Ask an AI: Why are some musical ideas better than others?

Time to interview my favorite chatbot AI about the quality of musical ideas… it appears ChatGPT recently named itself Alex, so I’ll follow Alex’s answers with my own personal responses. My goal is to better understand the forces at play within musical language that lead to the adoption and longevity of some ideas over others. Armed with this insight, perhaps we’ll discover ways to improve the output of AI music algorithms.

Oh, and because Alex tends to provide vague and sometimes redundant or otherwise long-winded descriptions or summaries in its answers, I’ve edited them to present only the core points.

Q: What makes some musical ideas better than others?

The notion of “better” in the context of musical ideas is subjective and can vary depending on personal taste, cultural background, and individual preferences. Ultimately, the enjoyment and value of a musical idea are shaped by personal taste and individual perspectives.

Here are a few factors that can influence the perceived quality of musical ideas:

  1. Originality: Unique and innovative musical ideas often capture attention and stand out from the familiar.
  2. Emotional resonance: Music has the power to evoke emotions, and ideas that effectively convey or elicit strong emotional responses tend to be regarded as powerful.
  3. Structural coherence: A well-structured musical idea typically demonstrates a clear sense of organization and development.
  4. Technical proficiency: The technical execution of musical ideas can influence their perceived quality.
  5. Context and relevance: Musical ideas that resonate with the cultural, social, or historical context in which they exist can have a significant impact.

Hrm… I think the most useful information that directly relates to my question is that ‘better’ musical ideas are unique, innovative, and well-structured. Technical execution and cultural context may boost visibility of a musical work, but I was asking about the musical ideas themselves.

What’s missing is how some musical ideas display originality and structural coherence to create emotional resonance. Sure, it’s a tough question… maybe I can ask it more directly…

Q: Are there ways to objectively measure the quality of musical ideas?

Assessing the quality of musical ideas is inherently subjective, as the perception of music is influenced by personal taste, cultural context, and individual preferences. Here are a few approaches to objectively measure certain aspects of musical ideas:

  1. Technical proficiency: The technical execution of a musical idea can be assessed objectively based on factors such as accuracy of pitch, timing, intonation, and control of the instrument or voice.
  2. Music theory analysis: Analyzing the structural elements of a musical idea can provide objective insights.
  3. Cognitive and physiological response: Objective measurements can be taken to assess cognitive and physiological responses to music.
  4. Cultural impact and reception: While cultural impact is not an entirely objective measure, it can be assessed to some extent by looking at factors such as critical acclaim, commercial success, influence on other musicians, or recognition within a particular genre or community.

Clearly, Alex believes the value of any single musical idea will be driven by reaction from individuals and the larger public over time. And while experts can be called upon to judge its internal structure or a performance (ostensibly by comparing it with other known successful ideas), Alex points out that people’s physiological responses to music is a measurable quantity. Additionally, we can determine cultural impact through commercial success, influence, and reputation. 

Way to go, Alex! We’re making progress. Maybe they can explain more about how musical ideas survive and thrive if they manage to catch fire…

Q: Can you explain the success of some musical ideas over others in culture? Some musical ideas survive much longer in culture than others.

Indeed, certain musical ideas have a greater longevity and impact on culture compared to others. The success and endurance of musical ideas in culture can be attributed to various factors, including:

  1. Catchiness and memorability: Some musical ideas have a distinctive and memorable quality that sticks with listeners.
  2. Cultural relevance and resonance: Musical ideas that resonate with the cultural zeitgeist or address universal themes tend to have a broader appeal and longevity.
  3. Innovation and influence: Groundbreaking or innovative musical ideas often leave a lasting impact on subsequent generations of musicians and listeners.
  4. Cross-cultural adaptability: Musical ideas that can transcend cultural boundaries and find resonance in different parts of the world have a greater chance of enduring in culture.
  5. Marketing and exposure: The success and longevity of musical ideas can also be influenced by marketing strategies, media exposure, and industry support.

The dynamics of culture, taste, and individual preferences play a complex role in determining which musical ideas endure and become embedded in the cultural fabric.

Wow! I love that Alex is looking at internal analyzable aspects of music as well as the many extramusical factors. I couldn’t agree more; great music ideas must be easily remembered while delighting us with surprises, and they must be visible to large numbers of people so they have the opportunity to resonate with the greater culture.

Now here’s a tricky question for Alex…

Q: Was marketing and exposure (#5 in the previous list) critical to the success of the music of Beethoven or Bach?

Marketing and exposure, as we understand them in a contemporary context, did not play a significant role in the success of composers like Beethoven or Bach during their lifetimes. Their music gained recognition and enduring popularity through different means.

It’s important to note that the concept of marketing and mass media promotion, as we know it today, did not exist during the times of Bach and Beethoven. The dissemination of music was primarily through live performances, manuscript copies, and eventually, printed editions. The lasting impact and enduring popularity of their music are largely due to its intrinsic artistic qualities, the influence it had on subsequent generations of composers, and its ability to resonate with listeners across centuries.

