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The Song that Never Ends

March 10, 2009

“This is something I think you would like” said Kim (who herself remains blogless), pointing me to the P22 Music Text Composition Generator. I played with it for quite awhile; it’s a fun toy.

I don’t think it’s quite there musically; the melodies it comes up with seem pretty random, even when starting from really structured, repetitive text. I couldn’t quite figure out the sort of algorithm it’s using to come up with the notes… it doesn’t seem to be a strict one-to-one correspondence between letters and tones (that’d be too boring anyway), but there does seem to be some sort of fixed relationship between input text and output result.

If I were doing this, I’d probably want to force the resulting music to be more traditionally pleasing, maybe by assigning more common note transitions to more common letter combinations. So the word “and” would become a repeatable motif in C, say, whereas the string “anx” might be something weirder.

I also wanted chords (gee, I’m just never satisfied, eh?). The single melodic line in MIDI format sounds kinda thin after awhile, especially at the default 120 beats per minute – I found myself kicking that up to 240, even 360bpm in order to get something that sounded sprightlier. And, at that, I wasn’t being adventurous enough. At Kim’s further nudging, I agreed that 1200bpm does make for some more interesting ambient sounds. A chunk of a Scrabble dictionary (just the A’s) at 1000bpm using Tubular Bells generated some interesting results, not quite as random-sounding as, say, quotes from the Gettysburg Address. Some of the odder instruments down near the bottom of the list are interesting as well – like the “Pad 3 (polysynth)”, which does sound a little fuller than most of these.

I’d already been thinking about “generative music” (music that is generated dynamically from elements and rules, rather than being codified in advance and then played as written) anyway, in another context.

Ever heard “Regiment”, from Brian Eno and David Byrne’s collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (first released back in 1981)? It gets into a groove that’s repetitive, but ever-changing, as the simple elements (I can make out drum, tambourine, bass, guitar, keyboard and eerie wordless female moaning for vocals) weave in and out. Since first hearing that song, I’ve wanted it to go on for far longer than it really does – and I’ve wondered if it’d be possible to design software that would take that song as input and extend it in a satisfying way, to produce something that really would just keep going without any fixed endpoint, always changing but always the same, for as long as I wanted it to.

It would not be at all easy to do that in practice – there’s a sweet spot between utterly random and boringly structured that music has to hit in order to be interesting and remain interesting. If it’s too predictable it’s just tedious (top 40; most C/W songs), but if it’s too random, the brain just gives up and stops considering it music at all. My imaginary software would have to keep combining the rhythmic and melodic elements of “Regiment” in new ways without diverging too far from the original composition, and at more-or-less the same rate of change as Eno and Byrne bring in changes during the original song. Tricky.

Eno already has more than a passing interest in such things – the Wikipedia article about him has a whole section on such generative music, and the Bush of Ghosts site appears to allow for a certain amount of “remixing” – but I don’t think he’s ever gone back and tried to do anything like what I really want. Maybe I should suggest it…

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anhidonia permalink
    March 11, 2009 7:28 pm

    I love it. Try “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck…”repeated multiple times at 1200 on the Kaliba. It is a beautiful song.

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  1. The Song that Never Ends (redux) « Bbbbblllllbbblblodschbg

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