste, or even to perform unplayable compositions (unplayable by people anyway). George Gershwin made a good living editing these piano paper rolls. He even recorded himself with them, playing with live effects like "foot pumps" and "expression levers”, very MIDI. And quite beautiful in my opinion. 

In 1906, John Phllip Sousa wrote an unintentionally hilarious paper called The Menace of Mechanical Music. It contains statements both profound and lame. 

Right here is the menace in machine-made music! The first rift in the lute has appeared. The cheaper of these instruments of the home are no longer being purchased as formerly, and all because the automatic music devices are usurping their places.

And what is the result? The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technic, it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling.
— John Philip Sousa

The crux of this argument is defensive (if you didn’t go to school, you can’t be a real musician, if you haven’t studied Wagner, then can’t discuss leitmotifs, if you don’t write music in a field with pen and paper then you’re a hack, etc). I submit to you that when we primates began singing songs to each other, we didn’t wait to learn music theory first. Somehow, we already heard it. Our instinct to categorize that architecture in writing came much later. But the implication that hearing music at one's leisure would prevent (and NOT nourish) a love of musical study is absurd. Were musicians in close proximity to concert halls developing impulses to stop learning music because of its accessibility? Why bother learning when there’s always a show right around the corner to provide music for me…said nobody ever in the history of the universe. 

My suspicion (I have no evidence) is that these opinions stem from that wonderful part of our western heritage called guilt. How dare anyone enjoy the pleasure of a genius like Mozart in the privacy of their own home!!! David Byrne suggests something similar in his book How Music Works, because he’s a beautiful, beautiful anthropologist from Mars! 


Not to say that learning music theory isn’t essential to understanding the mechanics of music - it is. Starting from a place of emotion and understanding that emotion through the lens of music theory is one of the most fulfilling things a composer can do with their life (regardless of whether a computer is capable of doing the same). Treating theory as an extension of creativity (rather than an engine) always yields better results anyway. 

What I’m getting at is music is emotional first and mathematical second for the same reason a child learns to eat before she learns the difference between fruits and vegetables. You learn to nourish yourself, then you learn about food. Attempting the opposite is, creatively speaking, a waste of time. 


So is it different this time around? For musicians, not yet. But it could be very soon. Computers aren’t writing film or game scores, yet they’ve disrupted every aspect of the music and film industries.  The technology to supplant creativity just isn’t there yet. At any rate, in terms of music, it won’t be disconcerting until artificial intelligence develops a higher intuition than a human. If that happens, computers will soon fool most of the public in blind human-vs-computer song writing contests. I don't pretend to have the solution for this problem (no one yet does), but there are good ideas worth testing like universal basic income and incentivized income. These measures may quickly become necessary just to keep the economy afloat. There are also helpful lessons to be learned from history, even recent history. 

We know what would happen to our bodies if we minimized our cost by eating only McDonalds. We’d get ass cancer. And we’ve seen the push-back to industrialized food through growth of the organic food industry. Consuming cheaper, algorithm-made music could generate a similar cultural backlash, especially if it’s forced on us in public spaces. 

On a personal note, the only reason I know how to write for strings is because I’ve been able (and lucky enough) to navigate MIDI virtual instruments fluidly. They provided a window into classical music that would have been closed had I been born fifty years prior. And I’ve thought on these ideas as I sketch out pieces for my new album. Pieces, I’m beginning to realize, that will benefit from a more human touch! So in a weird way, my computer has made available to me the skills to write for and hire the kind of musician I never would’ve had the chance to work with otherwise. I have great hopes that developing this skillset, with the help of technology will continue to be a mutually beneficial endeavor throughout my lifetime. Not a black and white, us-vs-them positioning battle. 

Incidentally, experiences like mine are the exact reason some software developers continue developing newer and better tools. Christian Henson from Spitfire Audio tackles a similar aspect of the technology problem for musicians:

Are computers replacing musicians? Right now, only the stubborn ones. The ones that refuse to see the computer as anything other than an invasive big brother. The ones who can’t see it as a musical instrument, an extension of creativity, a means now available to nearly anyone. My simple advice, learn music theory and keep an open, curious mind. If we’re lucky, future technology will merge into yet another tool in the musicians arsenal benefiting our culture in new and interesting ways. 

p.s. Also, I didn’t mean to pick on Sousa so much, his fears are ones that I feel and internalize still. And I think his following prediction will come true if artificial intelligence develops high intuition:

Under such conditions the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant.
— John Philip Sousa

p.p.s. This post was edited by a very unsophisticated AI. Also, Sousa’s paper contains the funniest picture I’ve seen in years: