Top 10 classical composers of all time – Part 2

This is the second half of a two-part post, in which I propose my personal list of the ten best classical composers of music history. If you have missed part one, which include composers from position 10 to 6, you can read it here. As expected, the first half of this list provoked quite different reactions. Some readers found it agreeable, others didn’t… to say the least! The post led to a few constructive discussions in which we exchanged ideas and opinions, and that was great. Now, let’s move on to the top five.  

5. Pyotr Iliyich Tchaikovsky

Tragic, bombastic, exaggerated are just few of the adjectives needed to describe Tchaikovsky’s music. But, where did this music come from? It’s probably the result of a tormented existence. It wasn’t easy for a homosexual to live in 19th century Russia, and Tchaikovsky had to conceal his sexuality throughout his life. This eventually took him on the verge of mental breakdown several times and perhaps it was the main reason why he supposedly committed suicide. His music is Russian in all of its aspects: pure drama mixed with goliardic elements, folk tunes and dance. Listening to Tchaikowsky’s work is a bit like reading the masterpieces of the Russian writers of the 19th century like Gogol and Dostoyevsky. The experience throw you in a parallel world with its own original rules, colours and flavours. Above all, Tchaikowsky was a master of orchestration who knew how to bring out the specific effects he had in his mind from the orchestra. His musical legacy is immense. The Violin Concerto is a magnificent example of how to use virtuosity for musical means. The fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies are monuments to the transience of human life.

4. Frederic Chopin

Although he focused mainly on compositions for piano, Chopin deserves to be in the top 5. The Polish composer brought innovations in style, harmony and form which had a major impact on the musicians who came after him. Chopin’s work mixes elements of art music with elements of Polish folk music. The result is a highly personal musical style. His piano production is vast and includes: sonatas, waltzes, mazurkas, piano concertos, preludes, nocturnes, scherzos, polonaises, impromptus and etudes. Lightness is the word that best synthesises Chopin’s work. And by it, I mean the notion of lightness proposed by Italo Calvino in his Six Memos For the Next Century, which isn’t a defect, as many of us might believe, but rather a great value. Lightness is synonymous of flexible, weightless, mobile, dynamic. But it’s different from superficiality. And if you want to find the quintessence of lightness in Chopin’s music, listen to his nocturnes. These 21 short gems are the perfect result of a compositional process characterised both by improvisation and thoughtful decisions. Chopin in a nutshell!

3. Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky has been one of the most versatile composers of all time. He was educated in the tradition of the great composers of the past, but as soon as he grew up he left this known territory and started experimenting. In his russian period (1907-1919), Stravinsky composed seminal works such as the the Firebird and the Rite of Spring which contain numerous Russian folk tunes. With the Right of Spring, Stravinsky redefines the boundaries of music by expanding the instrumental possibilities of the orchestra as well as by putting rhythm at the centre of the music. The rhythms he employs are wild, uneven and unheard of in art music. And this shook the musical environment of the time, perhaps as much as Schoenberg did with his own pitch-based musical revolution. The focus on rhythm is the thread that bounds all of Stravinky’s compositional periods. During the neoclassical period (1920-1954) the Russian composer reinterpreted traditional classical music adding his personal touch. In his final serial period (1954-1968), although the composer used strict compositional techniques, the music he created remained unmistakably Stravinskyan.

2. Ludwig Van Beethoven

Beethoven was the composer responsible for moving  music from the classical period towards the romantic era. What’s more astonishing about the German composer is how much his music evolved throughout his life. If you take a look at the first piano sonatas he wrote, for example, and compare them with the ninth symphony and the final string quartets, it’s pretty difficult to believe that the musician who created all of these works was the same. The difference between these pieces is just extraordinary! Beethoven’s started his first compositional period writing music highly influenced by Haydn and Mozart. In the middle period, he extended the classical language, and in his final period he eventually completely transcended the music of his time. Some of the experimental ideas on form and harmony he came up with, took decades to be fully digested by critics and other composers. He’s probably the musical figure who had the major impact on future generations of musicians.

Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Ludwig Van Beethoven.

