Beethoven in a box for just HK$570

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2007, 12:00am

If Matthias Wullenweber's success in the chess world is anything to go by, the mediocre songwriters behind countless bland television theme songs and ordinary radio jingles might want to start looking for a new line of work.

Last year, the personal computer chess programme Mr Wullenweber helped create handily beat Russian grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik in a man-versus-machine showdown. But the affable 46-year-old German physicist and hobby musician has now turned his attention to music software that can compose and arrange all by itself.

Named Ludwig after the famous German composer Beethoven, the computer program is intended to be an entertaining and challenging practice aid for all types of musicians, both beginners and advanced, young and old.

However, it is the software's ground-breaking ability to create completely original melodies and songs that could end up having a much greater impact on the entire music industry.

'People have been using computers to help compose music in various forms for over 50 years,' explains Mr Wullenweber from the spartan headquarters of his company in a suburb of the northern German port city of Hamburg. 'But what's new about Ludwig are the completely formed melodies - it's not just using patterns to come up with accompanying music.'

Though many might smirk and dismiss the idea that a computer - a regular personal computer running affordable software - could ever 'create' original music like human beings, the proof of the programming is in the listening.

Set a few parameters such the song's genre, the key, and the accompanying instrumentation, push a button, and voila: Ludwig beings to compose a song tailored to your desires.

A country swing number? No problem. A jazzy little ditty? Ludwig can do that too. And, of course, a computerised composer named after Beethoven can deliver a violin concerto, if classical is more your thing.

Hip-hop, however, isn't one of Ludwig's strengths, Mr Wullenweber admits: 'Our first feedback has been that we need more beats. Ludwig is focused on melodies so it doesn't adapt as well to the rhythmic style of rap.'

Trained as physicist at the University of Bremen, Mr Wullenweber has a long record of producing trailblazing computer programmes. In the mid 1990s he wrote software - named Albert - to explain quantum mechanics for educational purposes, but his biggest impact has been in the chess world.

Mr Wullenweber introduced Ludwig to the outside world by playing along with a song the program composed on the spot during a contest a year ago in which his company Chessbase's chess program, Fritz, defeated grandmaster Kramnik by winning two games and drawing four. It was an appropriate debut for the computerised composer, since Mr Wullenweber draws parallels between the ancient board game and music.

'Like chess, music is a very formalised world,' he says, while detailing how he applied algorithms to sort out appropriate sounding compositions for very diverse musical genres.

Essentially, that means Ludwig evaluates all the potential possibilities while composing a melody note by note and it goes with the 'best' option for the parameters set by the user.

Written over the course of three years, Mr Wullenweber pored over hundreds of books on music theory while programming his software maestro. He then worked with a professional composer to give the program's composition abilities a final polish appropriate for each genre. Unfortunately, the sound bank Ludwig uses to play back what it has created does not have quite the same amount of polish and sometimes compositions can end up having a slightly 1980s keyboard vibe.

But Mr Wullenweber sees Ludwig - which went on sale for Euro50 (HK$570) last month - first and foremost as an affordable way for musicians of all skill levels to practice without getting bored or frustrated and not as slick, professional music production software. If you can only play a few notes on a trumpet or clarinet you can set the programme to compose a piece of music to your aptitude and it will even show you when to play what note if you can't read sheet music.

However, the program's ability to create original melodies and musical arrangements raises several questions with wide-ranging implications for the music industry: who owns the compositions made by Ludwig at the push of a button? Can computing power and algorithms effectively replace human creativity? And if so, what happens to the legions of average songwriters suddenly faced with computerised competition?

Mr Wullenweber says anything Ludwig composes belongs to his company - not because he is hoping to be compensated financially, but rather in an attempt to avoid abuse by those who would use it for commercial purposes. But he is aware how difficult it will be to keep people from claiming a computer-generated melody as their own.

The legal picture becomes even murkier after talking to Gema, Germany's association for music copyright protection. 'Melodies are what's protected by copyright law, not the accompanying music. But if it's a mechanical process - someone's just pushed a button to compose a song - then it isn't an intellectual creation and therefore wouldn't be protected by intellectual property rights. You'd have to prove otherwise that you've composed it yourself,' says Xavier Irber, a copyright lawyer for Gema in Munich.

Or, of course, someone would have to make an effort to prove a computer had done the composing for you.

But Ludwig is only the latest in a new wave of software that is likely to reshape the music world. Another German company, Cognitone, makes 'music prototyping' software that builds upon elements created by a composer to create new scores. And the commercial side of the industry discovered computerised music analysis a few years ago.

Some major record labels have adopted a program called Hit Song Science (HSS) developed by a Barcelona firm to see if they have a winning tune on their hands. HSS compares a song with millions of old songs in its database to see if it has that recipe for success. If so, it might just be worthy of a label's dwindling promotion budget.

Still, no one should fear just yet that starving professional musicians will soon be tossed out onto the streets as computers running software like Ludwig take over their jobs.

Sebastian Katzer, a 32-year-old theatre and film score composer in Berlin, believes most musicians will baulk at the idea of handing their creativity over to a PC.

'The type of music that would be threatened by this might end up just becoming even more computer-generated than it already is - the kind of stuff you hear in an elevator,' he said.