The project took place as part of a series of initiatives celebrating the German composer’s birth around 250 years ago
Born in 1769, German composer Ludwig van Beethoven achieved enormous acclaim within his own lifetime and to this day is widely considered one of the greatest composers to ever live. One of the maestro’s most famous pieces is his Fifth Symphony, the opening of which, with its distinctive ‘short-short-short-long’ motif, has inundated popular culture for more than a hundred years.
Beethoven in fact wrote nine symphonies, all of which are still held in high regard, but few people realise that, at the time of his death in 1827, the completely deaf composer was in the process of writing his tenth. Little is known of what Beethoven ultimately intended for this enigmatic 10th Symphony, with only fragments and notes remaining for admires to pour over.
Now, almost 200 years after Beethoven’s death, a version of this unfinished symphony is being completed with the help of AI.
As part of a project first initiated back in 2019, Deutsche Telekom has brought together a team of German music experts and AI specialists to compose the recompose the piece, building on the existing evidence.
Under the supervision of Dr Matthias Röder, Managing Director at the Karajan Institute, this group co-developed a “Beethoven AI”, leveraging algorithms for voice processing to help teach the AI to mimic Beethoven’s style. Beethoven’s musical legacy, as well as pieces of music from other composers who inspired him, such as Johann Sebastian Bach, was converted into machine-readable form and analysed by the AI.
Once the AI ‘understood’ Beethoven’s style, it was then used to gradually generate pieces of music, building on the existing fragments of the 10th Symphony. The AI’s suggestions at each step of the process were analysed by the musicologists, who selected the most fitting choice, slowly co-creating a complete symphony.
The full symphony is set to be performed in Bonn, the city of Beethoven’s birth, in October, as part of Deutsche Telekom’s Telekom Forum. You can hear a short teaser excerpt from the final composition here
, performed by the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn under the direction of conductor Dirk Kaftan.
The rapid acceleration in AI capabilities has opened many philosophical debates in recent years, making mainstream a number of interesting questions that had previously been relegated to science fiction enthusiasts and academics.
Could an AI appreciate art? Could an AI be creative? Can creativity itself be reduced to algorithms, pattern recognition, and carefully weighted randomness?
In this regard, this recreated symphony will likely create more questions than it answers.
But for those of us worried that the ever-improving AIs will soon make human endeavour obsolete, this project also demonstrates a fact that is becoming increasingly clear throughout the tech industry – that the place of AI, far from removing the human element, is to work with humans to enhance it.
“I believe that the result is something truly amazing because people and machines have created something new. But it’s important to see the result for what it is. Beethoven lived in his time. Beethoven lived in a society that was characterised by wars, by need, but also by lots of love and empathy. No machine is able to do that today,” said Deutsche Telekom chairman Tim Höttges. “However, the machine understands music and can develop it further, but it cannot integrate the zeitgeist – the topic at hand if you like – into the music.”
For now, it could be argued that true, holistic creativity, which results from a lifetime of experience, is unattainable by AI, but let us not forget that this technology is still in its infancy. Our relationship with AI is constantly evolving and will likely continue to do so for decades, perhaps centuries, to come. But, for some of those involved in this Beethoven AI project, we should not be so quick to discard the technology’s nascent artistic value.
“Art, or artfulness, is experienced in contrast to the natural realm. That which is art does not originate from nature. Thus, you could say that art and AI are located on the same plane. Both of these thought processes would like to describe a piece of reality. You can say that the computer does this with algorithms. Yes. But humans do this based on their own experiences or education. In principle both sides are not very far apart from each other. The result always depends on the quality of the input. Beethoven is dependent on his love of Mozart, his study of Albrechtsberger and Haydn,” explained Prof Robert Levin, musicologist at Harvard University. “It is the romantic side within us that wants us to deny the value of artificial intelligence. I would just say take it easy, slow down a little. Don’t go too fast in that direction.”
What role will AI and machine learning play in improving connectivity in Germany in the next decade? Find out from the experts at this year’s Connected Germany event
Also in the news: