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Thanks for the memories  July 26, 2012

The supercomputer that can write classical music

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CNET Editor

Michelle Starr is the tiger force at the core of all things. She also writes about cool stuff and apps as CNET Australia's Crave editor. But mostly the tiger force thing.

Iamus' casing.
(Iamus image by Quipa, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A computer program is able to write classical compositions in the blink of an eye.

Iamus — named for the figure from Greek mythology — has been compared to Mozart, has had its compositions performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and has released an album, all within the space of a year, and within two years of its first composition, Opus One, in October 2010. But Iamus is no normal composer; dwelling in Spain's University of Málaga, the maestro is a cluster computer programmed to write music.

And it does so with no human intervention beyond the setting of parameters. These might include what can be achieved with a human body — where human hands can reach on a keyboard or fretboard, for example — or the range of notes that can be achieved on any given instrument. For each instrument, Iamus needs to know what can and cannot be achieved by human players. Its team, headed by composer and software consultant Gustavo Diaz-Jerez, then gives the computer its limits for what instruments it will be composing, and how long the piece needs to be, and Iamus does the rest.

Computers have, of course, written music before — but we're not sure that it's anything like this.

Diaz-Jerez told the BBC:

It is very different from other computer-generated music. When people hear the phrase, they imagine that you can hear the computer playing music. Iamus does something different: it projects the complexity we are growing in the computer into musical structures.

Listening to the music, we can hear that complexity, but also a certain discord, as though the emotions of the music aren't quite there. That could be a cognitive bias, though. Have a listen, and tell us what you think.

Iamus has only begun to explore its potential. It will be able to compose in other styles, and for more instruments; the programmers just have to give the computer that information. But what could Iamus do on its own, on instrumentation that isn't limited by human ability, outside of the parameters of any one defined genre? We'd love to find out.

You can find more of Iamus' compositions on Diaz-Jerez's YouTube channel.


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