Thursday, June 21, 2012
  Nice try, but you cheated

Broadcast on BBC 'Science in Action' today...

(Text from here.)
You might think that creating the perfect piece of music - whether it's a classical great, jazz masterpiece or pop hit - is all down to the composer's talent, flair or even genius.

Not so, according to Armand Leroi from Imperial College London. "What we are trying to find out is whether you need a composer to make music," says the professor of evolutionary developmental biology. "And we don't think you do."

He believes a much more fundamental force of nature is at work. "We don't often think of music as evolving, but everybody knows it has a history and it has traditions. But if you think about it, it really has evolved, it is changing continuously," Prof Leroi explains.

"There are all the same forces of change, variation, selection and recombination as different musical traditions join together, transmute and fuse and divide again.

The notion that music develops by audience approval is dubious. Real audiences and fans want composers to keep doing the exact same thing, and get pissed off when anything changes. But that's not the real problem here.
Enter Dr Bob MacCallum, mosquito researcher at Imperial College London by day, creator of DarwinTunes by night.

To begin with, the computer program randomly churned out two short loops of noise. "The notes are in any place, in any order, and the types of sound - the instrument - is completely randomly generated as well," says Dr MacCallum.

Then, as in nature, the program let the two original loops to "breed", to recombine and mix up their material, with some random mutations thrown in for good measure, to create four new loops. Those four went on to "reproduce" to create 16 new loops, and so on - until 100 random tunes were in the musical mixing pot.

At which point, the public were brought in. Through the internet, volunteers were asked to rate the songs that were being produced: from love to indifference to pure hatred.

Supposedly the public judges were acting as Natural Selection, separating the 'fit' mutations from the 'unfit'.

The real problem: MacCallum cheated.

The musical equivalent of the 'primordial soup' would be steady white noise, a hiss of random frequencies and amplitudes. MacCallum didn't start with a hiss, he started with a repeating and rhythmic pattern of simple diatonic notes that he himself designed.

He started with music.

And the result after thousands of 'generations' is still music of the same type. It hasn't gained any structure beyond the order that MacCallum put into it. The result hasn't gained stanzas or refrains or movements or bridges or cadences or even pauses. It's still the same pattern that MacCallum designed.

In organic terms, this would be like starting with a simple cell and letting it evolve into a simple cell with a different shape and color. Doesn't prove anything about organic evolution, doesn't prove anything about music.

No, wait. That's wrong. It does prove that both organic evolution and musical development require intelligence.

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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