Roll over Beethoven: you're no longer needed. From now on, the great unwashed masses can evolve their own compositions ? no composers, songwriters or musical training required.
Since 2009, a website has allowed visitors to evolve their own preferred music using Darwinian principles. Some 7000 people have so far visited "Darwin Tunes".
The site began by offering listeners a selection of raw sounds generated at random by a computer. Listeners rated each for its appeal on a scale from 1 to 5, and the "winners" were randomly mixed with one another by the computer to create a second generation of tunes, with the "losers" dropping out.
Hear the tunes: Original, 1500 generations, 3000 generations
"All we did was generate series of notes lasting 8 seconds on a standard, 12-tone scale with a standard tempo," says co-leader of the project, Armand Leroi of Imperial College London. "We just let the computer generate random songs until we had groups of them, but with no structure whatsoever."
With each successive generation, the survivors became more and more recognisably rhythmic and tuneful, demonstrating the evolution of music driven purely by the most widely shared preferences of the masses.
Leroi's team's analysis includes the first 2513 generations, although the project has continued since then. He says the effects of evolution have now begun to plateau out ? but by getting listeners to rate songs taken at random from different generations, they demonstrated that the most likeable songs were those that had undergone the most evolution.
"Whether they would make the charts I have my doubts," says Leroi. "The songs are only 8 seconds long, but if you had them in a medley, you get something that sounds quite good, perhaps a really good ringtone, or an OK piece of electronica."
Leroi admits that the selection process is inevitably driven by the listeners' preconceived musical tastes and preferences. The only way to avoid that would be to play the tunes to babies naive to prevailing musical tastes. And to find out how universal the evolved preferences are, the experiment would need to be repeated in cultures where western music is not the norm, says Leroi.
But for now, the experiment continues, and Leroi invites New Scientist readers to listen to all tunes evolved so far, and to continue the experiment by visiting the website. "It's the democratisation of music," he says.
Leroi says that the experiment is one of the first to investigate how culture evolves, and it demonstrates that preferences of audiences are a huge driving force in how cultures, music and arts evolve. "It shows that inevitably, all composers play to the gallery, and I think it has underestimated the power that the gallery exerts on cultural evolution," he says. "In the cultural world, we forget that, and give all the credit to genius composers."
Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1203182109
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