DarwinTunes: The Natural Selection of Music

by Dave Mainella

The complete, complex, and ever-changing abundance of life on earth is the current result of of billions of years of biological evolution.  The idea of natural selection, Darwin’s understanding that the environment will select good traits and genes for reproduction and success, perpetuates and improves the type of life and organisms that we see.

That same process of natural selection is applied to the creative music-making process as well, according to a team from the Imperial College London.

Headed by Professor Armand Leroi,  the team has programmed a computer system called DarwinTunes to create music using the laws of natural selection.  The team’s goal, says Leroi in an interview with the BBC, is “to find out whether you need a composer to make music.”  He continues, “We don’t think you do.”

The team believes that the forces of variation, change, selection, and recombination found in natural selection are also present in music, as different artistic traditions join together, transmute, fuse, and divide again.

The DarwinTunes system investigates the role of consumer selection in a Darwinian music-making process.  A kind of evolutionary music engine, the system begins with the creation of two sound loops derived from randomly aggregated pure sine waves.   There were no man-made sounds, rhythms, or melodies.  The loops “reproduced” to create new loops, and this process repeated several times over.

Once there was a population of one hundred loops, each eight seconds long, consumers were individually asked to rate each loop on how they liked it.  The loops that were disliked the most were thrown out, and the popular ones were kept and allowed to “breed”, creating a new generation of songs.

The results were very interesting.  The team found that the quality of the music improved quickly; clashing chords disappeared and better rhythms emerged within the population.

Dr. Bob MacCallum, part of the DarwinTunes team, noticed, “After about three thousand generations had been listened to, there starts to be a kick drum or bass drum, and that just spontaneously came.  We didn’t put any drum sounds into the algorithm.”

The team believes DarwinTunes has so far been successful in showing that you can evolve music without a composer.  Professor Leroi explains, “It’s just a matter of market forces.  It tells us that market forces – consumer choice – is itself a creative force, one that is actually much more important than we appreciate.”

We typically think of music as the culmination of the inspired creative process of a composer, producer, or performer.  But DarwinTunes shows us that the creative power of consumer opinion has a dramatic impact on the creation of music as well, perhaps even challenging the idea and definition of music itself.

Leroi concludes, “I’ve no doubt that if we ran this experiment for longer, using bigger, faster computers, and millions of people rather than thousands, and for years, instead of months, we could evolve fantastic music.  Would it be Mozart?  No, I don’t think so.  It would have no composer behind it, it wouldn’t be the act of any individual musical genius.  It would just be the people’s music in its purest form.”

The entire report has been published by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and can be found here.

Dave Mainella is a musician, producer, composer, and writer living in New York. He graduated from New York University in 2011 with a Jazz Studies degree. See what he’s up to @DaveMainella.