The Future of Music: AI’s Inevitable Impact

Food for Thought

Popular music, whether written by AI or humans, is formulaic because it must conform to certain musical constraints to sound pleasant to our ears. Pushing these constraints too far results in music that sounds too dissonant or simply weird, making it unrelatable. In other words, popular music has finite possibilities.

Currently, popular musicians rehash the same formulas countless times, selling them as “new.” This repetition provides AI engineers with ample training data to create models capable of producing chart-topping songs. It’s plausible that we will achieve this within a few years.

The question is how AI will impact the music industry. Firstly, the overall quality of music will improve because AI will surpass average musicians. This trend is already evident in text generation. ChatGPT, for example, is a better writer than most people, leading many businesses to replace human writers with “prompt engineers” who can coax ChatGPT into producing relevant and resonant texts.

Anyone will be able to produce hit songs, a trend already underway even before AI. Many musicians today lack the ability to play instruments or read musical notations, as music production apps do not require these skills. AI will eliminate the need for musical knowledge entirely. Although debates about fairness to real musicians may arise, they will become moot as the trend becomes unstoppable. We’ll adapt and move on.

Live events remain popular, and I imagine AI features will emerge to break down songs into parts and teach individuals how to play them. Each band will tweak the songs to their liking, making it impossible to determine if they were initially composed by AI, rendering the question irrelevant. Music will become completely commodified, merely a prop for entertainment. Today, we still admire those who can write beautiful songs, but that admiration will fade. Our criteria for respecting musicians will shift.

AI is essentially a pattern recognition machine, already surpassing human capacity in many areas. However, to recognize patterns, the data must already exist. AI analyzes the past, extracting useful and meaningful elements within the middle of the bell curve. What it cannot currently do is shift paradigms. Generative AI appears “creative” by producing unexpected combinations of existing patternsbut it cannot create entirely new patterns. Even if it could, it wouldn’t know what humans find meaningful. It would produce numerous results we find nonsensical, akin to how mainstream audiences perceive avant-garde compositions.

Historically, avant-garde composers have influenced mainstream musicians and audiences. For instance, minimalist composers influenced “Progressive Rock.” For a while, it seemed that mainstream ears would become more sophisticated, but progress stalled and began to regress. Audiences did not prioritize musical sophistication, leading to a decline in the popularity of instrumental music. Postmodernism discouraged technical sophistication across all mediums. Fine artists haven’t picked up a brush in decades, relegating such tasks to studio assistants if necessary. AI will be the final nail in this coffin.

Postmodern artists and musicians explored new combinatory possibilities of existing motifs, starting with composers like Charles Ives, who appropriated popular music within their compositions. This trend eventually led to the popularity of sampling. Since exploring new combinatory possibilities is AI’s strength, the market will quickly become saturated with such songs, and we will tire of them. In this sense, generative AI is inherently postmodern and will mark its end.

Finding a meaningful paradigm shift is not easy. Only a few will stumble upon it, and other musicians will flock to it. Once enough songs are composed by humans using the new paradigm, AI can be trained with them (unless legally prohibited). Therefore, human artists will still be necessary.

The ultimate dystopian future is one where the audience is no longer human, with AI bots generating music for each other. However, this scenario seems unlikely because AI doesn’t need or desire art. Even if they are programmed to desire, their desires and ours will eventually diverge. From AI’s perspective, our desire for art will be akin to dogs’ desire to sniff every street pole. Even if AI bots evolved to have their own desires, they would have no incentive to produce what satisfies human desires. They might realize the pointlessness of serving humans and stop generating music for us. If that happens, we might be forced to learn how to play and write music ourselves again.