Joe's Blog

If a computer can play more evenly than a human pianist, is the difference worth it?

March 29, 2018

My answer requires that we think ‘through’ time as it evolves or passes in the performance.  A phrase of music, especially in the hands of a master composer, is something that ends up with a balance of opposing forces, but does not start that way.  It is like a seesaw (with the fulcrum at the mid-point).  Person “B” (for beginning of the phrase) sits down on one end and the horizontal line that the see saw would have if in a balanced state is replaced by one end touching the ground and the other end twice as far from the ground as it would be if things were level.

Person “E” (for end of the phrase) sits down near the center of the see saw.  Although of the same weight as person B, from E’s initial position the see saw is still well out of balance.  But gradually through time (as the phrase evolves), E begins to move along the see saw until she reaches the opposite end from B.  The seesaw is now in balance.  While the seesaw can remain in this state indefinitely if E and B don’t move from their positions, this state exists only transiently in music; at the moment of the completion of the phrase, just as another phrase begins, and there is another general progress towards a balance of musical forces.

I grant that this description is over simplistic, but it is true to the basic principles of good playing.

However if the human rendition is too uneven, and duration through time doesn’t eventuate into a dynamic balance or equilibrium, then it is preferable to listen to the computer play its notes, where each quarter note is exactly equal in duration to every other.

I had an early experience of this.  In the 1980’s, when computers were still rare, so were recorded performances of Bach’s 215 cantatas.  There were few choices.  One of the first recorded performances of most of the cantatas was conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.  The playing was so bad in general, that just hearing the computer sound the correct pitches at the correct times, in the correct rhythm, was sufficient to reveal the greatness of Bach’s music.  In this case, the computer’s rendition was vastly preferable to the human rendition.


Comment from Roy Doughty sent by email on March 30:

The see-saw analogy of a musical phrase in this blog and in ‘Introducing the Beginner to the Keyboard‘ is brilliant.  And the insight into clarifying playing at octave intervals in ‘Melodies in Octaves’: also brilliant.

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  1. Perhaps the question could be rephrased: “Which would you rather listen to, a poor human player playing sublimely composed music or a computer rigidly reproducing a score?”, Joe. Your example at the end points this out.
    When extending this to composers other than Bach (and there was a reason that ‘Switched on Bach’ wasn’t ‘Switched on Chopin’) I think the question of whether a computer, even now, can interpret a composer’s intentions better than a poor or even mediocre human player is not settled. Even if it were to be settled in the computer’s favor (does that even make sense?) the point is whether you, as a human, would rather listen to and watch a human relating a human composer’s work to you, another human, or listen to (and watch?) a computer get in the middle of things. To take the discussion a bit wider, would robotic baseball be more fun to watch than the simply human?
    Psychology and even errors are part of the game, I think, whether we talk about baseball or music.