Technology and the Arts
Article by Rick Leinecker, November 6, 2006

I'm writing this article from 32,000 feet. A colleague and I are headed to a conference where we'll present a pair of courses we teach each spring semester. The course pair (known as a Learning Community) combines Music Appreciation and Introduction to Computers. You might be wondering how those two topics are related, and I intend to show you how technology and the arts are related.

When you get right down to the physics of music, there is a precise relationship between notes. Middle C has a vibrational frequency of 261.63 beats per minute. If you double that, the next C that's an octave above beats at 523.26 beats per minute - double the frequency of the octave below it. All musical notes can be precisely calculated based on a formula that Euclid derived thousands of years ago.

Musicians like to think of themselves as being beyond mathematics, and in a realm of intuitive expression. But in the Baroque period, logic ruled. There was very little expressiveness to the music. Bach's inventions and fugues were exercises in the craft of fitting musical themes together according to a set of rules. Listeners would then unravel the puzzle by identifying themes and variations during performances.

It's not just music that has logical elements. The painter Kandinsky wrote a book called Concerning the Spiritual in Art in which he talked about painting. He talked at length about how the craft of painting follows a set of rules and is not nearly as expressive as people think. In 1945, Joseph Schillinger wrote a book called The Mathematical Basis of the Arts where he proposed the theory that musical and artistic expressions were the result of carefully calculated processes. At 1,500 pages the book is daunting. But if you just read the first several chapters you can see that he makes a good case.

From Baroque to Kandinsky to Schillinger - we can see how the arts are logical and mathematical. That brings us to the age of the computer. The question facing computer scientists and artists is "can computers produce creative expressions that rival their human counterparts?" So far the answer is both yes and no.

There have been quite a few computer programs that produce music. One in particular is named Band in a Box (available at pgmusic.com). In several seconds this software creates music that sounds very close to what humans create. It works, though, by observing a set of style rules based on various composers. If you select the George Benson style, it'll give you a piece of music that sounds like George Benson. If you choose The Eagles style, you'll get a pop song that sounds like it's from an Eagle's CD. But philosophers argue that it's just randomly filling in the blanks from a style template. Others would ask "what are the human composers doing besides that anyway?" The composers want to think it's all inspiration, but in reality it's probably a very small spark of inspiration that gets the process going. From there it's more a matter of filling in the blanks based on the craft that the composers know. I've taken composition lessons at four different universities, and technique rather than inspiration is dominant in most composition training.

Many computer scientists such as Ray Kurzweil think that by the year 2030 computers will provide the initial creative spark. There is evidence to support this, but there are also a lot of contrarians who argue that computers will never be creative. It's a discussion that's worth thinking about, because by doing so we come closer to understanding our own creativity.

My opinion is that I don't care. If I get a creative spark and the computer produces a composition based on my original idea, I'm happy. All of the drudgery of filling in the harmonies and doing the orchestration doesn't fall on me. These tasks are more grunt work than creativity, and by avoiding them I can be even more creative and write more music.

The arts are very mathematical and lend themselves to technological synthesis. I'm excited to think about how much more I can create with the use of computers to do the boring and repetitive tasks.

Another very important reason to marry the arts and technology is the cognitive connections that result. Any time you blend disciplines, you get connections and bridges that help the learning processes. And that's the point of the pair of courses I mentioned that we teach at RCC. They help build a bridge between technology and the arts, and create a far better learning experience as a result.

Those are my initial comments on technology and the arts.