Is Making Music With The Machine The Same As Writing With The Machine?

Music Machine
Music Machine flickr photo by Dogtrax shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

My connected friend, Maha Bali, shared a post about thinking through how to navigate the world of citation in the age of ChatGPT and AI-generated text, particularly if a writer uses the AI chat for parts of their own writing and/or research. Maha suggested a citation format, but I was particularly intrigued by Alan Levine’s thoughtful response in the comments, and when Alan referenced Jonathan Portiz’ insights about how or whether to reference machines in the act of writing, using the use of music software for songwriting as an example, something perked up for me.

(See Maha’s post and the comments at the bottom and then her follow-up post)

I like to write and produce music, mostly at the hobby level. Although I do play real instruments (saxophone and rhythm guitar, and I also dabble with bass and keyboards), I also often turn to apps and platforms like Garageband and Soundtrap, and use sound loops and other elements of the computer to create music.

When I have shared those pieces out, I have often wrestled with how to make sure anyone listening (if anyone is even listening) would know it wasn’t me playing those instruments, but some musical loops. Often, of course, it’s obvious, mostly because the music comes out rather way too flawless and always exactly on the beat, like a droning metronome. That said, it’s not always obvious that technology has been used. If I am layering in my own singing voice, or my saxophone, or guitar into the mix, then the hybrid pieces are a bit of both things — the human musician and the algorithmic loops.

I have yet to come to a suitable system for letting anyone listening know that a piece of music is more computer loop than musician me. To be honest, I often travel the lazy route — no mentions of the software.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A music friend had sent me some lyrics and asked for a song, which I then built musically in Garageband after adding some lyrics to his words myself, so it’s a human-human-machine collaboration. When I shared the final version with him, he admired my guitar playing, to which I let him know the reality – none of it was me.

So this topic of leaning on the machine for creativity, and whether to make that kind of technical support more visible to others in any published content through citations or some other methods, has long been at the back of my mind.

This has been made more pertinent in recent years as my teenage son has been producing his own music tracks using another (more advanced) digital music software platform, collaborating with hiphop singers and writers from around the world. He doesn’t play an instrument. He plays the platform. He doesn’t cite the platform when he posts his music on the major streaming services.

Should he be considered a musician, even though he didn’t make any of the original loops himself? What about if he edits and changes the loops, as he does? Should every loop he uses be cited somehow?

All this brings us to ChatGPT and its brethren, and Maha’s exploration of how to make citations when using AI chat platforms for writing pieces.

Is it necessary to cite the machine?

My initial impulse is that Maha’s discussion about writing and citation feels different from making songs because it is writing of words through predictive text of the AI and not music composition with prerecorded loops. Writing a poem or a story or an essay also feels different than writing a song that layers words over music.

Even as I write that, though, I realize: that statement doesn’t seem to sit well with me at all — all are creative acts that begin with nothing but an idea and lead to something that others can experience. Maybe my conflicted feelings stem from being so used to technology being integrated so fully into the modern field of music production, and I am not yet used to its use in the field of writing.

Not yet, anyway. Will time and experience change that?

Garageband and Soundtrap and others don’t cite the musicians where the original loops came from. Do we expect that ChatGPT and others will cite where their words come scraped from? I believe that to be a strong yes in my view – that such information about original sources should be baked into the chart system (even as I understand the technical aspects will make such a thing nearly impossible). If this were done, then a writer could cite the sources of their AI-influenced writing.

Right? Hmm.

How confusing is all this? Pretty.

And how interesting to grapple with it? Very much so.

Peace (in the machine),

  1. Interesting questions. What about applying this to art work, too? If someone starts with a painting like the Mona Lisa, then edits it into something creatively new, do they need to say the original was the Mona Lisa?

    They say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and at 76 I think I’m too old to adapt all of these AI innovations into my own work. And, I probably won’t be around in 25-50 years when history will show how this all plays out.

    Your 6th grade students and your son will experience this as they grow older.

  2. Thanks for fleshing out these ideas in a blogpost, Kevin and bringing the music perspective.

    It makes me think too of photo editing in Photoshop when I use an plugin that does the equivalent of filters, I have one that does stunning black and white effects (Silver Efex Pro) and also Intensify CK… it does steps I might have done on my own manually, but is more versatile. I can ask- I am clicking a button or choosing from a list of previews, am I really creating the art? Is this different from generating one from a prompt?

    And there are new AI features (supposedly) that help with object selection. I consider these all tools, I am the one making the decision about which I want.

    I imagine the audio tools will also become generative rather than lops and effects.

    As I tried (and maybe did not phrase fully) in the comments on Maha’s post and docs, I feel our institution for what these things are doing inside the magic box are not really what they are doing.

    DALL-E is not just retrieving existing images of a dog and mashing them up. ChatGPT is not just dipping into chunks of text it harvested. The citation concept fails here. I guess its more a large sampling to break down text or images into very small components that it can iterate on from a probability standpoint, not just copying bits of pre existing material.

    I could easily be wrong.

    But we need some new ways of thinking.

    Finally, as a musician hasn’t all the years of listening to music, songs, albums, movie themes, show tunes, old records been a way of “training” your musical senses? Don’t you somehow reach into all of that when you create something, not the exact bits, but it all influences what springs out of the guitar when you start playing. In a way we are all generative output beings.

    • Ah yes — there is never anything truly new when I write and play music — so true. I appreciate your forays into thinking of the source attribution issues and how that might be old thinking that doesn’t make sense in the emerging landscapes of media and composition. Thanks for stopping by.

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