Several years ago I heard a tantalizing review on NPR of a computer program which was created by a composer to analyze multiple musical compositions and then generate new compositions based on the patterns that it had found. I’d been obsessing about patterns for years, so this caught my attention and has been haunting me ever since. Here is a great article about that composer, David Cope, and his software creation, Emily Howell. Go ahead – read it. I’ll wait.

The foundational principle of the software, which has been fine-tuned over the 15+ years since inception to be able to generate an inordinate amount of musicalia, is the principle of pattern detection, reorganization and implementation.

David Cope observes that when people compose, “We don’t start with a blank slate. In fact, what we do in our brains is take all the music we’ve heard in our life, segregate out what we don’t like, and try to replicate [the music we like] while making it our own.” I agree whole-heartedly. Not only in music, but in art overall, the creative process is not so much about creating man from dust (metaphorically speaking), but taking what already exists, and rearranging the parts to make an enticing new whole. Bringing it down to music, you might have noticed this to be true in practice. What are the compositions that really stand out and touch people? They are the ones that have familiar motifs, rhythms, choice of instruments, key, timbre. You don’t believe me? Recall the last time that a Zulu drum composition moved you to tears on a first listen.

Also, there are cases when, the more you listen to a song (assuming it’s by choice), the more you tend to like it: soon you can sing along, drum to the drum solos, whine along with the guitar riffs, anticipate that climactic finish, and then do it all over again. You like it because you know what to expect. This is called pattern recognition.

If you hear something completely, absolutely new and radically different, you will have a very hard time processing the composition at all. We “process” (ie. learn) new things by comparing them to things we already know, which means that at least the parameters need to be the same. Again, this is pattern recognition. If you analyze a piece of music, you can describe it based on the time signature (number of beats per measure), the key, the tempo, the choice of instruments. Chances are, you will like a piece if it exhibits most of the more familiar traits of western music (writing to a western audience here). So, a molto contabile waltz in A minor performed by a string quartet will get more laud than a glottal chant in no recognizable key with a variant time signature. And this, simply because for the latter the average westerner lacks a frame of reference. All we could say in response is “It’s….different.”

Now comes the question. Say you’re able to analyze musical compositions, detect and describe the patterns, and also study which of those patterns have, historically, been more popular with the audience. For example, I would bet that a resolved, final chord has and will continue to be more satisfying than three eight notes in the last 4/4 measure, ending the piece completely unresolved (in a diminished melodic chord, for instance).

So in theory, you can now create ideal music compositions that will be most pleasing and popular with the largest sector of society. You are poised to be the new Wolfgang. Or the new Sergei or Claude. The question is: will you be able to do it? Will the audience respond? Resonate?

Read on to the second part of this discourse, here!