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The Machines Are Coming


The Machines are Coming but the future of music is safe… for the moment

When Google announced last June that it had programmed its “Magenta” learning machine to compose a piece of piano music, musicians everywhere held their collective breath in anxiety.


Then they heard the track and sighed with relief. Magenta was far from Mozart. “LOL,” they said (because that’s how top musicians speak to each other when you’re not around). “Machines may be able to win at chess, predict the stock market and cut the grass, but if that’s the best that the mighty Google can come up with, we will never be replaced. Hurray!”


And if you checked out the track you might well agree. (Paste “Google’s AI gets artsy” into YouTube).


But there’s also a site called, where, at the click of a button, their own AI will compose a piece of original music for you in 30 seconds. Hard to miss the irony of being asked to check the box confirming, “I am not a robot”.


You can select the style of your newly composed oeuvre from folk, rock, synth-pop, corporate... There is even a newly added feature known as, “Climax on demand” (the jokes would be too easy).


The music isn’t going to be dragging kids to a dance floor near you any time in the near future, but it’s way funkier than what Google could come up with, only a few months earlier.


But don’t pack away your metallic dancing shoes, because SONY Computer Science Laboratory (CSL) in Paris has gone a step further. Its “Flow Machines” have started adding vocals. In September it came up with an experimental number called, Mr Shadow.



Love it or hate it...

You can’t escape the fact that Mr Shadow has got something going on. Its auto-tune voice croons poetic nonsense like an abstract cowboy. The melody is surprising and the chord progressions and structure are weird and haunting. It’s kind of like… art.


And it may not quite be up to the job of crashing the iTunes servers, but the rate of progression from Google’s infantile piano ditty to Mr Shadow is kind of phenomenal.


“It’s has had some great reactions,” says Fiammetta Ghedini from the CSL. “But lots of people seem to be genuinely frightened about its implications.”



“We’re not trying to replace composers.” says Ghedini.

“Flow machines are tools for composers to push themselves to places that have never existed before now. The selection of musical passages used, the instrumentation, lyrics and sound mixing are done by resident human composer Benoit Carré. We’re working on algorithms to allow the machines to do all these things too, but so far the results haven’t been that good.”


So we’re not quite at the stage of a simulated universe with digital overlords forcing their binary grooves on to us. “I’m not going to comment on that,” says Fiammetta Ghedini wisely.


Sony CSL Paris will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary with the science festival Intensive Science / La science autrement on 27th October 2016 from 3pm to 10pm at the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris.