Is it really music if it's performed by a machine?

I've been thinking about this topic for a while now. My colleagues, students, students' parents, composer friends and non-musician music-lovers are equally divided yet fervently adamant that their view is the only possible answer. My music-lover friend feels that music is something almost holy that requires emotion, where my computer-tech friend has read all about software that creates music, changes tempo, pitch, etc. and assures me that of course music can be performed by machines.

But what is music anyway? Is it simply a collection of sounds made by a human being? Can a machine make music? Are bird calls music? Or is music a collection of sounds notated by a human being? Composed music? But that leaves out improvisation... Harmony, melody, rhythm? All three combined? I decided I had better look it up.

The definition posted at is an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color. 2. the tones or sounds employed, occurring in single line (melody) or multiple lines (harmony), and sounded or to be sounded by one or more voices or instruments, or both.

So, by this definition, music needs an emotional element and is produced by a voice or an instrument. Can a machine show emotion?

The Websters Online dictionary is more open in its definition of music: "the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity" (Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, online edition). 

I suppose a machine could be programmed to "order tones and sounds in succession, combination and temporal relationship to produce a composition".

My computer-tech friend assures me that a machine is necessarily designed and made by a human, so the human would leave their imprint on the machine. So a machine could be the tool used to produce music composed or made, or even emotionally felt by a human. Now what about computer programs that have been developed to compose? This topic brought me frighteningly close to the topic of artificial intelligence so that I decided to leave it. But for those who are interested, see this BBC article here.

Even before the digital age we had mechanical machines that made music. Think of wind-up music boxes, or carousels that "cranked" out music with a mechanism similar to a player piano. This is all music, but played by a machine. I doubt that many would argue that the sounds we hear from a music box or a carousel are not real music, although arguably emotion is missing and the instrument is mechanical.

I was doing some online research about Elena Kats-Chernin's works for string quartet when I came across a YouTube clip of a machine playing Fast Blue Air. As you may know, Acacia was very lucky to be offered the chance to record Elena's complete works for string quartet under the Vexations840 lable in 2012. We worked closely with Elena for this recording and loved every minute of it. Our double CD Blue Silence earned us a place as finalists for the APRA AMCOS awards and seems to still be a favourite on ABC Classic FM.

One of the most exciting pieces we learned for this CD was Fast Blue Village. It is a frenetic piece in 5/4 time. The speed of it meant that we all had to ditch our normal metronomes and download electronic metronomes that would actually go fast enough (240 beats per minute)! When I googled Fast Blue Village I discovered that its original title was Fast Blue Air and Elena had been commissioned to write this piece by FESTO, a company that makes very fine and intricate electro-pneumatic instruments. It was performed by such a machine at the Hanover Fair in 2007 to show off the fine mechanics of their electro-pneumatic instruments.

The youtube clip of this machine is fascinating (and I was pleased to note the machine had not played the piece at 240 bpm!!).

For comparison's sake, our youtube clip of Fast Blue Village is here:

So what do you think? Does a machine do Elena's composition justice? What is music anyway? Is it music if it's performed by a machine? Created by a machine? This topic has proven to be so huge, it's as if I've opened Pandora's box. Too much to think about in just one post. But please leave your comments if you have thoughts on this subject.