In the weeks leading up to October 9, 2021, there was great excitement and anticipation in the music and computer technology worlds. These groups were intersecting in a unique and exciting way: a group of musicians and computer scientists formed a coalition to create Beethoven’s 10th symphony. Using sketches from his notebooks, the computer scientists would teach the artificial intelligence to compose, and complete what Beethoven started. (You can read more about the group here)
Like many of my colleagues, I reacted to this news with an equal mixture of interest and apprehension. I may not be an “expert” on Beethoven, but I have spent a good deal of time studying his life and playing and teaching his music, and I was distressed by the articles published prior to the premier stating that this was what Beethoven wanted, this was the fulfillment of his desires, and that people in the coalition could not discern the difference between musical excerpts composed by Beethoven and excerpts created by the AI. I also found it creepy that one of the music experts of the team referred to the AI as a student who practices, learns, and gets better.
On October 9, I opened Spotify and listened to the two movements the group had released: the third and fourth movements of Beethoven X: the AI project.
The third movement, labeled Scherzo. Allegro trio, is a pleasant piece of music. It contains elements of Beethoven, like repeated rhythmic motives, but stylistically it sounds like early Beethoven, not something he was working on at the end of his life. It lacks the passion, surprise, experimentation, thematic development, and chromaticism we expect from late Beethoven.
The fourth movement, labeled Rondo, does not sound like Beethoven at all. The music is so fragmented it sounds like a sight-reading exercise, and it inexplicably features organ as the solo instrument. The form can only be called a rondo in the loosest sense of the term, and the music jumps from clear quotations of Beethoven’s 5th symphony and Pathetique sonata to free form organ passages. Stylistically, it sounds like college composition major who is completing an assignment to compose something “Romantic-sounding.”
Many of the elements of Beethoven’s music are included: abrupt dynamic changes, lyric passages, rhythmic motives, and sudden shifts in mood, but the music shifts so abruptly from one aspect to the next it sounds like the fictitious composition student is checking off the boxes of required elements to earn a good grade. There are many aspects missing from this composition, but the main thing is something even a team of skilled musicologists and computer scientists cannot recreate: the man himself, Ludwig van Beethoven.
This work may be a triumph for AI, but it is not a success for Beethoven, nor should it be labeled as such.
I am a piano teacher who loves teaching music and discussing personality styles. I also enjoy playing music with others, whether that is chamber music, piano duets, or singing in a choir. My favorite composers are Bach and Haydn.