Do you hear what AI hear?

University of Toronto researchers develop computer-generated Christmas music

Posted: December 07, 2016

Computer-generated Christmas carols could be a thing (Desiree Martin/Getty Images)

This time of year, it's almost impossible to avoid holiday music, from old classics to contemporary pop renditions. But one day, you may find yourself singing new holiday songs…written by a computer.

A group of computer scientists at the University of Toronto recently published a paper called "Song From PI: A Musically Plausible Network for Pop Music Generation." Basically, they created an artificial intelligence system capable of writing pop songs. The researchers loaded more than 100 hours' worth of music into the system. Then their algorithm analyzed those songs to get a better understanding of how pop music is constructed.

The scientists used a type of artificial intelligence known as a "Recurrent Neural Network," which is organized into different layers. Each layer created a different part of the song: the bottom layers created the melody; the higher levels created the chords; and the drums filled out the song to make it sound more like an actual piece of pop music. In the end, the AI composed a number of songs, including a Christmas tune.


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Where do the lyrics come from?

The lyrics are also computer generated. The researchers at U of T used a system called "neural storyteller" which can look at a picture and create a story. It uses a computer vision system to recognize the objects inside an image, then it turns the image into words, or song lyrics.

Who else is creating AI music? 

In September, researchers at Sony released a song in the style of The Beatles, called Daddy's Car:

In Sony's case, the music was composed using an algorithm, but the lyrics were written by a human (French musician Benoît Carré).

Another example: in 2004, a PhD candidate at MIT named Brian Whitman taught a computer program to listen to hundreds of Christmas songs and then to compose new ones. The result was an album called "A Singular Christmas."

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What's the bigger picture here?

We are very much in the early days of AI, especially when it comes to software that can generate "art," but there are a number of high-profile efforts to improve the quality of artificial intelligence algorithms. So, while you may not be humming holiday music written by algorithms this year, that future may not be so far off. The question is whether music written by AI software developed in Canada counts as CanCon.


Dan Misener
CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.