Alert reader Ron called my attention to a piece in the Telegraph with the intriguing title, “Scientists create ‘perfect’ pop song though natural selection.” It’s about an experiment that used a process analogous to natural selection to produce the “perfect” song. The description starts off a bit wonky:
Just as the strongest and healthiest plants and animals pass on their good genes to future generations, researchers claim music evolves as musicians copy the best aspects of other artists’ work while filtering out their less popular traits.
This means that every time someone buys a song, they are contributing to the “natural selection” process by which the best songs are rewarded with success and the worst ones fade into obscurity, the scientists said.
Well, yes, musicians do copy each other’s work, but it’s not necessarily true, at least to me, that the best songs are amalgams of all the good stuff that has gone before. Some of the greatest pop music of my era was almost sui generis, produced not by a process of copying and improvement, but more from brand-new conceptions in peoples’ heads. I’m thinking, for example, of albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or groups like Steely Dan and The Band. And while great jazz like that of Charlie Parker or the early Louis Armstrong may have drawn on earlier influences, there is added value far beyond copying the best bits of other musicians’ work.
Anyway, some researchers, including developmental biologist and science popularizer Armand Leroi, did an experiment in which they continually reshuffled tunes that people liked until they produced an “optimum” pop tune. It worked like this:
The researchers, from Imperial College London, tested their theory by combining a series of random noises into 100 eight-second loops, before asking 7,000 internet users to listen to them and rate how much they enjoyed them.
A computer programme picked out the most popular clips, then paired them up in various combinations to produce a set of new “offspring” loops which incorporated some aspects from each of their “parent” tracks.
Prof Armand Leroi, co-author of the study, said: “That’s how natural selection created all of life on Earth, and if blind variation and selection can do that, then we reckoned it should be able to make a pop tune. So we set up an experiment to explain it.”. . .
The experiment was repeated thousands of times before a group of volunteers was asked to rate how enjoyable a series of tracks were, without knowing which “generation” each clip came from.
Music loops from later generations were consistently rated as better than those from an earlier stage of the experiment, suggesting the music was steadily improving, the scientists reported.
You can listen to the process, and the results, at the Telegraph site: the clip is 3 minutes and 8 seconds long. You can hear more, and participate in the selection process, at the Darwin Tunes site. The paper describing the process has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (reference below).
While the process is analogous to natural selection, with “mutation,” “recombination” among different clips, and a criterion of “fitness” (listener appeal), it’s also different, in that each person has a different criterion for “quality.” In contrast, there’s only one criterion for success in a real evolutionary process: how well a gene makes copies of itself. This amalgamation/mutation/public vetting process produces, in the end, a gemisch dictated by the average taste. It’s “perfect” in the sense that big-box-office Hollywood movies are perfect: they appeal to the most people. (It’s no surprise that people liked the later clips better than the earlier ones.) But to my ear the result, at least as heard on the Telegraph site, is bland and uninteresting. Perhaps the best music arises not through a “natural selection” process, but by musical “macromutations”: huge advances on what has gone before (rather than gradual improvements) created by those musicians who hear the world in a different way.
I’m not even sure what the point of this exercise is, for you could do it with anything: art, automobiles, and so on. What you’ll get is something that many people find appealing, but some people dislike. Give me the visionary rather than the compiler.
Anyway, as the Telegraph notes, the “perfect song” bears an uncanny resemblance to The Who’s 1971 song Baba O’Riley.” Check it out yourself:
This reminds me of attempts to create the most beautiful faces by amalgamating attractive features from various well-known people. Here’s the results of one attempt to create the world’s most beautiful woman by combining the traits of many celebrities and actresses:
Again, I find this bland; it’s a face with beauty but no character.
I couldn’t find the equivalent for males, but for those who prefer the XY gender, there’s a compilation of the 33 most handsome movie stars of all time. Guess who’s #1?
MacCallum R. M., M. Mauch, A. Burt, and A. M. Leroi. 2012 Evolution of music by public choice. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA: published early online June 18, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1203182109