Iamus (pink blob) photographed with Francisco Vico, head of UMA's Research Group in Biomimetics. Photo via Materia
The launch of Pandora radio in January 2000 was a high-water mark for computers deciding what music you want to hear. It's since spawned a number of similar concepts, notably Songza, which partners its users with songs that match their mood. But researchers at the University of Málaga in Spain are merging music and technology on an entirely different level. Instead of servicing its users by connecting them to music that already exists, these researchers are creating software that will allow computers to create their own music.
Iamus, named after the figure of Greek mythology who could talk to birds, is a software program that can write classical music scores with “just the touch of a button.” The pianist and software designer for the project, Gustavo Diaz-Jerez, has worked on teaching the computer the basics of human composition For example, the computer realizes that a pianist only has five fingers and therefore cannot play a 10 note chord with one hand.
The project is slightly different from other work in artificial intelligence, with the research team mapping out the program as not to outdo composers, but be able to compete on the same level. Constantly adding source material to the software, Iamus can develop, learn, and create more complex structures, just as a composer becomes more practiced with age. Iamus is controlled by an algorithm that mirrors the biological process because, as the BBC noted:
Just as human genomes mutated over time to create a multitude of unique people, Iamus alters and rearranges its source material to create complex pieces of music. The only restrictions placed on its output are determined by what can be realistically played by a musician and their instrument.
According to the BBC, Iamus is currently programmed with music within the “tempered western scale - in which there are twelve notes in an octave,” but its developers are not stopping there. The next step for the project is to incorporate Hindu or Arab styles of music, so that the program will be able to conjoin them into complex musical pieces. Music styles from West to East could be programmed into Iamus, and the program could compose a piece that would be the compositional equivalent of “We Are the World.”
But what are the implications once Iamus is properly programmed with styles from across the world? Could it be able to compose the greatest piece of music since Mozart or Beethoven? The mix of technology and music thus far has been to service its users to find music already created that they might enjoy. Iamus is a step in an entirely different direction.
While Diaz-Jerez argues that man’s musical potential is the measure for this project, we still are unaware of the future of artificial intelligence. Could pouring all of the music the world has ever known into a program end up outperforming human composers? A computer can already beat a human in chess, but one that's creative enough to compose a better piece of music than Bach is an altogether different enterprise. Or, on the other hand, there's also the possibility that the computer wouldn't have to be creative, and instead is able to distill great music down to some key points in an algorithm, which is a depressing outcome all it own.
Iamus has already given a few performances, so you can judge for yourself whether or not it's the future.. Aspiring composers, beware, this what you’ll be competing against in the future.