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New horizons for music creation


Contemporary popular music dominates the world’s music market. Over the past decades, it has evolved towards a music of sounds, heavily conditioned by technology. Digital instruments and software interfaces provide everybody with unprecedented freedom to express themselves through music creation, whether individually or collaboratively. Another revolution is yet to come. The recent progress in deep learning should prompt generative Artificial Intelligence to be the next horizon for music technology, resulting in a wave of innovations that will profoundly impact the scope of music production.

Music and technology

Throughout human history, music has been intertwined with technology. Without paper, the complexity of fugue or counterpoint can’t be achieved. Acoustic instruments are the result of several centuries of innovations, such as improved copper smelting to make brass instruments or refinements in the chemical composition of the steel to build piano frames. Since the ’50s, electronic synthesizers have enriched music with a wide range of novel sounds [1–4]. Today, the relations between music and technology are tighter than ever. Without digital technology, popular music in the twenty-first century is unthinkable. As early as the Beatles’ era, multitrack recording became central to popular music, placing itself at the core of the compositional process. Gradually, the recording medium has been utilized for its own creative potential. Nowadays, music is made in Digital Audio Workstations or DAWs, i.e. in application software used for multi-track recording, editing and producing audio files. DAWs allow the user to alter and mix multiple tracks into a final produced piece [5–9].

Technology for the Masses: Martin Gore’s studio.

A worldwide language

Contemporary popular music is a worldwide phenomenon, resulting in aesthetic cosmopolitanism. Between 1960 and 2010, pop charts (the USA excepted) have been observed to increasingly contain foreign music. As part of cultural globalization, pop-rock songs have brought people into greater proximity, leading to a core set of common musical cultural background, albeit expressed in many forms. While English may eventually become the common language of the world, contemporary popular music is already a universal communication mode [10–13].

A world industry: a US company selling
Danish music in China

Unprecedented freedom

Today, musicians enjoy incredible freedom at all levels. For centuries, European musicians were judged according to their understanding of the strict rules of Western harmony. Nowadays, self-taught musicians top the charts. They can combine any element (notes, chords, samples, effects, acoustics…) in any manner they want, even forego pitch entirely. They can choose to use any musical system ever devised, from any time and any culture. Until the 1910s, only the instruments of the symphonic orchestra were considered acceptable sound sources. Today, the number of virtual instruments, audio libraries, effects, etc… that can be inserted into DAWs is staggering. Basically, as long as a sound is audible, it’s OK to use it! Luigi Russolo’s dream for expanding the symphonic orchestra has been fulfilled beyond all expectations. Opera voices are famous for their use of “vocal formant”-based singing so that they can be heard above large ensembles, as a result of sounding like variants of a single instrument. Pop music vocalists take advantage of studio technology to use their natural vocal timbre, whisper, talk, yell, laugh, and yet have every detail of their voice heard with perfect clarity. In line with Pierre Schaeffer’s vision of the studio being the most general instrument, all music is now possible [14–16].

A music of sounds

There is now no clear border between musicianship and sonic craftsmanship. The manipulation of digital audio has become the primary focus of contemporary music production. Great care is dedicated to the design of the right samples, the right sound. As Bill Stephney points it out: “Drum programming in rap is incredibly complex. You may get a kid who puts a kick from one record on one track, a kick from another record on another track, a Linn kick on a third track, and a TR-808 kick on a fourth – all to make one kick!”. Instruments are re-created during production. For instance, as documented in the magazine Guitar World, the opening guitar riff for David Bowie’s ‘Little Wonder’ was made by playing three E notes with different vibratos. The notes were sampled, then played on a keyboard – but not in their original octaves. Getting into so much trouble to get a two-second long pattern using two notes (E, at two different octaves), suggests that sound has become at least as pertinent as pitch. Individual samples have come to carry the same commercial and aesthetic weight as the melody or lyrics in pop songs. As a result, the generation of modern popular music must consider sound as part of the music. Input datasets and generated content should not be strictly limited to symbolic representations such as scores [1,5,17–20].

Finding the right snare drum sound

Production tools for everyone

Two revolutions have impacted the role of music in Western society. At the turn of the XXth century, new media, such as the radio and the phonograph, made music consumption accessible to everyone. But the production of music was still a privilege. Then came the home studio. By the mid-1990s, digital multi-track recorders had become available at modest prices. Home studio technologies have fulfilled the dream of a professional quality home recording. The distinction between what a ‘professional’ or ‘commercial’ project studio, and what a ’personal’ or ’home’ studio can produce, has become increasingly difficult to make. Any personal computer can be used to make music. Both making and listening to music are now accessible to anyone. Today, everybody can be a music producer [5,21].

Collaborative music

From Palestrina to Mahler, the Western classical music tradition is championed by solitary composers who write music single-handedly. Jazz and rock changed this practice, with many music songs and albums credited to several members in a band. Contemporary productions show an even greater degree of collaboration. The credits for David Guetta’s album ’Listen’ include 32 unique composers. To collaborate, people do not even need to work concomitantly: many musicians credit people they have sampled but may never have met. Sampling is part of the ’remix culture’, in which authors re-use somebody else’s content for their own production. Although the practice is not specific to contemporary popular music (see Messiaen’s extensive ’borrowing’ practices), the literal, sample-by-sample quoting of somebody else’s recording is a source of legal problems. Proofs of authorship stored in a blockchain may be a solution to trace individual contributions. Shared authorship technologies for music production are likely to become a necessity in the near future [22–30].

Thirty-two single authors, one album

Music A.I.

The general public is becoming more and more aware of the astounding rate of innovation currently taking place in the field of automatic image generation by means of Artificial Intelligence. What about music? Even though two music albums involving A.I. have been recently released, music generation is comparatively struggling. Until recently, the direct generation of audio was made difficult by technical limitations. Generated content was therefore limited to representations such as scores. This situation may change as in the last few months, innovations from Google’s Wavenet have been used to generate audio directly from neural networks. This is a major turnaround, as it may facilitate the adaptation of some remarkable image generation techniques to music. Examples may include the automatic rendering of symbolic content using conditional adversarial networks, production of samples by interpolation using latent space regularization in variational auto-encoders, content-based recommendation using context convolutional networks (including navigation in the audio library), or context-based generation using inpainting techniques adapted to audio [31–38].

New horizons for music creation

Cosmopolitan, collaborative with traceable authorship, assisted by artificial intelligence: these are new features of music for the years to come. For the musician, the concept of an organic, self-adaptive environment is particularly striking: music composition for everyone, everywhere, with anyone! The interaction with A.Is. will extend the scope of human capabilities, enabling strange and wonderful musical creativity experiences that we cannot yet imagine. Sony’s contribution to this exciting new potential of creation for the human mind is both an impressive challenge and a wonderful opportunity.

Emmanuel Deruty, February 2018


New Horizons: a representation of Bach
music’s latent space


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