Gabriel Menzies, IE Business School Winner of the 2022 CoBS student CSR article competition, tunes into a little-explored area in the great debate over AI and the future – that of music and how Humankind’s relationship with it might change – or not!
Music Mastery – Innately Human or Also Artificial? By Gabriel Menzies
Man: “You are a clever imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot take a blank canvas and turn it into a masterpiece?”
Robot: “Can you?” 
Beyond the steel collar worker
When discussing the rise of artificial intelligence, one of the biggest topic points is the impact on the labour market. Jobs are being automated at increasing rates, and AI will most likely replace human workers by the hundreds of millions in the coming decades. 
When we think about the type of jobs that AI will replace us in, we tend to think about jobs that follow a strict process, often very repetitive. These jobs include warehouse workers, retail workers, and other unskilled labour jobs. Furthermore, with the way that technology is advancing, it is also probable that AI will outperform humans in highly skilled jobs such as doctors, teachers, and even lawyers.
However, there is one job that never seems to come up in this conversation: musician. This is understandable as music is an art form, and we tend to think of art as innately human. Art is born from human emotion and experience, and no matter how complex, AI cannot experience human emotion.
Nonetheless, it may be possible that AI will one day outperform humans in the composition of music in the same manner that a robot in a warehouse outperforms the human worker.
When this happens, it will have several adverse effects on society. It will take away our freedom to choose, it will impact the way we identify ourselves and identify with others, and above all, it will call into question what it means to be human.
Art, music and algorithms
“Artistic creativity, it’s magical but it’s not magic, meaning that it’s a product from the brain” said neuroscientist Charles Limb. The fact that art and creativity is a product of the brain suggests that we can “study it like we study other complex neurological process.” 
The complex process of music creation when done by an artificially intelligent algorithm can be boiled down into 3 parts: the inputs, the processing, and the output.
The inputs for this algorithm would be all of the factors that contribute to an individual’s musical preference.
Music preference differs based on culture, past experiences, past and present emotions, neurochemistry, and several other factors.
The parameters necessary for the processing step of such an algorithm would be the elements of music and the concepts of music theory.
There are 7 core elements of music: tonality, timbre, texture, rhythm, melody, harmony, form, and dynamics. In a basic sense, the relationship between these elements, the way they are arranged in accordance with one another, is what gives rise to music.
While there do not seem to be any universal rules in music, there are certain “guidelines” which pertain mostly to culture. For example, modern Western pop music tends to follow certain chord sequences, rhythms, and generally has a simple, catchy melody.
The inputs pertaining to the indicators of one’s music preference will then decide what guidelines are to be applied when arranging the musical elements, which ultimately produce the output: the music itself.
For example, say in the future someone is overjoyed because they were just accepted into their dream university. They put on their futuristic headphones which are capable of scanning brains to detect emotions.
The data that their phone has collected about them, such as age, gender, location, previous listening habits, and the fact that they have just been accepted into their dream university is fed into the algorithm as an input along with the biometric data provided by the brain scan showing their excitement.
The algorithm would then take these factors into consideration and compose a song that corresponds exactly to how this person is feeling in the exact musical style they wish to be hearing, while also putting lyrics on the song that are about being accepted into university.
This type of personalized output could create music for anyone, anywhere, in any situation, as long as the algorithm is provided with the necessary inputs.
Music and the loss of choice
If AI eventually reaches this point, it leaves humans with two choices each time they listen to music.
The first is to continue to listen to songs created by human artists. In this scenario, there is a chance of disliking the song, being unsatisfied with it, or any of the thoughts and emotions that one feels when listening to a new song in today’s world
The other option is to listen to AI generated songs, where the music is guaranteed to elicit the strongest possible neurological response in your brain coherent with the exact emotion you wish to be feeling in the given moment.
When the choice is between something that you might like and something that you will surely love, it is not much of a choice. Humans instinctively choose the option that gives them the most pleasure, and in this case it is the AI generated music.
As a result, our musical preference will no longer be our own choice. Algorithms will determine everything we listen to.
This indicates a loss of control in our lives as it hinders our ability to select our own circumstances and even our identity.
Are we better off?
Not being in control of our own musical preference can be a scary thought considering where we are at today. With the internet and streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube, we currently have more choice about what we listen to than at any time in history.
However, as we become accustomed to AI making more of our decisions for us, we might eventually view this as a good thing. After all, we will be saving time and energy while also having songs personalized to our taste.
We listen to music we like in order to elicit a certain reaction or response that starts in the brain. If this technology can create music that elicits an even stronger response, we are achieving the same goal we do when picking our own music, only better.
So ultimately, the solution to the loss of control over our decisions when it comes to what we listen to might just be to embrace it.
