Creating the perfect pop tune through Darwinian selection

Scientists from Imperial College London have built a computer program powered by natural selection, and say it can match the best pop and classical composers.

They programmed a computer to produce loops of random sounds and analyse the opinions of musical consumers, testing their theory that cultural changes in language, art and music evolve through Darwinian natural selection.

“Everyone ‘knows’ that music is made by traditions of musical geniuses. Bach handed the torch to Beethoven who gave it to Brahms; Lennon and McCartney gave it to the Gallaghers who gave it to Chris Martin. But is that really what drives musical evolution? We wondered whether consumer choice is the real force behind the relentless march of pop,” says professor Armand Leroi.

“Every time someone downloads one track rather than another they are exercising a choice, and a million choices is a million creative acts. After all, that’s how natural selection created all of life on earth, and if blind variation and selection can do that, then we reckoned it should be able to make a pop tune. So we set up an experiment to explain it.”

The computer algorithm behind the study, called DarwinTunes, maintains a population of 100 loops of music, each eight seconds long. Listeners scored loops in batches of 20 on a five-point scale from ‘I can’t stand it!’ to ‘I love it!’.

DarwinTunes then ‘mates’ the top ten loops, pairing them up and mingling musical elements of each pair, to create twenty new loops. These replace the original parents and the less pleasing non-parents. The program’s currently up to 2,513 ‘generations’.

To demonstrate that the loops were actually getting better, the team asked listeners to rate loops from different generations. And, without knowing the age of the loops, they consistently ranked the more evolved music as more appealing.

You can listen to the loops – and help breed new ones – here.