Jan 25, 2019

Music companies increasingly turn to computer-generated tunes

Elton John in 1974. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

Every year, it becomes less and less likely that a human being composed the upbeat jingle you just heard in the background of a video.

What's happening: Simple online tools have turned music generation into a matter of a dozen clicks, and can crank out pleasant if somewhat boring background music in a few seconds. These algorithmically generated ditties end up in product videos, news clips and occasionally even on musicians' albums.

  • They may soon proliferate on streaming services like Spotify, which are angling to soundtrack every moment of the day.
  • Atmospheric songs can be tuned to match a mood and be generated on the spot for listeners, or spit out en masse ahead of time for streamers to choose from.

The big picture: Computer-composed music has been around for few years, mostly in novelty form. But there are increasing signs that music companies are taking it seriously.

  • In 2017, Spotify hired François Pachet, a computer scientist and composer. Last January, he published an album of computer-generated music.
  • Tencent's popular QQ Music streaming service announced this week that it's a customer of Amper, a company that builds music-generation software.

Amper's CEO, Drew Silverstein, wouldn't tell me what exactly QQ plans to do with the software, but he offered a few hints. "How do we have the best type of music situated for our day based on what we want to do?" he asked. "Amper can create individualized music on a global scale."

How it works: Earlier this week, I watched as Zachary Shuster, an Amper product manager, created a video soundtrack with Amper's tool.

  • He uploaded a short video clip and marked on a timeline where he wanted the music to intro, climax, and outro.
  • From among several genres — cinematic, folk, hip-hop, rock — he picked "documentary," and then chose "relaxed" and "happy" from an array of moods.
  • Then, he lined up a couple instruments — marimbas and shakers for a tropical vibe — and hit the go button. Within seconds, the software had generated five tracks.

Our take: The end result won't win a Grammy, but it got the job done. A casual listener wouldn't know it wasn't composed or performed by people.

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