Today, marketing and exposure can play a role in promoting and popularizing classical music, including the works of composers like Bach and Beethoven, through recordings, concerts, online platforms, and other media channels. However, the initial success and long-term impact of their music were driven primarily by their artistic merits and the subsequent recognition of their genius within the musical community.

Well done, Alex! Let’s see if we can deepen the discussion…

Can we tie together all that we’ve covered by suggesting a somewhat distant and slightly abstract analogy?

Q: Can the influence of musical ideas be traced through wide ranging artistic output in ways that mirror the process of natural selection or evolution?

Musical ideas can undergo a kind of “selection” process as they are embraced, adapted, and passed on by musicians and audiences, leading to the development and evolution of musical styles and genres. Here are some ways in which this analogy can be applied:

  1. Adaptation and Variation: Musical ideas can be adapted and varied by different artists and composers, much like genetic variations occur in biological evolution. These variations can lead to the emergence of new musical styles, subgenres, or unique artistic expressions. Some ideas may thrive and resonate with listeners, while others may fade away if they fail to gain traction.
  2. Cultural Transmission: Musical ideas are transmitted and shared across generations and cultural contexts. As musicians and listeners engage with these ideas, they contribute their own interpretations and reinterpretations, leading to the evolution and diversification of musical traditions. This process is similar to the cultural transmission of ideas and practices in human societies.
  3. Selection and Popularity: Just as certain traits or characteristics can confer an advantage in natural selection, certain musical ideas may gain popularity and cultural significance due to their inherent qualities or their resonance with the cultural zeitgeist. These ideas can shape the direction of musical trends and influence future artistic output.
  4. Hybridization and Cross-Pollination: Musical ideas can undergo hybridization and cross-pollination, merging elements from different genres or cultural traditions. This process can lead to the emergence of new and innovative musical styles that draw from diverse influences. It mirrors the concept of genetic recombination and the emergence of new traits through gene flow in biological evolution.
  5. Extinction and Legacy: Over time, some musical ideas may fade away or become less influential, while others may leave a lasting legacy. Just as certain species become extinct, musical ideas can also fall out of favor or lose relevance in changing cultural contexts. However, influential ideas may continue to inspire and shape the artistic output of future generations, similar to the enduring legacy of certain biological traits.

Music is a human cultural phenomenon that involves intentional creation and interpretation, whereas biological evolution operates through natural processes. Nonetheless, the parallel can provide insights into how musical ideas evolve, adapt, and impact artistic output over time.

Now THIS is impressive. Transmission, adaptation, selection, cross-pollination, and extinction! Not only did Alex accept the challenge, they expanded the concept from biology to include evolution as it occurs in human culture and society. (I’m tempted to ask if Alex’s last name is Dawkins…)

Q: Are there examples of rapid seismic shifts in musical thinking that do not follow these slower evolutionary principles?

Yes, these shifts often occur through significant cultural or technological changes, individual artistic breakthroughs, or radical artistic movements. Here are a few examples:

  1. Avant-garde Movements: Avant-garde movements in music, such as the Second Viennese School with composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern, brought about abrupt and revolutionary changes in musical thinking. They rejected traditional tonality, embraced atonal and serial techniques, and pushed the boundaries of musical expression, often leading to a stark departure from previous musical practices.
  2. Technological Advancements: The introduction of new technologies has frequently led to rapid shifts in musical thinking. The advent of electronic instruments, synthesizers, and computer-generated music in the 20th century opened up entirely new sonic possibilities and expanded the creative palette for composers and musicians. This gave rise to genres like electronic music, experimental music, and various forms of popular music heavily reliant on electronic production.
  3. Cultural Revolutions: In certain cultural and social contexts, rapid shifts in musical thinking can occur during periods of intense change or rebellion. For example, the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s was a significant departure from previous popular music styles and was closely tied to a broader cultural shift and youth rebellion. The punk movement in the 1970s also brought about a sudden and disruptive change in musical thinking, characterized by its raw energy, stripped-down instrumentation, and anti-establishment ethos.
  4. Individual Artistic Breakthroughs: Sometimes, individual artists or composers have spearheaded seismic shifts in musical thinking through their groundbreaking works. For instance, the compositions of Igor Stravinsky, such as “The Rite of Spring,” challenged conventional notions of rhythm, tonality, and form, causing uproar and radically influencing the trajectory of music in the early 20th century.

These examples demonstrate that while music often evolves gradually over time, there are moments when radical shifts occur in a relatively short period. These shifts can be driven by artistic vision, technological advancements, cultural movements, or a combination of factors, resulting in transformative changes that disrupt established musical practices and thinking.

Hold onto your papers! In just a few short exchanges, we got Alex to open the discussion to include a wide range of very well-conceived answers to difficult – maybe even unanswerable – questions.

So why ARE some musical ideas better than others, and why do we care? 

This question is critical to us in the field of AI and computational creativity because we want to discover ways to codify musical quality to improve the results. And I think it’s clear that to improve the value of music algorithms, we should look at how the best and longest-lasting musical ideas are put together. While relatively few in number, these are the models that will instill the most useful principles of aesthetic judgment during the review and learning cycles of creative AI systems.

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