One of the things I’ve always wondered about since the advent of digital music composition is where the threshold is between music composed by a person, and music composed by a computer, algorithm, or other automatic or pre-recorded source. What specific action is the essence of creating music? If you assemble a track entirely of pre-recorded loops created by someone else, can you call that music your own – that is, can the mere arrangement of existing sound be considered music? Or what if the entire track is made up of automatically generated MIDI or arpeggiated sequences?
It’s a question that I’ve occasionally considered as I’ve explored various programs that allow people to more easily play around with the building blocks of music and create music of their own, under the guise of games or as simplified musical tools. Programs like this, to allow a novice to create something interesting that will also sound good more often than not, often do so by limiting the overall possibility space to ensure that the nascent musician has little opportunity to go off the rails, but by doing so it also places certain bounds on overall creativity. Because of that, I sometimes wonder whether such programs do more harm or more good overall, as they simultaneously encourage and limit music creation, but overall I generally consider them to be a benefit, considering that if you can introduce someone into playing around with music and sound, you can subsequently move them towards more complex and open music-creation systems as their proficiency grows.
I’ve played around with several of these types of programs over the years, from Electroplankton to Isle of Tune to DJ Space. The one I’ve been trying out now, though, is the recently released and similarly-named Cosmic DJ. It markets itself as a sort of music “game,” but primarily revolves around tapping out beats and melodies. It consists of several pre-built song elements, such as the intro, outro, and bridge sections, while letting the player compose most of the intervening segments using a simplified step sequencer where you can lay out the sounds from various four-part kits in whatever pattern you’d like (think a very simplified version of something like BeatWave). Once you’ve put in each section, it then assembles the song from your inputs and its other background/bridge components to create the final track. The end result, then, follows a very specific pattern, but with a considerable amount of melodic variation based on what you programmed in. Because of that, the results really do feel like they’re right on the edge of that question about what it means to create music. Take the output from Cosmic DJ: structurally, every song generated will be very much the same, but there’s also a tremendous amount of difference in how all of the main sections sound based on those different patterns.
The following track, I think, demonstrates some of that, as it is primarily based around two alternating versions of a Cosmic DJ track that I composed twice, with different ideas in mind each time (and bridging them together with some melodic rock loops and other stuff, because I’m weird like that). Listening to them side by side, it’s clear that the songs are similar enough that they can go back to back fairly seamlessly, but at the same time manage to set a considerably different tone in each of their various parts.
Oh, and just for fun, I also played around with using it as a source for various granular synthesis engines (which, right there, brings up another questions about what it is to create music, and creation by transformation). Philosophy aside, though, I found one setup that converted the track into some weird-sounding synthesized wind noise, which despite its uncanny variations is now on its way to fast becoming a favored track in my white noise/nature sounds background audio playlist.
So, ultimately, when it comes down to the question of what it means to make music, and where that specific threshold lies, I really don’t know any more. It is true that when it comes to creating music, the overall creative potential probably scales with the complexity of the music-creation system, increasing the attendant expertise necessary to operate it to that maximum level of creativity. However, I do think that higher-level programs like this one do have their purpose, and even within the limitations of that framework, I think there is still plenty of variation and creativity that can be delivered from them if you have a mind to.
(Oh, and if you’re wondering about releasing tracks involving music created in Cosmic DJ, it is allowed by the developer.)