Artificial creativity: when a robot piano improvises

Can Artificial Intelligence make music creatively together with humans? This is what the research project "Spirio Sessions" is about of the Nuremberg University of Technology and the Nuremberg University of Music. And can such a concert be a pleasure?

Imagine sitting in a concert and listening to the interplay of different instruments. But there is no human at the drums or the grand piano. There are already self-playing pianos in posh shopping malls and hotel lobbies, but in this imaginary concert, the robot grand piano does not play to pre-set notes, but improvises – with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). This is understood to mean human-like intelligence services provided by machines. But to what extent can such artificial intelligence also be musically creative? This is what the research project "Spirio Sessions" is all about of the Nuremberg University of Music and the Nuremberg University of Technology.

Jazz duo with robot grand piano

The focus of the joint research project is the self-playing grand piano, model Spirio R, an analog-digital hybrid instrument from Steinway& Sons. The scientists not only expect the instrument to provide data-based insights into the interpretation of music, but they are also exploring the possibilities of an interface with artificial intelligence. For example, the musical tones are not produced by a pianist, but by software that even reacts creatively to a fellow player in a jazz duo – for example, to saxophonist Sebastian Trump, a research associate at the Nuremberg University of Music:

Interplay between man and machine

How should one imagine this interaction between man and machine?? The robotic grand piano does not play a finished, programmed piece of music, but reacts in an artistic process – and vice versa. Felix Gottwald, a master’s student in music education, improvises on the keyboard together with two AI robot instruments – the grand piano and a software-controlled drum kit: "I try to listen carefully to the artificial intelligence and respond to it or not. One can also create contrasts and play against each other. Or I let' the prototype more space, so that he can come to the fore."

Artificial intelligence even in large ensembles

The interdisciplinary research project of the Nuremberg University of Technology and the Nuremberg University of Music started about two years ago with experiments on the analog-digital hybrid grand piano. In the meantime, a drum set has been added, behind which there is no drummer, but also software. What is currently being tested with drums and piano is also conceivable with more instruments with artificial intelligence in larger ensembles, for example in a big band or a classical orchestra. At the moment, they are experimenting with free improvisation, with as few stylistic guidelines as possible, says Sebastian Trump from the Nuremberg University of Music. However, the use of artificial intelligence is also conceivable in a large ensemble. However, the musical freedom would then no longer be so great, explains Sebastian Trump.

© BR/Ulrike Nikola
Image rights: BR/Ulrike Nikola

Prof. Korbinian Riedhammer from the Nuremberg University of Technology programs the software.

Connection between computer software and musical instrument

Musicologists and computer scientists work together in the interdisciplinary team. Because it is about the interaction between man and machine, as well as the connection between computer software and musical instrument. The piano or drum kit with artificial intelligence has more than just keys and a drum – it also has a hard drive, HDMI connection, WLAN and a digital interface for the special software that the students are programming with Korbinian Riedhammer from Nuremberg University of Applied Sciences. For example, the computer science professor plays four musical notes over a computer keyboard and the model arranges something new from these four notes.

Music enjoyment through AI?

The research project will run until the end of next year for now, to further experiment with the extent to which AI robotic instruments expand the aesthetic framework. Passionate concert-goers may now wonder whether it is a musical enrichment and enjoyment, when artificial creativity in an orchestra is involved? It’s too early to say, says master’s student Felix Gottwald, because there is no right or wrong, good or bad, in the improvised interaction between the AI-based robot instrument and humans. Because in this new field of music, he said, there is still no standard to judge the artistic quality.

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