1. Johann Sebastian Bach

What’s so special about Bach that makes him the greatest of all? Development and balance. Let’s take The Art of Fugue to illustrate these two points. The Art of Fugue is a late work which can be seen as the end point of an ongoing experimental process started by Bach in his teens. This work features 14 fugues and 4 canons all built around a single musical idea, named subject. Bach’s ability to develop this single theme throughout the work is impressive. What he does is actually quite simple to describe with words: he assigns the subject to different voices, transforms it, and creates other melodic lines that get along with the main idea. Moving from one piece to another he gradually increases the complexity of the compositions, by introducing more voices and by relying on more elaborated contrapuntal techniques.

Here comes balance. All the multiple voices Bach employs have almost the same musical weight, and although they are completely independent, they all concur to build a unified musical idea. Other composers work in a similar manner, but none of them reaches the level of perfection attained by Bach. And of course, The Art of Fugues is just one of countless masterpieces by the German composer which exploit these ideas. Here are just a few others: The Goldberg VariationsSt. Matthew Passion and The Musical Offering. If you want more information about The Art of Fugue, take a look at this post I wrote a while ago.


We are at the end of this two-part post where I’ve proposed my personal list of the ten greatest composers of all time.

Do you think my list is ok? Which composers I left out that you would include?


Top 10 classical composers of all time – Part 1

This is part one of a two-part post where I propose my personal list of the ten greatest composers of classical music. It is always risky to create such lists, in that some names who deserve to be included are usually unjustly left out. That is certainly the case for this list as well, as you will certainly notice that some of your favourite composers are probably missing. However, the topic is fascinating and I wanted to get my hands dirty while working on it. So, let’s get started!

10. Anton Bruckner

Bruckner was born in Ansfelden, in the north of Austria and spent most of his life during the peak of the romantic era. His music has been often criticised for its conservative flavour by fellow composers and music critics. But this is exactly Bruckner’s greatness: the capacity to stretch romantic music to its limits in terms of: size of the compositions, tonal and harmonic structures, form and orchestration. His symphonies are gigantic sound cathedrals characterised by an unmistakable German pace, which, in my view, can be easily regarded as the final achievement of the symphonic path initiated by Haydn decades before. What I admire most in Bruckner’s compositional practice is the ability to build pieces which accumulate an enormous amount of tension over time and eventually outburst in powerful climaxes. Listening to the second movement of the 7th Symphony, for example, is such a cathartic experience for me that it’s difficult to compare it to anything else.

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner.

9. Gesualdo Da Venosa

This murderous Italian prince from the Renaissance period definitely deserves to be among the greatest. Gesualdo isn’t extensively known by the masses, however, his polyphonic vocal music has something magical and sublime. It is said that he went crazy after he killed his wife along with her lover, and that composing music became a way to expiate his fault. His madrigals and motets are soaked with madness and are at least three centuries ahead of his time, harmonically speaking. His music is full of chromaticism, dissonances, and sometimes shows even a primordial form of atonality. In a sense, Gesualdo’s musical legacy passed directly to Schoenberg. He’s one of the few who “reinvented” music, and perhaps for this reason, was substantially ignored by other musicians for a long time.

8. Gyorgy Ligeti

Transylvanian contemporary composer whose musical innovations have had tremendous impact on the avant-garde musical scenario, Ligeti reshaped the very concept of music by composing pieces which can be seen as musical implementations of some of the principles behind chaos theory. At the microscopic level, Ligeti’s music is characterised by frenzied motions which appear to be completely chaotic. At the surface level, however, the complexity which emerges from the lower levels is channelled into gigantic sonic masses which evolve following clear musical directions. Although his music was radically new, he’s one of the few contemporary composers who succeeded in keeping most of his work accessible to people not used to the contemporary repertoire. This is proof of his incommensurable genius.

7. Arnold Schoenberg

When I think of pure creativity in music, Schoenberg is the first name that comes to my mind. The Austrian born composer spent numerous years of his youth perfecting his compositional technique, by learning from the great masters of the past. The results of his lifetime study can be appreciated in the music treaties he wrote (e.g., Harmonielehre, Fundamentals of Music Composition) which remain among the most valuable resources for learning music. But if Schoenberg had been a great theorist and teacher only, of course he wouldn’t be part of this list. The reality is that Schoenberg exploited his great knowledge of traditional music theory to completely revolutionise music. He was the pioneer who struck the last blow against tonality, and consequently opened up a brave new musical world that eventually led to what we call contemporary music. In other words, Schoenberg was a musical Prometheus who provided man with unthinkable novel opportunities in music. Compositions like Pierrot Lunaire and Three Piano Pieces are likely to be considered among the greatest musical achievements forever.

6. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

If the romantic view of the genius directly inspired by God was true – thing which of course is not! – Mozart would probably be the best candidate to impersonate it. In only 35 years of life, he was able to compose hundreds of musical works and dozens of immortal masterpieces. His production spans from opera to string quartets, from piano sonatas to symphonies. The Austrian composer had a substantial role in increasing the musical complexity of the symphonic repertoire of the time. The finale of the fourth movement of the Jupiter symphony, for example, features an elaborate five-voice fugato where all the major five themes of the symphony are combined together in strict counterpoint. Although Mozart behaved often childishly, he had an unchallenged capacity to musically portray the deepest feelings and emotional states of the characters of his operas. Evidence of this can be found in Don Giovanni, where the music which accompanies the action of the main characters perfectly captures the meanness of Don Giovanni, the agony of Donna Elvira, the fear of Leporello and the dignity of Donna Anna. His mastery at composing both opera and concert music makes him one of the most complete composers of all time.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

This was my personal list of the top ten classical composers from position ten to position six. Stay tuned for the second half of the ranking.

Do you agree with my list? Who would you include in yours?

You can read part two of this post where I list the top composers from position 5 to 1 here.

Why is that we like the music we like?

Musical taste has always been imagined as a completely subjective domain. Some people like blues, other people enjoy country music, while others have great time listening to Beethoven’s symphonies in concert halls. In a sense, every time we visit iTunes and choose a new album to buy, we are exercising our free will. But, is that really true? Surprisingly, several studies in aesthetic perception of music suggest just the opposite. In statistical terms, if we have previous knowledge of a number of parameters for the listeners and for the music, we can  form a quite decent idea of whether or not certain listeners are going to like certain compositions. Needless to say, this doesn’t work for the single person but for large groups only. Let’s try to understand why our musical taste is more predictable than we think it is.

Cognitive and cultural constraints play a central role in shrinking the space of the musical compositions we may potentially like. We are born in a musical society with a rich musical tradition that inherently influences our musical taste since we are children. Exposure to specific musical styles shapes our very idea of what is music. For example, Western people are accustomed to major and minor scales, and usually find quite “unnatural” other types of pitch organisations such as Indian ragas and Arabic scales. Likewise, the opposite is certainly true. Familiarity with a specific musical tradition guides our aesthetic assessment. Numerous studies in music cognition predict that a hard rock enthusiast is more likely to enjoy a new song by Metallica than an orchestral piece by Stravinsky. Musically speaking, we are a rather conservative species seldom interested in exploring new musical territories.

mind and society

Musical taste is influenced by nature and nurture.

Shifting from the cultural domain towards the cognitive domain, we find that liking for a piece of music is related to its degree of complexity. It’s a great challenge to define musical complexity, but a way out of this conundrum is the definition provided by information theory, which measures complexity in terms of the amount of information carried by a message. In our case, we consider musical information. To better understand this concept, let’s take a couple of compositions as examples: Lullaby by Johannes Brahms and Piano Sonata No.2 by Pierre Boulez. Lullaby is harmonically, rhythmically and melodically stable: almost no section infringes our musical expectations. Music unfolds smoothly without unpredictable cracks and twists. For this reason, we can claim that this piece presents a low degree of complexity. Sonata No.2 stands on the opposite side of the complexity continuum.  This composition is highly unstable in terms of many musical parameters such as rhythm, melody, timbre, harmony and articulation. Also, the mere astonishingly number of sounds produced per second during some sections of the work contributes to increase the overall level of complexity.

