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Resonance between music and technology

Author  :  QI YUE     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-06-17

Musical progression and advances in technology have been intertwined throughout history. Music is not only a medium for conveying human emotions, but also a way to present technological advances.

The Jiahu bone flutes demonstrate the high caliber of music and technology mastered by our Neolithic Chinese ancestors. The continued growth of orchestral compositions in Europe represents a cultural milestone linked to the 19th-century industrial revolution. Wooden flutes were replaced by silver ones. Violinists switched from catgut to nylon or metal strings. Trumpets and horns were newly fitted with valve keys. The advent of audio and video technology has allowed music to be reproduced on a large scale, breaking temporal and spatial limitations and reshaping the operation of the entire music industry. As digital technologies have integrated with the music industry, they have powerfully influenced its development.

Musical composition

Musical composition has historically included both a group composition mode, where a group collectively improvises to sing folk music, and an independent composition mode in which a single composer is inspired to produce professional works after repeated refinement. This independent mode has been the most important composition mode in the history of music. Musical composition is considered an advanced and highly sophisticated profession.

With the advent of artificial intelligence, musical composition may move forward in a different direction. Pierre Barreau, a French computer scientist and musician, invented the Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist (AIVA), an artificial intelligence that composes music. Barreau and his team of developers say they are committed to empowering everyone to create personalized music through the use of AI technology. They use tens of thousands of compositions by master composers including Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven as materials for deep learning, convert various music composition techniques into mathematical models, and then apply these models to create original music with different influences. In 2016, AIVA released its composition Symphonic Fantasy for Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 21: Genesis. In 2018, at the World AI Conference, AIVA released its first Chinese music album, Aiwa, which contains The Creation of Planet Earth, Black Dragon, The Creation of Mankind, Patching Up the Sky, Human Society, Five Colored Stones, The Four Pillars of Heaven, and Heaven and Earth, with the Chinese mythology based theme of Nyuwa, the goddess who created mankind. Currently, AIVA, as the first virtual member of La Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique (SACEM), can compose music in several styles including traditional Chinese music, jazz, tango, electronic, pop, rock, and film scores. AI leaders such as Google and Microsoft have also launched their own AI solutions for music composition.

In the future, ordinary people will be able to write music with the assistance of AI. Music composition will shift from being specialized to being popular, from being professional to entertaining, and from being technical to conceptual. Human-machine cooperation will become the next dominant mode of music composition.

Live musical performance

Musical compositions have to be presented by performers through a secondary act of creation. Music performances need to take place in a specific space. With advances in spatial soundstages and amplification technologies, an increasing number of people can enjoy live performances. Today, live music can be performed not only in one physical space, but also broadcast on the internet simultaneously, allowing viewership to expand exponentially.

During the pandemic in 2020, famous symphony orchestras in China and overseas, such as the Berliner Philharmoniker, the China National Symphony Orchestra, and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, launched live online concerts one after another. Online viewing of the concerts surged from original heights of one or two thousand people, to hundreds of thousands, even nearly one million. The Xi’an Symphony Orchestra, a young orchestra in China, experimented with a live performance of the “Cloud Concert of National Treasure” at the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. In summer of 2020, they went to Niubeiliang National Forest Park in the hinterland of the Qinling Mountains and presented the “Niubeiliang Echo Concert” as a part of “China’s Ancestral Veins, the Sound of Qinling,” a digital-streaming series. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, the folkloric Dance of the Yao People, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major (Pastoral) brought music back into the beauty of nature, allowing online audiences to experience the wonders of nature while listening to the performance.

This performance mode, which emerged from innovative use of network technology and sound technology, has brought an unprecedented experience to music appreciators by moving musical tours across space and through multi-dimensional experiences. Meanwhile, this new performance environment also poses a new challenge to music performers, namely, engaging in artistic communication with audiences effectively in a space where the audience is invisible. This is a scenario that performers of Beethoven’s era could not imagine.

Meanwhile, performers are also being changed by new technologies. Today, we can see inanimate machines built from electronic components perform on stage, and perhaps there is no machine at all, only virtual images which perform for audiences. At the 2020 World Artificial Intelligence Conference, in a music video called Smart Home, Microsoft’s XiaoIce AI, the composer, sang with AI avatars from Baidu, Xiaomi and bilibili together as a team of music performers who could perform without stopping and ensure that every movement was identical. It is conceivable that non-human performers will serve as a remedy for the performing arts industry to tackle the cost disease, a concept introduced by cultural economist William Baumol.

Dissemination and consumption

Prior to the advent of recording technology, it was impossible to store sound. Live performances by musical masters such as violinist Paganini and pianists Liszt and Chopin could not be reproduced and were noted as legendary only in writing. Thanks to the gradual improvement of audio and video technology, the audience today can enjoy musical performances from musical masters across time and space, which serves as valuable material for people to study and learn.

Video technology’s constant innovation allows the art of music to emerge from the obstruction of intangibility and perishability, making its reproduction and dissemination possible, and shaping the transformation of new business models across the music industry. While the recording industry was once prominent enough to control the main modes of music reproduction and dissemination in the 20th century, the emergence of digital technology has once again altered the entire logic. The American company Napster, offered software that allowed users to convert music CDs into MP3 format and share them on websites to download for free. Although this violated the rights of music copyright holders, and the company went bankrupt after being sued by five major record companies, this mode of digital reproduction and dissemination has since become the primary way to consume music in the internet era. Following this, Steve Jobs built the closed-loop music download model for the iPod, where music consumers no longer bought entire albums but single songs for $0.99, breaking the perception that digital music could not be profitable.

In recent years, new technologies have once again impressed the music industry. Along with the popularity of smartphones and 4G networks, streaming music platforms have rewritten the music dissemination model and consumption methods worldwide. On these platforms, consumers can listen to vast quantities of music simply by downloading an app. According to statistics, the total number of songs legally streamed in the U.S. reached 2 trillion in 2019, as the spread of music continued to expand at an incredible rate. At the same time, streaming is also shifting people’s music consumption behavior. Streaming platforms analyze users’ listening records to track their preferences and recommend music that listeners may like. They also encourage consumers to share their song lists and comment on music, further building an ethos of sharing. Going on to meet the needs of music consumers, streaming platforms have generated two-thirds of the entire music industry’s revenue in 2019 through ads and paid subscriptions. Today, digital technology represented by streaming media is not only changing the music dissemination and consumption model, but also influencing music composition trends.

Ancient Greeks believed that music has both artistic and technological features, which can bring pleasure to people and at the same time inspire them to ruminate on the nature of the universe. In a unique way, new technologies are changing people’s perceptions and understandings of music, bringing people novel experiences and thoughts, and ushering in a new realm of beauty with music.


Qi Yue is an associate professor from the School of Arts at Renmin University of China.

Editor: Yu Hui

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