There’s been a good bit of coverage of and interest in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the provocative title “Evolution of Music by Public Choice.” I’m always on the lookout for research like this because I’m fascinated with what music is and how people’s tastes are shaped, but the more I looked into this effort by scientists from the Life Sciences department at Imperial College London, the more upset I became – with its premise, its methods and its sloppy use of language. The authors are enjoying their moment in the media, but they’re spreading a conception of music that’s inimical to creativity, artistry and human connectivity. In other words, to music itself.
The basic facts are HERE and the study itself HERE. In brief, computers generated random sounds in 8-second loops. Thousands of on-line volunteers voted for the more appealing of pairs of loops in A/B listening comparisons. The nicer loops were “mated” so that the appealing qualities were passed on generationally. And the noise became something resembling music. Hence the name of the project: Darwin Tunes. A sampler of the changing sounds generated in response to voting feedback and recombination of winning loops is at the bottom of this post, and they are marginally interesting.
The study may have some limited findings and applications, but the media is making it sound far more significant than it is. Here’s one lead from a serious science website: “Do away with the DJ and scrap the composer. A computer program powered by Darwinian natural selection and the musical tastes of 7,000 website users may be on the way to creating a perfect pop tune.” Other stories used the same rhetoric, implying that music creation is on some kind of inevitable arc toward composing by Artificial Intelligence. It’s not, and this study doesn’t help us get anywhere worth going.