In the words of the 18th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” 
Humans have used music as an instrument for social cohesion across every single culture for tens and thousands of years. We gather in groups to listen to musicians, participate in festivals, to sing and dance along.
Music has the power to bring people together in night clubs, during family gatherings, weddings (think of the bond that the song playing during the first dance creates between a bride and groom), and countless more situations.
With such easy access to music now, someone’s music taste is also a fundamental part of their identity, which is also a factor in how we connect with others.
The music one listens to can affect other factors of identity such as how they dress, how they style their hair, and who they spend time with. It is commonplace for people who enjoy the same music to be friends.
When humans no longer listen to music created by other humans and instead opt for the tailored AI tunes, the role of music in society will fundamentally shift.
Music becomes an individual experience rather than a collective experience, something that cannot be shared. Consequently, the groups of people brought together by a similar taste in music and a shared love for certain singers or bands would no longer be brought together at all.
In addition, the part of people’s identities formed due to a particular taste in music, alongside any potential experiences and relationships as a result of these identities, will no longer occur.
To listen to music is to tune into the product of human thought, emotion, and experience. Even the solo act of listening to music on one’s headphones is still an expression of these things from one (or more) individual to another. This form of human connection is lost when music is created by algorithms.
However, there may be a solution to this that utilizes the same technology: AI could apply the same logic as it does to a single person’s music taste to a crowd.
If given the same inputs that determine an individual’s music preference, except instead it is the data about an entire group of people, the algorithm could create the song that the most amount of people would enjoy.
In the case of nightclubs, it could create the song that gets the crowd dancing. At a wedding, it could create a song that is the musical embodiment of the bride and groom’s love for one another. At a funeral, it could create a song to put everyone in tears.
While it would eliminate the role of artists and thus put an end to concerts as we know them, it could also make way for newer and more creative ways of musical entertainment, perhaps even using robots and other forms of AI.
Music: The beginning of the end
From a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal flute to Beethoven’s Für Elise to Drake’s Views, music has defined humanity’s past and present. It is a hallmark of human creativity that allows us to express ourselves, relate to one another, and even give life meaning.
The idea that one day AI will best us in the creation of music is daunting, and it may signify the beginning of the end of human creativity.
If this were to happen to music, it could happen to more art forms.
All forms of art follow a set of guidelines and concepts the way that music does, and therefore AI could become more adept than humans in any creative endeavour such as storytelling, film making, and drawing and painting.
What would be the point of participating in any form of art if we knew that no matter what, AI could always produce something better than us?
The meaning behind it
If you visit your parents, or were to go through any memorabilia they kept from your childhood, you would probably find some drawings or paintings you did as a kid. These artefacts bear immense meaning to your parents and perhaps to you, but does this mean they expected you to become the next Picasso?
Perhaps you used to take some piano lessons, or are currently learning how to play a musical instrument. Were you or are you expecting to be the next Mozart?
The chances are that the answers to these questions are no. Humans continue to play and create music art when they know they will not become the best, and it may be that they always will.
Therefore, while people in the future may not be listening to music created by humans when they put on their headphones, the desire to create and express oneself through the use of music will still exist.
Humans will still retain the capacity and the desire to be creative, even if they know they will never better algorithms.
Problems and solutions
If AI becomes better than us at making music, we should just enjoy it. After all, the one thing that humans will have over machines is the ability to actually experience art.
While it might change traditional ways of how we connect with one another, it might also open up new doors that lead to increased social cohesion.
If it takes away our ability to choose our own likes and dislikes, it also means that we don’t have to have as many dislikes or waste as much time trying to find what we do like.
And finally, just because AI might be better than us at it, it doesn’t mean that we must stop singing, playing instruments, and expressing ourselves.
It is up to us to decide how we will respond to this great challenge.
-  Proyas, Alex, director. I, Robot. 20th Century Fox, 2004.
-  Manyika, James, et al. “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: What the Future of Work Will Mean for Jobs, Skills, and Wages.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 2 July 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/jobs-lost-jobs-gained-what-the-future-of-work-will-mean-for-jobs-skills-and-wages.
-  “What Does a Creative Brain Look like?” 88.5 WFDD, 30 Oct. 2015, https://www.wfdd.org/story/what-does-creative-brain-look.
-  Reuell, Peter. “Music May Transcend Cultural Boundaries to Become Universally Human.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 9 Jan. 2019, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/01/music-may-transcend-cultural-boundaries-to-become-universally-human/#:~:text=Poet%20and%20Harvard%20Professor%20Henry,he%20may%20have%20been%20right.
- Link up with Gabriel Menzies on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: Playing out of synch: What jazz teaches business leaders
- Discover IE Business School and the BBA programme.
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.