For Video Soundtracks, Computers Are The New Composers

May 29, 2017
Originally published on May 29, 2017 6:13 pm

Tomas Villegas was looking for information about a product on YouTube, but couldn't find it. "So I thought, well, I'm sure there's other people looking for it. So I made a video."

Four years later, Villegas, who works at a technical college, has a side business doing product reviews on his YouTube channel. He found that adding a little music really improved his videos.

"It just adds that third dimension that is missing sometimes," he says.

But he hit a snag. Music is expensive. Villegas would either have to pay for rights or pay a composer.

"I upload weekly," Villegas says. "So for me to pay a composer for 52 separate custom songs ... wouldn't make sense in the return on investment for me."

Then Villegas discovered Jukedeck, a company that creates and sells computer-generated music. Jukedeck charges as little as 99 cents a track for a small business and $21.99 for a large business.

Jukedeck is a program that enables users to choose the length of a piece of music, its style, the instruments featured and even climactic moments to heighten emotion.

Ed Newton-Rex, the company's founder, is a composer who studied computer programming, and says he started to ask himself: "Given what we know about how music's put together, why can't computers write music yet?"

Enter Jukedeck.

"You basically make a bunch of choices that really anyone can relate to," Rex says. "That's one of our aims. We wanted to make it as simple as possible, [to] really democratize the process of creation."

But Rex isn't the first to discover computer-generated music. In fact, one of the first compositions by computer was the Illiac Suite in 1957.

David Cope, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is among the pioneers of computer composition. He says despite the successes there's been limited investment, because audiences and producers are uncomfortable with it.

"On the credits they don't want to see 'Composed by Computer Program Experiments in Musical Intelligence by David Cope,' " he says. "It's the last thing they want to show their audience."

But the world has changed and although Jukedeck isn't the first program to write original music, its business model may be right for this moment, with millions of content creators on platforms like YouTube and Vimeo every day. Many would like to use music but can't afford large sums for rights or composition.

Even some corporate giants, like Google and IBM, are developing music composition programs. And Cope says he thinks eventually the public will get over its bias.

As Cope sees it, composers who write soundtracks and jingles may need to look for another job.

"It's going to go that way eventually," he says. "It may be 20 years from now, it may be 50 years from now, it may be two years from now. But, no matter when it is, it's going to happen. Period."

Answers to the quiz

  • Option 1: "Emmy Vivaldi," composed by a computer program, Experiments in Musical Intelligence, written by David Cope
  • Option 2: "La Stravaganza," Op.4, Concerto No. 1 in B-flat major, composed by Antonio Vivaldi; Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Orchestra
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And let's look now at another industry being challenged by technology - music composition. Computer-Generated music is cheap, and it's becoming more common, especially in soundtracks. NPR's Laura Sydell takes a look.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: By day, Tomas Villegas works at a technical college. He was looking for information about a product on YouTube.

TOMAS VILLEGAS: I couldn't find it, so I thought, well, I'm sure there is other people looking for it, so I made a video. And my first video was really terrible.

SYDELL: Four years later, Villegas has a side business doing product reviews on his YouTube channel. Villegas, who spoke over Skype, found that adding a little music really improved his videos.

VILLEGAS: It just adds that third dimension that is missing sometimes.

SYDELL: But he hit a snag. Music is expensive. Villegas would either have to pay for rights or pay a composer.

VILLEGAS: I upload weekly, so for me to pay a composer for 52 separate custom songs, it wouldn't make sense in the return on investment for me.

SYDELL: Then Villegas discovered Jukedeck, which sells computer-generated music. Jukedeck charges as little as 99 cents a track for small businesses and $21.99 for a large business. Here's some Jukedeck music he used for a camera review.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VILLEGAS: Let's a look at some sample footage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYDELL: Lovely pictures roll past as the music plays. Jukedeck is a program that enables users to choose the length of a piece of music, its style, such as slow jazz, folk, instruments, piano, drum, bass, even climactic moments to heighten emotion. Edmund (ph) Newton-Rex is the company's founder.

EDMUND NEWTON-REX: You basically make a bunch of choices that really anyone can relate to, and that's one of our aims. We want to kind of - to make it as simple as possible, really democratize the process of creation.

SYDELL: CEO Rex is a composer who also studied computer programming.

NEWTON-REX: I just really started asking myself the question, given what we know about how music is put together, why can't computers write music yet?

SYDELL: Rex discovered that, in fact, computers have been writing music since the 1950s.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEJAREN HILLER AND LEONARD ISAACSON COMPOSITION, "ILLIAC SUITE")

SYDELL: This is the "Illiac Suite," one of the first pieces of music written by a computer in 1957. David Cope, professor emeritus at University of California, Santa Cruz, is among the pioneers of computer composition. He says despite the successes, there's been limited investment. He says the problem is that audiences, and in turn producers, are uncomfortable with it.

DAVID COPE: On the credits, they don't want to see Composed by Computer Program Experiments in Musical Intelligence by David Cope. It's the last thing they want to show their audience.

SYDELL: But the world has changed. Though, Jukedeck isn't the first program to write original music, its business model may be right for this moment. There are millions of people and businesses making their own videos. Many would like to use music but can't afford large sums for rights or composition. As Professor Cope sees it, composers who write soundtracks and jingles may eventually be out of a job.

COPE: It's going to go that way eventually. It may be 20 years from now. It may be 50 years from now. It may be two years from now. But no matter when it is, it's going to happen - period.

SYDELL: Even some corporate giants like Google and IBM are developing music composition programs, and Cope thinks eventually the public will get over its bias. Young songwriters, like this 12-year-old who calls herself Rizu, are already writing their lyrics over computer-composed music.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "RIZU'S ORIGINAL SONG COMPETITION")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Abstract art all around me, clouds and stars all around me.

SYDELL: And if you want to see if you can tell the difference between computer-composed music and human-composed music, you can visit our website, npr.org. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "RIZU'S ORIGINAL SONG COMPETITION")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) And they said come... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.