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We Must Ask the Question Again: Can AI Write Pop Songs?

If you sit down with super-producer Max Martin, he’ll explain that there are certain mathematical realities that go into writing a hit song. And then there are software programs like Hit Song Science which use a powerful algorithm to determine if any song has hit potential. How long will it be before we farm out composing pop hits to artificial intelligence? That time is coming and coming fast. Greg points us to this article in Paris Review.

Now an algorithm has written some pop songs. This news led me initially to despair, then to scoffing disbelief. Computers writing songs! I imagined a monstrous aural mistake, as if Amazon’s coercive “suggestions” (We see you’ve purchased x—you’ll love y!) had spawned a disgusting musical tchotchke. This, I thought, was the sort of thing historians of the future will hold up as evidence of twenty-first-century humans in the grip of an insipid techno-utopianism; or, worse, as proof that we’d ceased to be messy, feeling creatures and had at last succeeded in turning ourselves into code.

When I finally got around to listening to “Daddy’s Car,” the Sony CSL “Flow Machine” algorithm’s pastiche of midsixties Beatles, I was—after swooning with awe—immediately brought back to the idea of franchising a band. The CSL algorithm analyzed a database of fifty Beatle lead sheets—of exactly the kind I’d imagined as part of the downloadable kit—and made an aggregate distillation of melodic and chordal patterns, so turning Beatles music into a computational object. Does this sound sinister? It doesn’t matter, because the resulting song is so eerie and strange and weirdly likeable, it will lead you to forget about whatever pieties you may be clinging to about computers making music. Eerie and strange first of all because the proportions are all wrong. The music is put together at odd, severe angles; conventional song structure buckles under the motiveless literalism of the algorithm. The parts roll out as if pulled haphazardly from a spool of Beatle fabric. And likeable because somewhere in there is that familiar ratio of Lennon sour to McCartney sweet: the primary colors of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” the dry leaves of “Nowhere Man,” the sugar high of “Here There and Everywhere,” the psych-fuzz of “She Said, She Said,” the wistful “Girl,” the normcore “Michelle,” all of it melted down and recast as modular Legos: blown up, reversed, inflated, glazed, airbrushed, cropped and lit. It sounds like the future of song.

Keep reading. This is both cool and frightening.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38321 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “We Must Ask the Question Again: Can AI Write Pop Songs?

  • David Cope’s Emily Howell project has been doing this (successfully) with classical composition for over a decade now. ‘She’ has two albums out and several orchestras have performed the works seriously. Emily could make infinite Mozartesque quality works. The problem for symphony organizations- she can make an infinite amount of quality works.


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