The Electrified History of Computer Generated Music

Before tape, wax records and digital music recording enabled the masses to conveniently enjoy music from their living rooms, Victrola horn machines, phonographs, player pianos and an array of music boxes ignited the trend by mimicking live musicians in the 1800s. Since then, more strategies have evolved for excising the human musician in favor of the robotic counterpart in music performance and creation. The improvement of technology culminates in the present age with personal computers allowing someone with no musical background or training to be able to concoct musical compositions and generate full, polished sound recordings with no master musician needed. Critics chide this continual displacement of the human artist and point to the proliferation of manufactured faux pop musicians as the social and cultural detriment. 

In 1877, Thomas Edison used tin foils to record and play back sound through a mechanical instrument known as the phonograph. While this did away with live bands which had been the only way families experienced music, humans were still needed to physically crank up the contraption. Over the next 20 years, various inventors such as Emile Berliner, changed and improved Edison’s phonograph making recordings the preferred and most popular way of listening to music. Soon, mechanically generated music transformed music from a live rarity and social event into a private personal or family pastime.

Long, complex musical pieces that could punctuate concerts became rarer, according to Mark Long who penned the book “Playback: from the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money.” Human beings might have influenced the mechanical copycats, but soon human musicians began to think in terms of creating short pieces that could accommodate playback on machines. By 1880, jukeboxes brought the excitement of music electronically to restaurants and pubs. By the mid-1920s, the advent of mechanical recording and playback options eventually made it possible for radio to thrive in music delivery.

As the 20th century progressed, computerized instruments and robots able to play drums and brass succeeded player Pianos as substitute human musicians. The problem, according to some, was that the sound was too technical. It noticeably lacked the improvisation, soul, warmth and heart of flesh-and-blood artists. Eventually, however, manufacturers begin concocting robotic music players they claimed could emulate emotion and facial expression; such artifice did not please many musicians who felt something as genuine as feeling could have no automated mirror.

Not all human music makers believed computer-generated music was anti-musician. Some musicians embraced machines to simplify their craft so they can focus more on the artistry. The mechanical emulators also allowed musicians to do more without exhausting themselves. By the 1980s, sequencer music and drum loop machines had become de rigueur for many musicians, enabling them to create full band sounds with a few people, or often one key musician. By the 21st century, synthesizers and auto-tune created even more illusion.

Now, the battle between human beings and their machines in music raises many questions. Chief among them is the basic inquiry “What is art?” Does musical art require not just skill, but the actual presence of a sentient, creative human being? Or is it mere technical execution that any 21st century computer can produce -- sometimes with greater efficiency and speed than human artists.

Aspiring composers in contemporary times can purchase computer software such as audio editors and sequencers which allow users to manipulate loops of music to compose new songs. This software easily and quickly gives the user the ability to change tempo and pitch or to amplify certain instruments. Other finishing techniques such as layering echoes, fading, and mixing are also a part of most common music editing software. Ironically, many theorize such software will soon be the future standard for creating so-called “original” music compositions. Is it original when the music is based on the processing of provided loops? Perhaps, some advocates claim, because it is the human imagination which in the end synthesizing all, creating something “new” from trite, provided building blocks.

Whether music will become elevated or destroyed by the evolutionary merger between technology and musician remains to be heard and seen. However, what is certain is that in the future the definition of musician will change. Since a leisure aficionado now has the ability to create like a maestro, music will no longer to the exclusive domain of the gifted, the well-practiced, or the virtuoso -- a development perceived alternately as sad or praise-worthy depending on which segment of society you ask.