A.I. Songwriting- “IT’S CHEATING.” That’s the response you’ll hear from self-proclaimed music purists talking about technological innovation in song creation. Sampling, synthesizers, drum machines, Auto-Tune—all have been derided as lazy ways to make chart-topping hits because they take away the human element. (With apologies to Vanilla Ice, Gary Numan, Prince, and T-Pain.)
The new argument among fans and musicians will be about the use of artificial intelligence in songwriting. According to several estimates, in the next decade, between 20% and 30% of the top 40 singles will be written partially or totally with machine-learning software. Today, recording pros can use A.I.-powered programs to cue an array of instrumentation (from full orchestral arrangements to hip-hop beats), then alter it by mood, tempo, or genre (from heavy metal to bluegrass).
“It’s like the future of self-driving cars,” says Leonard Brody, entrepreneur and cofounder of Creative Labs, a joint venture with Creative Artists Agency that invests in programs to help audio creators get their works delivered to the public. “Level 1 is an artist using a machine to assist them. Level 2 is where the music is crafted by a machine but performed by a human. Level 3 is where the whole thing is machines.”
A.I. claiming ownership of a third of the top 40 may be surprising to the casual listener, but it’s a low bar for Drew Silverstein, CEO of Amper, an A.I.-based music composition software company in New York City. Amper’s product allows musicians to create and download “stems”—unique portions of a track like a guitar riff or a hi-hat cymbal pattern—and rework them. Silverstein sees predictive tools as an evolution in the process of music creation. “Starting from quill and parchment centuries ago, then moving into analog and tape and mobile [devices]—A.I. is really just the next step,” he says.
Silverstein isn’t the only one with that view. Large technology companies also offer A.I.- powered tools and services for music-making. Among them: IBMWatson Beat, Google Magenta’s NSynth, Sony’s Flow Machines, and Spotify’s Creator Technology Research Lab. The resources, intended for use by artists and labels, use algorithms to analyze libraries of songs and sales charts to predict what may have the best chance of charting (and when).
Though the latest developments in A.I. are helping fuel its use in popular music, it’s not really a new idea. More than two decades ago, David Bowie helped create the Verbasizer, a program for Apple’s Mac that randomized portions of his inputted text sentences to create new ones with new meanings and moods—an advanced version of a cut-up technique he used, writing out ideas, then physically slicing and rearranging them to see what stuck. Bowie made use of the Verbasizer for his 1995 album Outside. “What you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meanings and topic and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other,” said the influential pop star in a 1997 documentary featuring the tool.