Machine Music: With Eurovision Canceled, The Netherlands Prepares to Host First AI Song Contest

Sound Waves
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Sound Waves

The inaugural event takes place in Holland on May 12 with teams of musicians, scientists and programmers all competing.

LONDON – Could artificial intelligence be used to help create the ultimate pop song?

That’s one of the questions that organizers of the first-ever AI Song Contest hope to gain insights into when their competition wraps up in the Netherlands on May 12.

“What we hope to show is the creative possibilities of artificial intelligence,” says Karen van Dijk, a senior editor at VPRO, the Dutch public broadcaster behind the event. “What it can do? But also, what are its limits and where does the human element come in?”

Originally envisioned as a precursor to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, the AI competition, which is online, is moving forward while the famed pan-European song extravaganza, which was due to be held in Rotterdam later this month, was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. The final round of the AI Song Contest, which is also being held in conjunction with Dutch public broadcasting administrator NPO, will be live streamed on YouTube at 8:30 p.m. Central European Time (3:30 p.m. EST).

Competing for the title are 13 teams of musicians, artists, scientists and programmers from Australia, Sweden, Belgium, the U.K., France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. They all submitted pieces of music beforehand that were created with the help of artificial intelligence. (The organizers are not awarding any cash prizes in the inaugural competition, but hope to change that in subsequent years.)

While the use of AI is what makes the event distinctive, organizers asked contestants to keep songs under three minutes and not to submit works totally created by AI. Rather, the works must feature some human element, either in the song’s composition or its performance. Teams were also required to submit written evidence detailing how they used AI in their compositions. Other than that, contestants had creative freedom to do whatever they, or an algorithm, wanted.

“There are endless different ways you can use AI when writing a song,” says Ed Newton-Rex, an expert in the field, who sits on the judging panel alongside Vincent Koops, senior data scientist at RTL, and Anna Huang, an AI researcher.

One team used AI to compose a bass line, which they then doubled at a couple of octaves plus a third to give them the melody. They then tapped AI to come up with the opening lyrics of the song, which are sung by synthesized voices. Another team let AI write the chords, the melody and the bass line, says Newton-Rex, who is a London-based composer and director of the AI lab at Chinese tech company ByteDance.

None of the 13 entries -- which can be heard and voted on here -- sound like they’ve been made using AI, says Newton-Rex, but they all have unusual or distinctive characteristics as a result of the innovative way they’ve been produced. “What you might hear is something odd, interesting or unexpected,” he says. “Something you might traditionally think of as a bad musical choice -- but actually, once you hear it a few times, you might start to quite like it.”

The AI contest is taking place as a small but growing number of artists around the world have been experimenting with AI to push their music forward. For her 2019 album, Proto, electronic composer Holly Herndon worked with her partner, Mat Dryhurst, and artificial intelligence expert Jules LaPlace to develop a synthetic multi-voiced AI “baby” they named Spawn. Arca, Toro y Moi and YACHT are among the artists that have also used the future-shaping technology to inform their work, while London-based start-up Auxuman is one of a number of companies worldwide developing next-generation virtual artists using AI.

Music companies have also been quick to recognize the technology’s potential. Last year, Warner Music signed a distribution deal with Endel, an app that creates algorithmically composed mood music. Universal Music recently entered into a strategic partnership with Super Hi-Fi, an artificial intelligence-based programming company. Streaming services like Spotify, Amazon and Tencent, meanwhile, are using AI technology to help drive playlist curation. Tencent is even looking to try to create music and predict what songs will be hits.

When it comes to actually writing and performing music, however, Newton-Rex says AI currently lags far behind human capabilities and is not likely to replace male, female or gender-neutral pop stars anytime soon. “AI is simply not as good at writing music as people,” he says. “But as it gets better at understanding music, there is a danger that people who write production music might lose out to cheaper and more efficient AI.”

Still, as organizers point out, humans have always made music using tools, from the first flutes in prehistoric caves to the introduction of synthesizers.

“We shouldn’t see AI as a way to have a computer create something for us and we sit back and do nothing,” says van Dijk. “But if a musician can use it to create new ideas that they perhaps would never have thought [of], then that’s super interesting. I think AI has a big part to play in the future music industry.”