I was poking around on the interweb looking for additional information pertaining to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. I have an old Schirmer Scores collection of all of his chorales that has been a great reference for any tinkering I’ve done with arranging harmonies and making things sound right. When it comes to the classic sound of classical music, Bach created the simple guidelines that composers still follow to this day. Flow, counterpoint. intervals, the relationships between major and minor chords; he wrote the book.

I stumbled on a paper entitled “Bach in a Box – Real-Time Harmony” and thought it had promise until I saw that it was from the department of Computations and Neural Systems at the California Institute of Technology. Computation? Hmmmm

So here’s what they wanted to do, as described in the abstract and introduction:

  • “The goal of this research is the development of a system to learn musical rules from examples of J.S. Bach’s music, and then to apply those rules in real-time to generate new music in a similar style.”
  • “We briefly review the representation of input data and the process of rule base generation. Then we focus on methods of increasing the performance of rule-based systems.”

So they feed all of Bach’s work into a database, create rules based on it all, punch in a melody and have it spit out a 4-part harmony based on the rules that the database created. In real time, meaning that it will create the harmony AS you’re playing/inputting the melody. Wow. Nerds rule the world. It’s all based on this simple formula that any 6th grader can decipher (I dare you to click on it):



Errrrr…>>>boom<<<…my head exploded.

So how did it all pan out? Bach’s chorales are gloriously simple and beautiful, how complicated could it be? Turns out that he was more of a mad genius than I (or the scientists) thought. They broke things down into “rule sets” for different voice parts and general styles and then looked at how many rules were in each. There were thousands, lots of thousands. There were rules inside of rules and I’m guessing the computer had some real issues keeping up (so much for the “briefly” piece of their plan). Did it create harmony? Yup. Did it suck? Well, since the only output they showed was a pretty sketchy version of “Happy Birthday”, they published exactly zero sound files and the project was done almost 10 years ago without anything else downstream of it…yeah, I guess it did.

I’m not at all surprised. Yes, there’s a lot of math in music and it can indeed be calculated and quantified and analyzed until the bovines come home, but that can be said of many things. The CREATION of music however, now that has no magic formulas or nerdly buckets to put numbers in. How do you measure emotion (because that’s what makes “creative” happen)? Joy, inspiration, sadness, fear…the list of emotions that inspire composition is as long as our perceptions are wide. Try to apply your calculus equation-maker to that and you’ll find a curl of blue smoke coming out of the back of the computer. You don’t measure music, you feel it. And you interpret it in your own personal and unique way.

The language of the digital landscape is 1’s and 0’s. The language of music is limitless. See? Simple math.