What’s the relationship between complexity and liking then? In music, liking and complexity follow the so-called inverted-U relationship. In other words, humans don’t like music that is too simple and music that is too complex. We enjoy listening to compositions with the “right dose” of complexity. Too simple music is boring. Too complex music is unintelligible. Is the “right dose” of complexity the same for all humans? Of course, not. It depends on musical style, musical background and musical training. Expert musicians usually tend to like pieces which are more complex than those enjoyed by non-musicians. Repetition plays an important role as well, in that multiple hearings help lower the perceived level of complexity of a composition. And a change in complexity entails a change in liking. This explains why after listening for a while to songs which are very simple we get bored, whereas repeated hearings of a complex composition help us better appreciate the work.

inverted-U relationship for music

In music, complexity and liking follow an inverted-U relationship.

The phenomena I’ve described sound pretty straightforward but here I’ve made a very long story short; perhaps too short. The reality is that the type of relationship between liking and complexity is likely to depend on musical style. In other words, different musical styles may be described by different relationships between liking and complexity. An experiment I’ve recently conducted with Dr Mauro Vallati disproves the inverted-U hypothesis in the case of contemporary music, supporting the idea that the more complex a composition is, the less it is enjoyed. Nevertheless, the fundamental message remains unvaried: aesthetic perception in music is driven by some principles shared by all humans. Tell me who you are and I’ll tell you what music you can enjoy!

As an aside: I suppose someone might be a bit worried about this reductionist approach. Does the fact that a portion of what forms our musical taste is predetermined diminish our being human? Of course, not! People often feel threatened by scientific explanations. They think that science, when studying our species, removes from the equation all of those elements such as emotions, expectations and values which make us human. A popular idea is that science equates to prediction, and predictability doesn’t fit well with the idea we have of ourselves. I guess, human beings like to fancy they are as free as a bird. But that’s not the case. In what I’ve discussed in this post, for example, music cognition helped us uncover common patterns which all humans rely on when listening to music. These restrictions are some of the elements that make us human. And what’s more human than understanding what makes us human?

Pink Floyd, construction workers and the philosopher’ stone.

A lot of noise has been made in the last few days for the release of the new Pink Floyd’s album, The Endless River. As usual in these cases, there are contrasting reviews. Some find the work enjoyable, even inspiring; while others think that Pink Floyd would have been better of, it they had avoided releasing the album. Personally, I stand with the first reviewers, but the point of the post is not that. Rather, I’d like to exploit this remarkable event for reflecting upon the role of Pink Floyd in music history.

the endless river

Cover of the new album by Pink Floyd: The Endless River.

I’ve spent most of my life analysing the work of great Western composers of the past. When you read their scores or listen carefully to their music, you can experience pure beauty made sound. The ebb and flow of musical tension builds sonic spaces, the listener can navigate,  losing track of time, and of her consciousness. Classical music is balanced complexity. On the other hand, when listening to rock/pop music, I just can’t feel the same powerful experience. This music is too simplistic, too predictable and utterly repetitive. I soon get bored of the music by Rolling Stones, and listening to the Beatles for more than 10 minutes is almost like torture!

However, when Pink Floyd comes in the thing is completely different. Listening to Dark Side of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, or Atom Heart Mother, is such an uplifting experience for me, that I can compare it only to the thrilling feeling of hearing music by my favourite classical composers. What are the musical elements that cause my involuntary reaction to their music? Melody is an important aspect, but not essential. Harmony neither. Rhythm and metres are quite standard, apart from the unconventional time signature ⅞ used for Money. What really makes Pink Floyd unique, is the capacity to build monumental musical structures, with mountains and valleys of tension, wisely distributed over time. Just like classical music, Pink Floyd’s music is balanced complexity.


The famous cover of the Dark Side of The Moon.

For this reason, I personally think that Pink Floyd should be put at the same level of the best Western composer of the past. Like Beethoven or Bach, Pink Floyd have always known very well that the art of composing is actually the craft of building. Like skilled construction workers, who erect a house brick after brick; Pink Floyd create sonic cathedrals, designing and implementing complex musical blueprints. Their work, which span a period of 50 years, can be considered itself as a single highly-articulated musical structure, which evolved and thickened over time. From the initial experimental years of the late 60s, until the last instrumental studio album, the common thread has always been the obsessive research of musical perfection.

