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Computer Learns To Write Music Like Bach

December 7, 1986

URBANA, Ill. (AP) _ A computer learning to write music in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach may not threaten the livelihood of composers, but it’s a step on the path to more versatile and intelligent computers.

The key is a program that makes a computer ″listen″ to actual Bach compositions and learn some of his fundamental principles. Then, given a melody, the computer decides what kind of basic harmony Bach might have composed around it.

″The great thing about bringing Bach back to life is you can ask him to harmonize a melody written long after his death,″ said David Sirkin, who helped create the computer program at the University of Illinois.

Sirkin played a recording of ″On Top Of Old Smokey″ composed in the baroque master’s style by the computer, followed by a Bach-like version of an Indonesian folk song.

The computer produces several variations for each melody and ″it can goof since it is making generalizations″ about Bach’s style, said Sirkin.

But the program, which does not require a super computer and can be run on a variety of machines, is designed so that a Bach expert can tell the computer which progressions are unacceptable and ″it can use that feedback to learn and not make similar mistakes,″ he said.

What has been learned from developing the program for Bach has significance far beyond the field of music, said Larry Rendell, a professor or computer science.

″What you’d like to do is create a computer program that can learn anything, from music to medicine to games,″ said Rendell. ″That’s really the goal: machine learning - artificial intelligence.″

Currently, the program learns from relatively small pieces of Bach’s compositions, but eventually Sirkin and Rendell hope to teach it to look at Bach’s music in larger terms. The more the computer knows about Bach, the better its ability to compose in his style, said Sirkin.

″It’s not the ultimate system yet,″ said Rendell. ″It’s still under development.″

Sirkin, who recently earned a graduate degree at Illinois, also said the computer could learn rock as easily as Bach, and some day might be able to create music for the pop charts.

″A composer wants to write something that’s different, that pleases him and, hopefully, his audience,″ said Sirkin. ″But, you might get a computer that pleases some audiences more often than a composer.″

Still, Sirkin said he doubted that the individuality and talent of real composers ever would be replaced by computers.

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