From Iceland — Do Androids Dream Of Composing Music?

Do Androids Dream Of Composing Music?

Published December 8, 2023

Do Androids Dream Of Composing Music?
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Research project Intelligent Instruments Lab designs artificially intelligent instruments

Since 2021, Intelligent Instruments Lab has made technological breakthroughs within the field of artificial intelligence and instrument design. The lab’s mission is to research the role of creative AI in contemporary culture, through the design of tech-augmented instruments. An example of their work, the cello-like halldorophone by inventor Halldór Úlfarsson, was even used by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir for her multi-award winning score for the film Joker.

Updating an Icelandic classic

II Lab’s first research project and subsequent invention was the proto-langspil – a refurbished instrument based on the traditional Icelandic langspil. Implemented with electronic components and machine intelligence, the proto-langspil was handed over to a select group of musicians. Their goal was to make new compositions based on the instrument, which II Lab has compiled in the upcoming release Strengur Tímans, which is set to be released February 2, 2024.

Situated on the upper floors of the Iceland University of the Arts’ brutalist complex in Þverholt is Thor Magnusson’s office. The project’s principal investigator, Thor’s background is in music, computer science and philosophy. Needless to say, he makes for a highly interesting conversation partner.

“We’ve always used algorithms in music,” Thor replies when confronted with the question of what creative AI means.” Since the invention of writing and later notation, we’ve formalised algorithms for music. With computers, we begin using machines to follow and even create these algorithms,” he says, pointing out the 1957 composition “Illiac Suite” as the first musical piece written with machine learning.

How does it feel when the instrument starts to react to what we do? It’s sort of like a flower that grows, or a dog that you train.

Of course, it took decades until artificially intelligent tools would be available to the general public, as is the case today. With the proliferation of AI, select tools have gone public, including the text-based Chat-GPT or the visual generator Dall ·E. AI-based music programmes are no exception.

A democratising tool or a demoralising one?

With machines capable of writing and performing music, it presents a fundamental question about creativity: can computers be creative?

“This automatic AI used in writing music is, in my opinion, an exciting philosophical task. The question whether computers can be creative is an interesting philosophical question happening right now. It sheds light on what we mean by creativity, artwork, or even copyright?” Thor ponders.

“We like investigating these questions, but our focus is on the embedding of intelligent algorithms in physical musical instruments. So, how does AI become a part of them? We study how we feel about the agency of instruments. How does it feel when the instrument starts to react to what we do? It’s sort of like a flower that grows, or a dog that you train,” he explains.

As AI allows people to create sounds previously inaccessible to hobby musicians, Thor is positive that the technology can have positive effects in democratising music, enabling more people to enjoy making music.

“I think [AI] will open new dimensions for amateurs working on music at home,” he says. “To be able to whistle a tune into a program, which then produces a saxophone or a clarinet sound.”

The question whether computers can be creative is an interesting philosophical question happening right now.

However, new technologies tend to produce unfortunate consequences. In this case, the possibility of obsoleting instrumentalists. Thor is unfazed. “It may be that there will be less demand for string players if film composers just use AI to create string sounds. But I don’t think we’ll stop going to concerts at the symphony and we won’t be watching robots play the violins,” he opines.

“Music is, in its essence, a living art form. We attend shows because we enjoy going out and focusing on music in a specific environment with other people,” he concludes. “AI will never substitute that.”


II Lab’s album Strengir Tímans is out on February 2, 2024. The singles “Gufunes” by Keli and EstHer, and “Trio For Lokkur, langspil and proto-langspil” by Berglind María Tómasdóttir, are out now.

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