But just like the philosopher’ stone doesn’t exist, so musical perfection doesn’t as well. The Endless River, an echo of a distant musical tide, will be Pink Floyd’s final attempt to discover the philosopher’ stone.  However, they perhaps have already been able to find the philosopher’ stone after all, since when we’ll be long gone, their music will continue to shine as a crazy diamond forever and ever.

Is music a universal language?

Music strongly depends on society and culture. Different people in different countries produce different music. For example, African music, Western classical music, Japanese and Gamelan music all sounds very different. Obviously, geography is not the only responsible for this phenomenon. Even in the same place, we have radically different types of music depending on the period. For example, 18th century classical European music is remarkably different from 20th century European serial music.


Nonetheless, it is possible to identify a bunch of core constructs that are shared by all types of music. Those common traits are called musical universals. Of course, it is almost impossible to demonstrate the universality of a musical trait. Rather, one can look for the same common trait within different cultures and postulate its universality based on statistical inference. Furthermore, some common traits are less “universal” than others, since they don’t appear in all of the musical styles, but only in most of them. We call those constructs quasi musical universals.

Musical universals help us understand how human mind works. They are related to basic cognitive phenomena shared by all humans. Specifically, musical universals shed a light on how human mind perceives, organizes, stores and elaborates musical information. This knowledge can be then generalized in order to transcend the musical domain, and become a starting point to understand how human mind behaves.

Here I provide a couple of non-inclusive lists of musical universals based on the pioneering work of Kathleen Marie Higgins. The first list is about processing universals of music perception:

  1. We distinguish signals from noise.
  2. We perceive musical information in chunks.
  3. We perceive a tone an octave away form a given tone as effectively the same tone.
  4. We organize musical signals in terms of melodic contour.
  5. We more easily remember intervals and sequences of tones with frequencies in small-integer ratios with one another (consonances).
  6. We utilize frameworks of discrete scale pitches, typically with uneven step-size.
  7. Scales tend to be restricted to five to seven tones.
  8. Pitches are organized hierarchically within the scale.

The following list is about universals in structuring musical pieces:

  1. Music is made in “pieces” or “utterances”.
  2. Melodies tend to be constructed on the basis of fairly small successive intervals.
  3. Almost all musical cultures employ a centering tone or other sort of goal-defining device.
  4. Musical utterances tend to descend in pitch at the end.
  5. Internal repetition is typical within musical utterances.
  6. Music is organized in hierarchical structures.
  7. Nearly universal tendency to construct rhythms on the basis of patterns of twos and threes.

Musical universals are direct manifestation of the human biological/psychological inner constructs. Although music is highly influenced by society and culture, however, thanks to musical universals, it is possible to claim that music can be regarded as a universal language shared by all humans.

The art of fugue has a thousand faces

We live in a highly specialized world. Everyone masters only a tiny fraction of the entire reality. As a consequence, we often forget the overall picture. A reminder to the intrinsic unity of reality comes (not so) unexpected from Johan Sebastian Bach and his masterpiece: the Art of Fugue.

The Art of Fugue is the musical testament of Bach. It consists of 14 fugues and 4 canons of increasing complexity. All the pieces are based on variations of a single main subject. The work is highly experimental. Bach stretched the contrapuntal techniques to their limits and came up with an impressive collection of interrelated pieces. No instrumentation is provided within the score. Indeed, this music is quite abstract and perhaps should be read rather than heard.

subject of The Art of Fugue

The main subject of The Art of Fugue.

The Art of Fugue is not only one of the best compositions ever written, but is also a pointer to other fields outside the musical domain. The work has deep relationships with mathematics, biology, linguistics and architecture.

The Art of Fugue is related to mathematics. The entire work can be regarded as a fractal structure based on recursion and self-similarity. The concept of recursion is the key to understanding both fractals and self-similarity. Recursion is the process of embedding some constructs within other constructs of the same kind. This process leads to self-similarity. Fractals display self-similar patterns. In other words, a fractal appears the same at every scale. The Art of Fugue exploits recursion, since it is based on a single musical pattern, which is restated at different levels of resolutions. Therefore, the musical structure becomes self-similar, and the work as a whole can be regarded as a musical fractal.


Fractal objects appear the same at every scale.

