Undiscovered Bach? No, a Computer Wrote It

by derecke2013

I just read a super interesting (yet dated) New York Times article entitled, “Undiscovered Bach? No, a Computer Wrote It.” The article is about a computer software called EMI that synthesizes some of Bach’s musical techniques/style and composes new pieces in his particular style. The creator of this software, David Cope, decided to test out its accuracy by holding a sort of competition. He played a series of 3 songs for an audience- a human composed piece in the style of Bach, the computer simulated Bach-style piece that the EMI software composed, and an actual Bach piece. He then had the audience decide which song was which, and , surprisingly, the audience thought the computer simulated song was genuine Bach.

Of course, this software has sparked significant controversy. Many people believe that this software insults the prestige and genius of the greatest composers of all time, in that it claims to create a specific and systematic recipe for a musical masterpiece. Others are beginning to change their views because of the software. Douglas Hofstader, a Pulitzer prizewinner for his book on Bach, originally thought that a “program that could produce music as mesmerizing as the great masters…would require more than simple routines for stringing together notes,” but now “he is not quite so sure” and feels “baffled and troubled by EMI.” Others, still, believe that the computer software has done a decent job at imitating the main techniques of Bach, but it fails to recognize some of Bach’s musical subtleties, like his specific  “musical color or timbre.”

This makes me think about some of our discussion in class last week about Bach. Many consider Bach to be one of the most masterful, creative musicians, yet others think of him as a mere “prelude encyclopedia” with a very uncreative, thoughtless, and systematic approach to composition. Is Bach’s systematic approach all that replicable? What elements of his compositions cannot be duplicated by a machine?

I also thought the argument at the end of the article was intriguing and worth noting. The author states that even though EMI will not replace the masters of composition as we know them, “EMI still demonstrates that engaging music can be written by a composer with absolutely nothing to say.” What do you all think of that? How do we know whether or not the composers we’ve been studying  had something to say?

Feel free to check out the article- I’d really recommend it. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/11/science/undiscovered-bach-no-a-computer-wrote-it.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

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