The Nature of Things New

Beethoven started composing his 10th Symphony in the 1820s. AI finished it in 2021

A team of composers and computer scientists used artificial intelligence to complete Beethoven’s work

Posted: November 22, 2021
Last Updated: November 22, 2021

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Beethoven left behind a few sketches of a 10th Symphony when he died. Now, a team of musicians and software developers have created an algorithm to finish it. Walter Werzowa is the lead composer.  2:03

When Ludwig van Beethoven died in 1827, he left behind a few short sketches thought to be the beginnings of his 10th Symphony.

Beethoven's repertoire includes nine symphonies, five piano concertos, 35 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. Almost 200 years after his death, his work remains some of the most performed in the world.  

Many musicians have wondered what the revered composer's unfinished symphony would sound like, but few have dared to try and complete it. 

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In The Machine That Feels, a documentary from The Nature of Things, a team of music and computer science experts explain how they used artificial intelligence to create a finished version of Beethoven's 10th Symphony. 

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They began by compiling all of Beethoven's previous works, along with the few scribbled lines from the unfinished symphony, to create a data set. This data set "trained" the AI algorithm, which used computational creativity to bring Beethoven's vision to life. 

As the AI studied Beethoven's musical works, it began spitting out notes. The first sounds it produced were overwhelming for Walter Werzowa, the lead composer on the team. 

Walter Werzowa was the lead composer on the team. He was a creative collaborator with the AI, providing daily feedback that was incorporated into future iterations of the symphony. (CBC/The Machine That Feels)

"The first time I heard the results from the AI, I was mesmerized [by] the wealth of music [it produced] in such [a] short time," he says in the documentary. "Overnight, the AI gave us 100 to 150 pieces of music. It was goosebumps…. I started crying. It was just overwhelming to hear what the AI could share with us."

Werzowa was a creative collaborator with the AI, providing daily feedback. The AI would learn from Werzowa's inputs, and each new version became more refined. "We put the symphony together, one note at a time," he says.

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But just how authentic was it? 

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A 57-piece orchestra symphony performs Beethoven's 10th Symphony - not written by Beethoven, but by artificial intelligence, over a period of two years. Walter Werzowa was the lead composer on the team.  0:59

Felix Mayer is a music professor at the Technical University of Munich. He was unimpressed by the completed symphony. "I have to confess, for me, it's totally senseless music," he says in the documentary. "It's music without any idea."

"A machine is a machine. And 'inspiration' and 'creativity' are human words — words which describe human possibilities and not the possibilities of machines."  

Werzowa felt differently after hearing an orchestra perform it for the first time. "I feel Beethoven here," he says. "It was ones and zeros, then dots on paper, and now it turned into music."

After more than two years of work, the final piece premiered to the public on Oct. 9, 2021, played by the Beethoven Orchester Bonn under general music director Dirk Kaftan. 

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While it's up to individuals to decide if music created by an AI algorithm could rival Beethoven, this project highlights how the gap between humans and artificial intelligence is closing. 

Thanks to machine learning, ones and zeros are producing works that can be appreciated for their beauty and emotional power, just like man-made art. 

Watch The Machine That Feels on The Nature of Things.

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