The Art of fugue is related to biology. Life is astonishingly diverse. Biologists estimate that nearly 2 million species live on planet Earth. There are creatures as strange as the dumbo octopus, and as regal as the tiger. Nevertheless, all life forms are based on a simple molecule: the DNA. The DNA consists of four bases (guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine), that combined together are capable of generating every living system. Likewise, the Art of Fugue is based on a simple musical molecule: the main subject. This short string of musical information is responsible for the variety and richness of the entire work. Indeed, the subject is musical DNA, which carries all the information needed to generate the highly complex musical structures that characterize the Art of Fugue.


The Dna is the base of life.

The Art of fugue is related to linguistics. The similarities between musical and natural language have always been explored by philosophers, musicologists and linguists. Both the languages are based on syntax. In particular, the syntax of the natural language can be represented by a generative grammar. A generative grammar provides a small set of rules, that can generate all the correct grammatical sentences of one language. The Art of Fugue has its own set of rules, which considered together form a kind of musical generative grammar. The musical grammar consists of the basic rules of the counterpoint such as the inversion, diminution and augmentation, which directly shape the musical sentences. Thus, a small set of rules can generate the entire richness of the Art of Fugue.

The Art of Fugue is related to architecture. Both music and architecture are interested in structures. Music organizes sonic spaces, while architecture organizes physical spaces. Likewise, they both share the compositional process. In particular, architects have always been obsessed by the organizational process based on modules. For example, the Parthenon entirely relies on the golden ratio. The length of the temple, the height of the columns as well as the Parthenon’s façade can all be obtained from the golden ratio. Also, the architect Le Corbusier used a similar prime generator called modulor. Indeed, he exploited the modulor while working on Notre Dame du Haute and the Unite d’Habitation. The similarities between this architectural process and the compositional process used by Bach are striking. All of them are based on a single molecule of DNA that encodes the genetic instructions for the different kinds of compositions.


The Parthenon is based on the golden ratio.

The Art of Fugue in particular and the music in general are invaluable tools to understand the reality as a whole. Indeed, they can unveil the secret network that connects the different aspects of reality altogether. In this sense, listening to the Art of Fugue is not only a compelling aesthetic experience, but also a multidimensional journey that provides the listener extra-information about the structure of the world itself.

Music, the universe and Boethius

Boethius musicBoethius was a clever philosopher of the 6th century. Among other things, he investigated the relationships between music, humans and the world. The theory of music he developed is insightful and astonishingly modern. Boethius conceived three types of music: musica instrumentalis, musica humana and musica mundana. The musica instrumentalis refers to the music that can usually be heard in the concert halls. The musica humana reverberates within our bodies and spirits. The musica mundana corresponds to the music of the spheres.

Boethius thought that music was everywhere in nature. Why did he develop such a counterintuitive idea? Moreover, isn’t music just an acoustic phenomenon? Of course, it is not!  Boethius understood that music is pure order out of chaos. Composers work with raw musical materials, shaping and twisting notes and rhythms to come up with enjoyable pieces. Doing so, they act as relentless demiurges. Other arts replicate this process as well, however, none of them is as conceptual and intangible as music is. I dare say that Boethius recognized that, and was inspired by the ethereal consistence of music while working on his ideas.

Humans are order out of chaos. Our bodies are miraculous complex systems that challenge the second principle of thermodynamics. Indeed, we are nothing more than an incredible amount of organized information that breathes, perceives and feels. Likewise, mind is order out of chaos. Clusters of unintelligent neurons  organize together and entail the consciousness. So, yes… Boethius was right! The musica mundana really exists and incessantly can be heard throughout planet Earth. The humans, the animals and every living creature are the amazing musicians that play these wonderful tunes.


Musica mundana refers to the music of the universe

The universe is order out of chaos. A handful of fundamental physical laws allow the universe to unfold and develop over time. Those laws are incredible musical as well. They speak of ratios, frequencies and forces, all concepts that find an evident dual within the domain of the musica instrumentalis. Furthermore, the overture of the universe corresponded to a single powerful chord played by the tutti celestial orchestra. Unthinkably, that initial chord echoes even today as an endless ostinato that can be heard by a strange kind of audience, the radio telescopes. So, yes… Boethius was right again! Our universe is pure music. The spheres wildly dance following the musica mundana.


