New computer software can create music behind a user’s voice
You don’t need to know anything about music to compose your own songs any more. Songsmith, a new computer program developed by Microsoft Research, will automatically chose chords as the user sings into a microphone, creating an entire song in the process.
The software analyzes the singer’s voice using a technique called autocorrelation. This data is then used to choose chords to accompany the notes. Songsmith uses a database of roughly 300 popular songs to decide which chords sound good together. Since there are many different chord sequences to choose from, the user can use “happy” and “jazzy” sliders to explore the different possibilities.
While many see Songsmith as no more than a musical toy, the researchers behind the project say music professionals can use it as an “intelligent scratchpad” or to explore new melodies. Jonathan Darley, lead singer for the England-based band This Eden, says the program seems constricted.
“The only thing it actually allows you to try is chords that are played behind the song,” says Darley. “The chords it selects are controlled by sliders that change the mood; however, the mood changes feel very artificial and lifeless.”
He says the song-style options remove a lot of the creativity of actual instrument composition, limiting your thoughts to the instruments it has programmed into that set music genre.
“On both personal and musical grounds, I would say that it wouldn’t be a worthy replacement for writing your own music,” says Darley.
The thought of computers creating entire musical numbers is satirized in many science fiction works.
“One of the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ books mentions how a machine was devised to compose and play music, and the skill of the musician then became how entertaining a performance they could make out of pushing the ‘on’ button,” says This Eden member Sam Darley.
“I take objection to a great deal of the ‘by-the-numbers’ music that is around, where songs are written and composed to a set formula. I feel that further removing human input from this process would only diminish the end product.”
An entire symphony recorded by a computer may exist in works of science fiction, but Mohawk College Music Professor Darcy Hepner says that’s where the idea will stay, at least for now.
“We’re many, many years away from that eventuality,” says Hepner. “I doubt that they’ll ever be able to replace somebody sitting down and actually writing, because it is algorithm based, so in terms of professional use it would not be probably ever a mainstay, but that doesn’t mean it might not be an interesting tool to get a different point of view.”
Where Songsmith may actually shine is as a tool for musicians to explore new ideas, at least as a starting point to something more complex. Microsoft Research’s Sumit Basu, a musician and one of the researchers behind Songsmith, says that’s just what they intended. He says many musicians sit down with their instrument of choice and try chord after chord until they find the perfect fit, but this is time consuming.
“This just let’s you explore that space very quickly,” says Basu. “It’s a really good way to quickly explore a whole bunch of possible chord sequences that might work for your melody, and I think that’s pretty valuable.”
He says the relationship between the melody and the chord is quite strong in Western music, so the software is very good at finding the appropriate accompaniment for the given melody.
While many users of the software object to the creative process becoming even somewhat automated, Basu says that is not what Songsmith is about.
“It is not going to make songs for you,” he says. “You really have to provide the melody and really that’s the creative aspect of song writing. In no way are we trying to replace that.”
But there is more to writing a song than figuring out a melody and chords. Hepner, who has performed with such artists as BB King and Aretha Franklin and has toured with Blood Sweat and Tears, says that one aspect that the software is unable to analyze is lyrics, an essential part of song writing.
“Often what happens when you’re writing a song is you get the lyrics to the song, and you try to make the melody and the chords support the lyrics,” he says, “If there’s a turn in the phrase of the lyrics, then the melody should also move with that. A program like this would never recognize this because it is not concerned with the lyrics, only the melody.”
And the lyrics will never be analyzed by Songsmith. While researcher Basu says that the team is continually looking at ways of working with more complex chord sequences, there are no plans to develop the program any further. It is as complex now as it may ever become.
“I doubt that we’re going to see genius coming from a computer for a while,” says Hepner. ”You‘re not going to see ‘Yesterday’ or some of those classic McCartney things coming out of one of these.”