Can Computers Compose a Hit Music Single?

Computers can beat us at chess. They can beat us at Jeopardy-style trivia. They can out-calculate us and make fewer mistakes on rote problems.

Can computers write better music? What would it take for them to compose a #1 hit music single?

For ideas, I finally got around to reading Raymond Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near, a touchstone of futuristic thinking.


Consciousness in the Cloud
In Kurzweil’s vision, the Singularity is the time when computers surpass people in intelligence — and not just intelligence, but effectively all ways. He believes that people will choose to merge with computers, and replace their biological bodies with other physical forms, or with pure software, uploading their consciousnesses into what we now call “the cloud” of computer systems distributed around the world.

Naturally, in Kurzweil’s vision, computers will be better than humans at art and music too.

But what would it take?

The Computer Music Challenge
Suppose that IBM were to build a supercomputer called Golden Ear, whose mission is to top the global popular music charts, beating out the Los Angeles music industry as well as the music industries in Korea, Mumbai, Tokyo and everywhere else.

IBM already developed Blue Gene for chess and Watson for Jeopardy. Now Watson is taking on other challengs, like medical diagnosis.

Is Golden Ear the successor to Blue Gene or Watson? Or a new class of computer?

Designing a Musical Computer
How can a computer know what melody or chorus sounds good to people?

By analyzing trends in music, popular culture, news, celebrities, vernacular language. Then choosing sounds and lyrics that capture the moment.

Consider that mobile phone apps like Shazam can already recognize music from a few notes and retrieve the title, artist, lyrics and more. IBM’s Watson can mine vast troves of text and guess about puns and trivia.

Is it a coincidence that the Lady Gaga hit “Poker Face”, released on Sept 2008, arrived not long after the peak of the poker mania? Look at the plot of Google searches for poker and you’ll find that the mania peaked in Jan 2007, close to the height of the housing bubble. “Poker Face” the song consists of upbeat music and that catch phrase, repeated often. The song title itself peaked as a search term in April 2009, 7 months after the album’s debut.

Could a computer have identified the poker trend, selected a catchy phrase timed to the bursting poker bubble, and produced and launched a song on iTunes earlier than Lady Gaga did? Could such a computer catch the next trend?

Would the music industry pay royally for computer software that wrote songs for a stable of bankable performers and generated a higher hit rate than human composers?

The Golden Ear Challenge
Previous efforts at computerized music composition have not met with much success. That’s an understatement, as a matter of fact.

But computers have improved rapidly, and continue their exponential improvements. As they did with chess and trivia, computers could overtake humans in this new challenge.

Kurzweil would not be surprised. The Singularity may be near for artificial intelligence. Is the #1 Single nearer?

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