Computer Aided Composition

Excerpt from a neswletter about music and software

What do we really mean by "Computer aided composition"?

In the last newsletters, we have spoken about the tools provided by a music software to the musician. The score editor allows him/her to lay out his/her music in notes on paper. The MIDI and audio tools help him/her to get a recording of music with the performance (s)he wants. But these tools are more related to printing and arrangement than to composition itself. Indeed, these tools do not generate new notes or take harmonic or melodic initiatives and, in a general view, they do not directly influence the phase of pure composition, the creative side. They are only used to put music on the page or to refine the final sound result. Something like an ordinary word processing with spelling and grammar correction: you are ready to write a book in a professional way, but the main part is missing: such a tool does not transform you into a writer.

When we speak about assistance to composition, we really speak about tools that will influence the composition work. These tools propose, advise, arrange or add notes, chords and rhythms and help the musician in his/her creative work. Two aspects can be considered, according to the experience of the composer.

For the beginner, who does not master the musical theories of harmony, arrangement yet... but who has nevertheless ideas and a creative willingness, composition tools will reduce this lack of technical training and will offer to him/her various methods to compose in a more intuitive way than theoretical or formal. For example, (s)he could graphically draw a melody while listening to the result. In this graphico-musical editor, (s)he could have a tool to filter notes (removing the notes which do not belong to the current scale and which would badly sound). Then the user could "sail" in real time in a space of chords and intuitively create chord progressions, by immediately listening to the result with the selected instruments (the groups of a standard orchestra could form a preset, with customized libraries). Without knowing a note of music, the novice could then explore a musical universe with multiple choices and by his/her work (and especially his/her creative work, do not forget it!), (s)he could manage to personalize a musical work at a very high degree. Then, with the standard tools, (s)he could print the detailed score in order to communicate his/her music to others.

The experienced composer with the practice of music and theory will object "Yes, but if everyone may call himself/herself a composer without the least experience and compose, it would be too easy. I have worked musical theory and music academy for 10 years to finally be able to compose! ". To that, I will answer with two elements. First, having the creative inspiration to compose and knowing the musical theories are two different things. It is true that thorough knowledge and practice of musical theory can support creativity, but it is not a necessary condition. (For instance, the well known composer Vangelis cannot read one note of music...) The second point is that no composition tool will replace creativity and inspiration. Just as the knowledge of music theory can do it, these tools can support inspiration, develop it, reinforce it, open it, but cannot replace it. Finally, even if it takes another form, work will always be necessary to reach a useful result, worth to be published.

The professional will find in composition tools the facilities allowing him/her to accelerate his/her work and thus to compose more. His/her composer experience will make him/her use the tools differently than the beginner will and (s)he will be more capable to benefit from them effectively. He/She will be able to create advanced and personal musical structures and easily test various musical possibilities for his/her work, something (s)he would perhaps never have considered without such tools.

One can consider musical composition as a large spectrum of increasing possibilities in creativity. If pure creativity may be defined as the fact of proposing something starting from nothing, then the DJ who selects CDs already shows a little musical creativity. He offers his personal choices to the public, among the multiple choices suggested by the market of musical CDs. The person who uses a sequencer, opens a MIDI file and modifies the instruments, the tempo, the sounds... also shows musical creativity. The user of an arrangement software goes one step further towards composition, by selecting the style, the variations and instruments. The ultimate step would be to compose entirely on personal bases, without using "prefabricated" structures.

It is finally a question of ability to choose among the many possibilities offered by the nature of music itself. A beginner in front of a piano keyboard implicitly sees himself/herself offered so much rhythms, melody possibilities and harmonies that (s)he cannot choose anything, not having any selection criterion (i.e. experience to choose). A study of the harmony rules (or if (s)he is brilliant, the direct experimentation on the keyboard) will help him learn how to select the chords which sound well and to start to sequence them. His ability to select will increase according to his experience. The purpose of the composition assistance tools must go in this direction: to help learn how to select musical solutions in a growing number of possibilities.

By analyzing the main music software on the market, it is surprising to see that only a few publishers propose this kind of approach. These approaches are found especially in small software, which are often rudimentary for other aspects (musical scores, MIDI sequencer...) and thus do not allow a complete integration of the various tools.

Pizzicato Professional 2 provided basic tools for composition assistance, in the shape of musical generators based on rhythmic, melodic and harmonic blocks. Pizzicato Professional 3 reinforces these modules and add new ones. But the field to be explored is vast and a lot of tools need to be created. We will continue to push Pizzicato in this direction for future versions, in order to make composition available to everyone.