Human machineComputers can perform lots of tasks in the blink of an eye. They are great at solving problems, doing repetitive things and sorting items. However, we generally don’t think they are capable of coming up with creative thoughts or artistic ideas. At the end of the day, computers are just an intricate network of silicon, wires and transistors, so, how could they possibly be creative? I’d like to show you a provocative angle here, which considers computers as creative agents that will contribute to the future of human kind.

We say that an item is creative if it is new and has some sort of value. Newness assures us that an object/idea is original and never heard of before. However, newness isn’t enough to define creativity, since it tells us nothing about the value of a certain item. If creativity corresponded to newness only, a random generator would be the best creative agent ever. Certainly this is not the case in real life, since we hardly regard random ideas as creative, because they lack something important. That something is value. A creative item should always show a certain degree of value.

Now, the question of whether or not computers can be creative can be formulated as whether or not they can come up with something new and valuable. Newness is the easy part of the process. It’s very simple for a computer to come up with something new, since it can exploit a (pseudo)random generator and an impressive computational power. On the other hand, value is a very elusive feature. First, value is a subjective concept: what’s valuable for me, isn’t necessarily valuable for you. Second, value implies a kind of structure and a set of constraints. These constraints are needed in order to select a preferred subset of the potential infinite outputs.

painting fool

Painting created by the computer program “The Painting Fool”

Humans do this process intuitively. Computers can’t do that, so they have to rely on programmers. Therefore, the central issue is how you evaluate a creative item. Today there are effective strategies to assess the value of an item created by computers. For example, we can compare the new item to some models previously fed into the machine. As a consequence, the computer develops some parameters to assess its own work based on a sample. This process is incredibly effective when we consider music. In this case, the database corresponds to a set of compositions passed to the machine. The computer extracts relevant musical features and uses them as a stylistic guide to evaluate its work. This is the case of the astonishing computer composer EMI created by David Cope, which composes pretty convincing music in the style of a specific composer. Listen to this Bachish piece to get what I mean!

There are also other strategies to assess the value of a music piece composed by a computer such as evolutionary fitness functions or grammars, but I’m not interested in technical stuff right now.

What I’d really like to stress is that we are at the dawn of a new era. We’re teaching computers to perform creative tasks such as composing, painting and writing. Although the results are still modest, however, we’re slowly elevating computers from the level of slaves to the level of creators. Rather than considering the unlikely apocalyptic scenarios of intelligent machines dominating the world, I’d like to focus on the benefits brought by creative machines. Creative computers will provide amazing artistic/scientific/technological items, will facilitate our life and will empower human creativity. Indeed, I think a creative alliance between humans and machines is not so far anymore.

However, lots of philosophical questions remain still unsolved.

  • Can machines really be creative?
  • Can machines really appreciate creative items?
  • Can machines really judge creativity?

Maybe we’ll never answer these questions, or maybe it’s just useless to keep asking such impossible questions.

What’s your opinion?

Born to be musical… or maybe not!

Music and brainOne feature that defines us all as humans is our impressive musical ability. No other species shows such a rich musical activity as humans do. Although some birds have a quite original musical language, however, their overall musical activity has a low-level of complexity and is dictated by pure instinct. On the other hand, humans compose very articulated music, perform it, and of course enjoy it. What’s more, humans are moved by music and are able to map simple acoustic signals into emotions, words and memories.

All these processes are amazing, but really complex as well. Therefore, the question of whether or not music is a kind of built-in human feature arises. Indeed, some people believe that our music ability is directly embedded in our genes. Others think that music is the result of cultural pressure. Both points of view have strengths and weaknesses. The intellectual fight between the two perspectives has a long history and is just another example of the never-ending nature versus nurture debate.

Let’s delve into some implications of the hypothesis of music as a natural trait first.

  • Music has universals shared by all humans. Indeed, musical scales, the octave, and  a small amount of tones within a scale (typically between 5 and 7) are all examples of musical universals.
  • Music is a product of evolution. Music can be seen as an evolutionary advantage that improves the chance of survival of individuals who developed musical traits. How? Probably, increasing the chance of mating.
  • The human brain processes music in specific musical modules. This idea directly opposes to the claim that music is processed by the same brain modules of natural language. Fortunately, we already have experimental evidences that support this hypothesis.

