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Darwinian melodies: Can a computer learn to play music?

A sheet of music, recently identified as a

A sheet of music, recently identified as a composition by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Credit: AP Photo

Computers can do lots of scary things; someday they may even be smart enough to find jobs for all the people whose work they can take on. Meanwhile the latest accomplishment of these binary beasts is music.

A professor in London has found a way to feed some noise into a computer and, using feedback from students, get the device to compose something you could stand to listen to--essentially, some passable electronica.

It was a form of evolution, says Prof. Armand Leroi of technically minded Imperial College; students (presumably accustomed to Pandora) listened to various iterations of the computer's compositions and registered their approval or disapproval. The most preferred works were then permitted to reproduce.

You can listen for yourself by watching the fascinating (and brief) BBC video. You can also listen to snippets of the music at various stages of the evolution process.

The whole business is just as interesting for what it says about the role of audience responses in the development of music.

The implication is that this role is large. Markets matter, in other words, even in the arts. For a fuller appreciation of this whole subject--and how consumer tastes result in both greatness and dreck--check out In Praise of Commercial Culture, by the culturally voracious economist Tyler Cowen or his blog.