We chat with the futurist and synth pioneer about music’s future and the roles computers will play
By Ara Ajizian
Musician’s Friend Managing Editor
Futurist, inventor and author Ray Kurzweil—besides his enormous impact on modern music through his keyboard synths and other innovations—has contributed to the fields of artificial intelligence (AI), computer science, health and nutrition. We spoke at length about how his interest in futurism and invention began, how it crossed over into the musical world, and where advancements in AI will take the music-making experience in the coming decades.
Musician’s Friend: Your mom was an artist and your dad a musician…what led you down the path of invention and futurism?
Ray Kurzweil: I was quite firm that I wanted to be an inventor when I was five. I think my parents were interested in my having an interest in technology. They didn't want me to be a struggling artist like they were. There was a general appreciation of the power of human ideas, which of course includes the arts. That was kind of the family religion. I remember my grandfather coming back from his first trip to Europe after having fled Hitler in 1938. He was given the opportunity to handle some of the original documents by Leonardo DaVinci, and he described that in reverential terms, like it was a religious or spiritual experience. This was not reported to be handed down by God. This was created by a human, but they were ideas that changed the world. The philosophy was “ideas can change the world.” And it was personalized. “You, Ray, can come up with ideas that will change the world.”
I was given a lot of enrichment toys—things like erector sets, lots of toys that had lots of pieces that you could put together into different contraptions. I had this big inventory from multiple different kits like that and I augmented it by going through the neighborhood. This was an era where you would allow a five-year-old to go through the neighborhood and come back with electronic things like old radios and broken-down bicycles. I had this idea, if I could just figure out how to put all these things together in the right way I could create transcendent effects. I may not have had appreciation of the power of permutations as a five-year-old to realize how many different combinations of these objects there were. After all it was just a few hundred things I had. How many combinations could there be?
I remember other kids were talking about they wanted to be a doctor or a pilot or a teacher. I always had this conceit of “I know what I'm going to be.”
MF: Did you play music as a child?
RK: That's how it started, although I've also had a strong tie to the arts. My father was, as you mentioned, a famous musician and taught me piano from the age of six. I had an interest in writing. In fact I may be the only person that you'll meet that has dual degrees from MIT in computer science and creative writing. My father died in 1970, and that actually is the root of my interest in health, but in the '60s we talked a lot about technology, including computers and music, and music and math and the connections there. He kind of predicted that I would work in music and computers and combine those areas.
Actually, while he was alive I did this project of building and programming a computer to analyze melodies of famous composers and then writing original music in the same style of the music it analyzed. That won me a national prize in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and I got to meet President Johnson, and first prize in the International Science Fair.
MF: You were a guest on the TV show I've Got a Secret demonstrating the same project, right?
MF: Do you think the future for computer-originated composition means excluding humans, or will it be something that works in combination with our creative minds?
RK: Certainly computers are helping our creative process in a myriad of ways already. With my father, if you wanted to hear one of his orchestral compositions it was a really big project. You'd have to talk to funders to engage an orchestra, assemble the musicians, teach them the parts, and finally you'd get to hear his composition. He could make a few changes on the fly, but if he really wanted to restructure things he'd have to let the musicians go and start from scratch. Today a kid in her dorm room can create an orchestra or a jazz band or rock group on her synthesizer or software.
Computers are helping shape sound and create new sounds, helping with the composition process in terms of computing rhythmic patterns and walking bass lines. So it's certainly helping us.
In order for an AI to really compose music at a human level requires the full range of human intelligence. Music is not some subset of human intelligence; it's a language. In fact it's the only fundamental art form that's known to every human culture that's ever been discovered. There are some primitive societies that don't have pictorial art or dance, but every one has music.
MF: When do you see computer intelligence matching the human brain’s capabilities?
RK: My view is that in 2029, computers will match human intelligence in the way that humans are now superior. There are certainly many ways in which computers are superior to humans. They do things all the time we can't do. But we're still better at emotional intelligence, and the arts represent the ability to communicate emotion in a sublime form from an originator to an audience. Humans are still better at that. They can be funnier. They can be sexier. They can be more musical. But that gap will close. In the 2030s there won't be a clear distinction, but I still believe we'll be using them to augment our own capabilities.
