The Search for Bach’s Soul

This article discusses the work of David Cope, musician-turned-programmer who wrote a program called Emmy that could spit out Bach chorales indistinguishable from those of the famous Baroque composer.  Emmy – and her “daughter,” Emily Howell – have been met with shock and antagonism.  If the creative genius of the master composers can be reduced to an algorithm, “was there really any soul behind the great works, or were Beethoven and his ilk just clever mathematical manipulators of notes?”

I think the public response to Cope’s work is based on a faulty dichotomy, with human – creative, eccentric, emotional – on one side, and machine – mechanical, mathematical, unfeeling – on the other.  And it’s the “mathematical” that’s in the wrong place.

Critics assume that, if music can be generated automatically using rules, it has no beauty, spirituality, emotionality, etc.  But in the case of nature, this just isn’t true.  Fractals – geometric shapes built out of increasingly smaller copies of themselves – abound in nature, from snow flakes to lightning to blood vessels.   The golden ratio, around 1.618, was discovered in plant leaves and animal nerves, and the Acropolis.  Faces are said to be more beautiful when they are symmetrical.

The fact that Bach’s music follows patterns doesn’t mean it lacks soul or that our emotional response to it is misplaced.  It means that the human mind is so complex and so intricate that conveying our deepest emotions, touching listeners in indescribable ways, is based on the same elegant mathematics that underlie our universe.


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