Now, let’s discover the main implications of the hypothesis of music as a cultural trait.

  • Music entirely depends on society. Music is but one of a number of activities which rely on society such as literature, art, political organization. Particularly, music is based on the exchange of information between the members of a society. The society develops a musical tradition, which undergoes a continuous process of evolution and refinement.
  • Different musical environments produce radically different musical outputs. Since there aren’t music universals, music develops different paths in different cultures. As a consequence, all the rules of music as well as the music compositions only relies on the here and now.
  • Music is an artificial human construction. Music is an artefact comparable to other artefacts such as hammers, cars or tables. The comparison might sound a bit unorthodox at first, however, all these items share a common characteristic. They are all produced by humans and are not directly coded inside us.

Which of the two approaches is correct? Of course, there’s no absolute answer to this question. However, I suggest that we consider the two approaches complementary rather than contradictory. Since in medio stat virtus, we can say that a mixed approach would be best. There are strong evidences of music as a natural trait, but a simple innatist approach to music would ignore all the cultural pressures which every human experiences during her life.

As a consequence, we can think of music as a double layered phenomenon. The first layer is the natural level, which is shared by all humans. The second layer is the cultural level, which is built upon the natural level. While the natural layer is  culture-independent, the cultural layer is related to the society we live in and the stimuli we are exposed to. Hopefully, this mixed approach could help solving the eternal nature versus nurture musical debate shading some light on the understanding of music.

Can we define music?

No matter how hard we try, we can’t define music. Music is a fleeting idea that all of us grasp, but no one can formalize. A myriad of musicians, scholars as well as ordinary men attempted to find a comprehensive definition of music, but no one succeeded. Every definition focuses on some aspects of music, ignoring other relevant characteristics. The results are crippled definitions that tell just a part of the entire story. So, what are the main problems with the definition of music? First, music is a very broad idea. Secondly, music works on different levels of reality. Thirdly, music is too complex to be defined in a reductionist fashion.

Music spans several disciplines and fields. Although music is a form of art, however, it’s just impossible to describe music only from the artistic point of view, without appearing at least naive. Indeed, music is strictly related to a bunch of other disciplines such as philosophy, biology, cognitive science, sociology, mathematics, physics and linguistics to name a few. Therefore, an ontological definition of music must consider all these different angles to be credible. However, the effort to harmonize all these different perspectives is simply overwhelming.

Music is a phenomenon that appears at the physical, psychological, social and cultural levels. Yet again, a thorough definition of music should be capable of harmonizing all of these different levels of reality. However, definitions of music usually focus on one of the different levels. This process leads to a problem of perspective. Rather than describing music as a multi-layered phenomenon, the definitions of music usually flatten the idea of music. On the other hand, music is a high dimensional concept that embraces several domains. This richness is what makes music a unique phenomenon within the human realm. However, this power of expression entails an overall ambiguity and fuzziness which surround the concept of music, and make it impossible to formally define.

Music is a highly complex phenomenon that can’t be reduced in a sentence or two. This issue is directly grounded within the Western mind-set. The idea of isolating deterministic behaviours which guide natural as well as cultural phenomenon is a well-established Western tradition. Although this approach paid off endless times in science, however, it can’t work for music. Indeed, music is too complex to be synthesized in a simple deterministic formula. As a consequence, all the attempts made to find an ontological definition of music are doomed to failure. The impossibility of defining music is but one of the numerous barriers nature put in front of us when we try to discover things. This is a knowledge boundary similar to the uncertainty principle by Heisenberg in physics, or the theorem of incompleteness by Godel in logic.

So, should we desist from further attempts to define music? Well…I’d say yes, but I’d also say that this is the wrong question to ask. I believe that we should focus on finding a functional description of music, rather than spending time in an effortless exercise to capture the ontological nature of music. This is a more pragmatic approach, that aims at finding a number of important features that music shows. Following this path, I propose a systemic approach to analyze music, which leads to a functional description of music. Indeed, I describe music as a recursive, complex, adaptive, living system. Since every single word in this sentence deserves a rich explanation, I’ve planned to publish some posts to cover these topics later.

How do you define music?