MF: 1983, the year that Musician’s Friend was founded, was a banner year for music technology. What was causing all that to pop at that moment?
RK: I think the timing was right. All the stuff I do in futurism stems from my interest in timing my inventions. That’s why I got into it. It was actually ‘81 that I first noticed these trends. I started Kurzweil Music in ‘82 because I felt the technology was coming to really do digital music in something that wasn’t just a million-dollar Fairlight (an early digital sampling synth). It really could reach the common person.
I felt that era was coming. That’s why I started Kurzweil Music in ’82. We saw other things. Something like the (Yamaha) DX7 was a very exciting instrument. It did not realistically recreate orchestral instruments—that was not its goal. But it did create a whole type of sound that was new and that was very useful musically. It could also take advantage of things like sequencing and layering. So we saw lot of things happening with digital music because it was just becoming feasible. Price performance became feasible in the early ‘80s to do digital music.
MF: When the Kurzweil 250 came out in ’84, one of its big claims to fame was it was pretty much indistinguishable from a grand piano. When you hit a high water mark like that, is it hard to take it any further? Do we get to where only purists and golden ears can hear the difference?
RK: It is increasingly a small number of people that can tell the difference. It wasn’t perfect back then, but we actually studied psychoacoustics. There are certain things where the human auditory system is exquisitely precise and can tell the slightest difference, and other areas where it’s very easily fooled. So we tried to do a good job in the areas where the human auditory system was very precise. But obviously it’s gotten better and better over the decades, now.
MF: With all the astounding technological changes of the past three decades, the MIDI standard still remains vital and fundamental. Why do you think that is?
RK: Well, because one level of music is at that slow speed of human performance of playing notes. MIDI has various extensions to be able to actually record sounds. But MIDI basically started as a note recorder, or a channel, which would record human playing. That’s still the fundamental basis of music. So we’ve extended it, but that’s still how 99% percent of music is created. A piano roll is the same principle; it’s recording notes. That’s how MIDI started, and there are extensions now to all the different things you can do with DSP. But it’s still fundamentally just recording notes like a piano roll.
MF: Looking back over the last 30 years, what do you think are the most important changes to the products that a musician uses to make music?
RK: Well, we’ve integrated all of these resources: sequencing, sound modification, layering, editing of sounds, editing of song. You can do all that in software. That’s been a big revolution. Between ProTools and something like Reason, you’ve got fantastic power on a platform that everybody has, so it’s become quite ubiquitous.
MF: What do we have to look forward to in the next two decades?
RK: The traditional way of learning to play any instrument is actually a long period of investment before you get any pleasure from it, let alone being able to actually compose and create something of interest.
We’ve seen some steps in that direction, like Guitar Hero, where you don’t have to learn traditional playing skills or composition skills. The reason it’s popular is it’s giving some piece of that music-creation experience to people who, heretofore, could only listen to music and appreciate it that way. When people are listening to music, they are fantasizing that they’re playing. So here they could actually do that. I think we’re going to actually be able to do that in a much more intelligent way, and really tap people’s music imagination at a much earlier point, where they don’t have to invest these months and years of tedious practice in order to express themselves musically. There will be an on-ramp to the world of creating music where you can get that positive experience quickly, and not grow tired so quickly because the area of musical interest is limited, like you have now with these kinds of games.
MF: A lot of the advancements regarding music creation that you forecast seem to suggest it becoming more of a solo activity. Do you think that 20 years from now the rock band as we know it today might not exist?
RK: I don’t see that changing. Traditionally, we’ve had both. If you think about the prime force of different musical groups, let’s say, in popular music, most of them are, in fact, individuals. It’s rare to get a collaboration like Lennon and McCartney. It’s quite an extraordinary phenomenon when you consider that the best songs by Lennon and McCartney, individually, were much worse than the worst songs by them together.
Collaboration is a brilliant thing. But Beethoven was an individual, and, sure, there were collaborative, collective groups that played his symphonies, but the prime creative force was one person. So I think we’re going to continue to see that.