DarwinTunes: Music Without a Composer? - Evolution News & Views

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DarwinTunes: Music Without a Composer?


A couple of days ago, we commented on the Golden Ratio, a symmetry that is found throughout nature and was recently set to music. Now, scientists are trying to show that loops of mere noise can evolve by a Darwinian process into inspiring melodies.

If you've ever seen a photograph of an old manuscript of Beethoven's that was written in his own hand, you probably noticed it was a mess of scratches, scribbles, and erasures. Beethoven struggled mightily with the composition process and labored over every idea until the musical phrasing was just right. Mozart, on the other hand, is rumored to have had the ability to compose entire operas in his head in a matter of hours and write them down for the first time as a final draft.

The BBC reports that both the pains and ease of this creative process are unnecessary to produce music ("Music evolution: Is this the end of the composer?"). Professor Armand Leroi and Dr. Bob MacCallum from Imperial College London developed a project that they've dubbed "DarwinTunes."

Participants in the experiment, by rating the musical tracks, act as the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection. The jingles that are deemed most fit survive, and are then "bred" -- mixed with other tracks to create new songs. Random mutations are programmed to arise as well.

Dr. MacCallum explains:

In the beginning, [the loops were] pretty horrible . . . But occasionally, one was slightly less horrible, so the volunteer would give that a higher rating, and that loop and a few others that were slightly less bad than the others would go forward and have offspring. And then as evolution proceeds the music does get better.
So, these scientists create a program that contains musical potential -- much like the information written in our DNA -- and then sit back as variants arise and pleasant melodies are shaped by consumer choice. Is this the end of the composer? Hardly.

If anything, DarwinTunes illustrates that the music that touches our souls requires much more than a driving rhythm melded with a harmonious melody. Though evolved through the mechanism of consumer choice, these songs would be quickly obliterated by market forces if they actually had to compete with the spirited compositions of, say, Philip Glass. Mankind recognizes beauty, responds to it, and even creates it, but doesn't ultimately define it.

But don't take my word for it. Evaluate the product of DarwinTunes for yourself: