Eighteen months after I began programming a computer to compose classical music as a final project for a freshman cognitive psychology course, I found myself enrolled in an independent study program with Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon. I set out to make a computer compose, orchestrate and play classical music without any human input. During the second semester with Dr. Simon the computer played its first song. Over my junior and senior years at Carnegie-Mellon University I worked each term with Dr. Simon on improving the system. Reflecting back on those times twenty five years ago there can be no doubt that my time on this project still ranks as one of best experiences of my life. I've put up this site so that the many people who have asked how things got started Dr. Simon and what the music sounded like can have a chance to hear it and to thank Carnegie Mellon and honor the memory of Dr. Simon once again. Below you will find that first song and three of my favorites from 1980.
Artificial Intelligence - Classical Music Composition - 1978-1981
After working on the project using graphic output in 1978 and 1979 I spent most of the end of 1979 learning the physics of sound and developing a system for the computer to play its own music. While the computers of those days maintained enough processor power to compose the music with relative ease, the data crunching required to play the results meant no one else could use the mainframe while it worked and the memory for a song took up much of its hard drive. Doing some rough math I would guess that hard drive, which measured the size of a washing machine, offered a capacity of around 50 megabites. Accordingly, the graduate computer science deparment, whose equipment I used, insisted I only listen to output from midnight to 6am and that I erase the data once I heard what it produced. Finally in 1980, on a night around 3 AM the computer played its first "song". On one hand I experienced one of the happiest moments of my life with the triumph of two years of work paying off. On the other hand I experienced a terrible loneliness of not being able to share the moment with anyone. I include it here to memorialize this "first song".
I've played the music for many people over the years, but the most on point comment probably came from my Junior year roommate, Ken Kulak, who when asked if he liked a song said: "Well, Mory, you have a paternal love for this music." Now, as the proud father of three sons I understand paternal love even more.
While on my way back to see Dr. Simon in the summer of 1980 I stopped to visit Lisa Zaslow, my classmate Jeff Zaslow's sister. Her father, Harry, asked me about what I was doing in Pittsburgh. He proceeded to tell me that a computer could not possibly make up a song without human input because when he hears a song it tells him a story, and a computer could NEVER do that. After hearing this song Harry Zaslow provided the narrative to go along with the song about "The bride reluctantly walking to the alter" and confirmed that a computer can indeed compose music.
Dr. Simon heard this one and said it sounded "Bartokian". I think this remains my personal favorite. My senior year there were some efforts made to have the music department to perform this one, but the plans came too close to finals and it never happened.
During the process members of the music department faculty heard about the prospect of trying to make a computer compose music at the level of a first year music composition major and offered great doubt. After listening to the music they admitted it was, in fact, better than many of the first year students and offered congratulations on a successful project.