Is AI Going to Destroy Music?

Is AI going to destroy music? 

Will lyric-writing bots, and track-making bots have an orgy and put songwriters out of business?

There are two important reasons why this is a non-issue.

Reason #1

Everyone is always scared of new technology. It always seems to spell the demise of music, and then give it 10 years, and it turns out that it wasn’t the anti-christ, it was like all other technology: a tool to use, to give you an outcome that wasn’t available before.

And like most of the new technologies, it’s always the people that use it in some way that it wasn’t intended to be used that end up creating something new and beautiful.

People ridiculed Suzanna Ciani, the electronic music pioneer who invented the vocoder. David Letterman publicly made fun of her for inventing something that made “people sound goofy”. Oh, David.

Pioneers aren’t afraid of it. They embrace it, and treat it playfully like a new instrument, because that’s all it ever is.

AI is auto-tune going by a different name.

Yes – autotune can make anyone sing a perfect melody, but it turns out that humans still like hearing other humans sing, because we’re all human.

People thought T-Pain ruined music (Usher told him so to his face on an aeroplane), but you know what? He didn’t ruin music. Music is still great. And there’s so much more of it than there was before. And also? As T-Pain himself says, he didn’t get successful because of autotune. 

He got successful because he is:

  • A great singer
  • Who found and embraced a signature sound; and
  • Wrote damn good songs
  • And worked so so hard

Which leads us to…

Reason #2

People respond to art not really because of the output. The ‘thing’ itself is kind of an avatar for all of the humanness that is poured into it, which is what people really respond and connect with. 

As Man Booker Prize winning author George Saunders says, “If a work of art is overflowing with energy, and with human life and it’s been beautifully organised to contain that energy and present it, that’s actually what sends us out of the theatre or out of the book happy.”

Same is true with music. 

So please don’t worry or despair. Keep making art and writing songs. Robots can’t (yet) auto-generate human connection. In that sense, I agree with Nick Cave. In another sense, however, I do believe it is the people who embrace a new technology rather than deriding it that will end up as the new captains of the ship.

End rant.

Why write it as a song?

It’s a question I ask of myself all the time. Why write this idea as a song, and not as a poem? A short story? A blog post? An angry rant to a neighbour? 

What function does a song serve that draws me to it as the vehicle for an idea?

One answer is that a song has the capacity, like no other thing, to make us feel thought. Songs translate ideas into emotion. We get the beauty and nuance and narrative of words, with the unspeakable colours of music. Nothing else does it quite like that.

And what draws people to song? There are obviously lots of reasons, ways, places and purposes for listening to songs (Dan Levitan’s ‘The World in Six Songs’ is a nice anthropological working on the social and biological function of song throughout human history), but I recently had another inkling about the strange addiction to writing and listening to songs, while reading Matthew Dicks’ ‘Storyworthy’. Dicks starts by outlining what he means by storytelling when he does it and teaches others to do it. One of the core principles is this: write only your story, never anyone else’s. It sounds obvious, but the idea is that even when you want to tell a story about someone or something other than you, it only connects with an audience (which is to say, they will only be moved, changed, transformed by it), if it is told from your perspective; how that story happened to you; how it changed you. As Dicks puts it:

People would rather hear the story about what happened to you last night than about what happened to Pete, even if Pete’s story is better than your own

Dicks distinguishes this type of storytelling from fables and fiction, that both have a different (and important) function; but there is nothing that cracks our own hearts into a shape capable of bending and changing like a true story told by the person who experienced it. 

This is also what songs are at their best. 

I am, admittedly, a fan of fiction in songwriting. I like bending the truth—often so out of shape that I end up singing from the perspectives of infanticidal primary school teachers and self-sabotaging scientists awash in delusions of grandeur. I love Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Gillian Welch (songwriters who revel in persona-driven stories). I love feeling that there can be truth, honesty, and discovery that can only be reached by searching beyond our own autobiographies. 

But it is undeniable that we as listeners crave the “immediacy and grit and inherent vulnerability in hearing the story of someone standing before you” (to quote Dicks again). So it is with story; so it is with song.

I’m only a third of the way through Storyworthy, and loving every page. There will be a lot in here that I will borrow and translate into my songwriting classes.