The Human-Machine Duet: Exploring Music Technology Through History

In the realm of music technology, the relationship between humans and machines has long been a topic of both fascination and trepidation. When Deirdre Loughridge, an associate music professor at Northeastern University, first started teaching classes on music technology in 2012, there was a prevailing belief among her students that computers were “dehumanizing” music. However, over the years, Loughridge witnessed a shift in this attitude, with students increasingly embracing the idea of making music with the help of computers.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has further amplified the discussions around the intersection of AI and art. The question of whether a piece of art is created by a human or a machine is not always straightforward, especially in the realm of music. Loughridge emphasizes that the creation of a computer-generated piece in the style of a renowned composer, such as Chopin, involves human programmers. Additionally, even notable composers like Chopin composed music using a piano, which can be seen as a kind of machine.

Loughridge’s upcoming book, “Sounding Human,” delves into this complex and nuanced debate, spanning the period from 1740 to 2020. By examining the historical context, the book aims to challenge the binary perception of music as either solely human or machine-generated. Loughridge seeks to explore the intricate entanglement and dynamic relationship between humans and machines, encouraging readers to consider the possibilities rather than getting caught in a rigid human-versus-machine dichotomy.

The exploration of music technology’s history begins with the emergence of android-like devices capable of playing instruments like the flute and extends into the realm of contemporary experimentation with machine learning. In the 1700s, machines were commonly used in music creation, as the rationality of music was highly regarded. However, as time progressed, attitudes shifted, with the perception of music becoming more associated with emotional expression and distinct from mechanical processes. This change in perception sparked debates over the incorporation of technological advancements, such as adding valves to horns.

As debates about AI and its implications continue to intensify, Loughridge’s book offers a historical perspective that can enrich current discussions. The binary categorization of technology as either “good” or “bad” is increasingly prevalent. However, delving into the historical context allows us to recognize the multitude of ways in which machines have been understood and their impacts on society. “Sounding Human” explores examples that challenge the human-machine framing, providing a comprehensive history of the evolving relationship between humans and machines in the realm of music.

By examining the historical narrative of music technology, we gain insight into the ever-changing relationship between humans and machines. The book prompts us to reflect on the possibilities that arise when we move beyond the restrictive notions of human versus machine and embrace a more nuanced understanding of their interconnectedness. As technology continues to advance, it is vital to consider the rich history of human-machine collaboration in music and other creative domains. Only by doing so can we fully appreciate the potential for innovation and creative expression that emerges when humans and machines harmonize in a collaborative duet.

Technology

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