DarwinTunes is a magical experiment in computer music that illuminates evolution in music, culture, and even ourselves. A simple sine wave is genetically combined in a myriad of patterns and broadcast over the Internet. The music is looped for 15 seconds and then a new variant played. Listeners just like you and me rate whether we like it. Our ratings determine which loops live and which die.
After just two months over 20,000 ratings have evolved 275 generations into wonderfully sweet music (to this US-cultured listener) that is surprisingly sophisticated with tempo changes, intertwining melodies, counterpoint, bass and treble lines, and color. The mutating music occasionally plays lemons but more often surprises and even delights with daring combinations and creative leaps You can even download the tunes. I like to use it as uptempo background music.
The premise that music, like all complicated forms of life and beauty, can be evolved is proven. Where does it end? And what does the experiment say about us?
Is man a simple beast? Will the music evolution flatten out, reaching a plateau that’s maximally suited to the human animal, a scientifically-definable level that corresponds to the capacity of our neural and aural wiring and sensors?
We already know that music has special properties to bypass the conscious mind and directly moderate and even manipulate moods and unconscious thought. I can hear that in DarwinTunes. Already it occasionally hits a loop that is “on” and engages both body and mind beyond the straightforward tones. It’s not much of a leap to imagine music like this (though far calmer) doled out in Orwell’s 1984 as aural pablum to control the masses.
Almost 30 years ago (yikes!) I wrote a story about music that had evolved so perfectly in tune with the human organism that it directly tapped into the pleasure centers. The result – catatonic fugue, a case of technology surpassing man.
But there is another future. Perhaps DarwinTunes will continue to climb the evolutionary path … and take us for the ride. Higher-order composition and complexity, unknown today, could break music boundaries, surpass the random stylings of human composers, and open our minds.
Human evolution has essentially stalled. Civilization has removed the process of natural selection, save the occasional buffoon cleaning his gun, drunk walking in front of a bus, or neanderthal starting a war. Evolution has jumped to another plane with cybernetic and networked life.
Yet we know that our brains from babies in the womb to seniors are plastic and constantly growing. Music has the potential not just to tap into our meat to make us happy, calm, angry, or zombies, but to program the wiring itself, building a higher order platform or operating system on our primitive wetware. Instead of a being limited beast, we would have unlimited godlike potential.
Or maybe the music itself, having achieved its own evolved sentience, influenced me to write this essay to ensure its parasitic existence. I’m sure it will have more precise instructions in the next generation.
In any event there is artifice aplenty in how the experiment is set up. I hope the researchers extend it by making all aspects of the music experience evolvable.