How a computer program became classical music's hot, new composer
'Emily Howell' is a computer program that composes classical music by following rules of music its programmer taught it.
By Matt Rocheleau, / Contributor
posted June 17, 2010 at 12:05 pm EDT
Earlier this year, 6-year-old musical prodigy Emily Howell released an 11-track debut album, resembling the work of history's most renowned classical composers. But instead of receiving the praise given to Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach, the California native has become a lightning rod for controversy within the musical community.
Why? Because Emily is not human.
Emily is a computer program, and "her" ability to write original compositions has called into question whether art is as uniquely human as many like to believe.
"Can computers be creative? In the sense that they are creating something that wasn't there before, yes," says David Cope, Emily's programmer and professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "But so can birds and insects and volcanoes. We have reserved this notion of creativity for humans for a long time, and we are enamored of it."
As he sees it, creativity has never been a human-defining trait. This feeling of his stretches back three decades, to when Mr. Cope first dabbled in teaching music to computers. After hitting a dead end while trying to write new music on his own, Cope created a program called EMI, which he pronounces as "Emmy."
EMI (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) would analyze the work of human composers, pick up on their musical styles, and generate new work seemingly written by the original musician. EMI created "zillions" of compositions before being scrapped for Cope's latest project, he says.
Created in 2003, Emily has only written around 20 songs. It synthesizes its own compositions according to the rules of music that Cope has taught it. And Emily is only fed music that EMI had composed, which gives the new work its own contemporary-classical style.
Human musicians perform most of Emily's compositions, though one song on the album credits three Disklaviers, pianos played by machines.
Cope says he decided to give the software a human name