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Intelligent Machines

Seeing Music

Software maps Chopin.

Technology has arrived that lets us see why, exactly, we like or dislike a piece of music. A Princeton University composer, Dmitri Tymoczko, says traditional Western music is attractive partly because it obeys basic music-theory rules of “voice leading”–the way notes move from one chord to the next. (The rules say the steps should be fairly small.) He created a computer program that vividly shows how far a piece of music diverges from these rules.

A new computer model can create an image of the structure of music. (Courtesy of Dmitri Tymoczko)

In the image, generated by Tymoczko’s program, each ball represents a three-note chord. The farther apart the balls are, the farther the voices have to jump between chords. As a song plays, another ball moves around the cone. If it moves in a circle, a chord pattern is repeating. If it moves from the cone’s tip to its base, a piece is progressing toward dissonance.

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Tymoczko says the technology could be a valuable teaching tool for musicians–showing them, for example, how a pop song is structurally similar to a Chopin prelude. And since the moving balls also allow users to watch any song “play,” the program could be fun at parties, too.

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