Stranger than fiction

Beethoven’s unfinished symphony finished by AI

Musicians, historians and scientists join forces to ‘create something that Beethoven himself might have written’

One of history’s most famous composers will deliver a new work from beyond the grave next week - with a little help from a team of modern-day composers, musicologists and computer scientists.

Beethoven began what would have been his tenth symphony in the final years of his life. But poor health prevented him from completing more than a few musical sketches before his death at the age of 56, in 1827.

“These fragments have now been turned into a complete piece of music using artificial intelligence technology,” said the Classic FM website. 

The lead computer scientist on the project, Professor Ahmed Elgammal, explained how his team at Rutgers University-based startup Playform AI “taught a machine both Beethoven’s entire body of work and his creative process”. They then applied that analysis to the beginnings of his final symphony “to create something that Beethoven himself might have written”, wrote Elgammal in an article on The Conversation.

Austrian composer Walter Werzowa was also enlisted to put together a new kind of composition that would integrate what Beethoven left behind with the AI-generated material. A computational music expert transcribed Beethoven’s sketches and processed his entire body of work to ensure the AI was accurately trained.

And a musicologist helped to decipher and transcribe Beethoven’s sketches for the symphony to try to understand his intentions.

The resulting piece of music will premiere on 9 October at the Telekom Forum in Bonn, Beethoven’s birthplace. A recording will be released on the same day.

Elgammal does not expect everyone to approve. “There are those who will say that the arts should be off-limits from AI, and that AI has no business trying to replicate the human creative process,” he conceded.

But there are some early signs of acceptance. “The first test was to see if an audience of experts could determine where Beethoven’s phrases ended and where the AI extrapolation began,” said Classic FM. “When they couldn’t, the team knew they were on the right track.” 

His tenth symphony will now join an exclusive group of AI-assisted compositions. In 2019, Schubert’s final symphony was also completed by software, from a Huawei smartphone.

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