David Cope has created Emily Howell, an artificial composer that learns from criticism.
David Cope has created Emily Howell, an artificial composer that learns from criticism.

Like many composers, Emily Howell has her own unique style that she refines constantly. She’ll listen to what critics have to say about her work and then try to write music that is good enough to silence those critiques. Aiming for musical perfection is a very human endeavor, but Emily Howell isn’t a human composer at all. She is a computer program designed by composer, programmer, and author David Cope. A retired professor of music at the University of California Santa Cruz, Cope has spent almost 30 years at the forefront of synthetically composed music. With Emily Howell, he hopes to prove that great musical composition is no longer limited to mankind. Her CD from Centaur Records is set to drop soon.

Cope’s original effort to get a computer to generate new music was called Experiments in Musical Intelligence, or EMI (pronounced ’emmy’). That program was able to analyze the work of other composers and produce a completely new piece in their style. You can download MP3s of the EMI work here, there are compositions in the style of Beethoven, Joplin, Cope himself, and many others. Emily Howell, in some ways the offspring of EMI, analyzes her own work just like EMI would analyze famous composers. The result is a feedback loop that, when coupled with critiques from Cope, has created a musical learning machine. Self-analysis is a key ingredient in artificial intelligence, and Emily Howell may be one of the precursors to self-aware computer programs.

Who wants to play synthetic music?

Back in 1980, Cope was having some writer’s block trying to compose an opera. He got the idea for a computer program that would write music for him. The first compositions were completely awful, and had to be transcribed from numbers into notes. That’s when Cope wondered if instead of trying to write rules for the program to create music, he couldn’t just have the program look at his compositions and determine the important rules on its own. From that concept, EMI was slowly born, working to first analyze Cope’s music and later to create works based on that analysis. After getting EMI to work for his own music, Cope found that it could analyze other composers just as well. Soon EMI was channeling the genius of Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and many others. It has created thousands of new compositions that are stylistically indistinguishable from the great masters of music.

With EMI, Cope ran into prejudice from the established musical community. Performing a newly discovered Bach score would be wonderful, performing a new Bach piece that was synthetically created would be blasphemy. Cope tried, but never was able to get high-profile musicians to play his pieces publicly.

Which is a shame. Listening to the MP3s (here’s the link again) I’m pretty impressed with the work. Now, full disclosure, I have about as much musical talent as a metal pipe falling down the stairs. Still, I like what I hear and I can identify the styles as belonging to the composers listed. I’ve been told that the EMI compositions sound ‘lifeless’ but that may be because they aren’t being performed by living musicians.

In 2003, David Cope decided to take a new tack. Instead of generating new pieces of old composers, he was going to create an entirely new composer. Hence Emily Howell was born. Her first task was to analyze a database of original EMI pieces and use that to launch her into writing new compositions. Unlike many human composers, Emily’s great at taking critical feedback. The program can receive audio or written critiques from an audience and use them to generate the next composition. Details of how Emily Howell works are provided in Cope’s book Computer Models of Musical Creativity.

Chances are that Emily Howell will not be nearly as popular as EMI. While EMI could seemingly bring old composers back from the Dead, Emily is just one more musician in a sea of hopeful composers. But that, according to Cope, is exactly what makes her so special. She’s an actual competitor to human composers, generating new work in a style all of her own. While many others may be pursuing artificial intelligence, Emily Howell is proof of artificial creativity.

Not being a musician, I have no idea what the long term impacts of EMI and Emily Howell will be on the music community. It’s unclear if AI could ever replace human composers, but if it could, we’re likely to see opposition to the idea just as we see some opposition to the increased use of robotics in manufacturing.

I do know that the concept of artificial creativity is going to be huge, especially when it evolves into creative problem solving. Think of the benefits that could arise from a computer program that could not only perform a task, but could think of new ways to perform that task and find the best of its own ideas. Creative learning machines could be the definitive technology of the 21st century.

[photo credit: David Cope]