There is a scene from the 2019 film "Yesterday" where protagonist Jack is overcome with joy at seeing a former Beatle member alive and well in a seaside cottage.
Music history is replete with such "what ifs."
What if The Beatles had never broken up? What if John Lennon was not gunned down in 1980? What if Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys had completed his magnum opus, "Smile", and did not suffer mental decline?
Needless to say, popular music would likely look and feel very different from what we experience today.
Yet the rise of artificial intelligence—specifically the creation of music and art with AI—has spurred some to dabble into the "what ifs" of musical history.
What Has AI Already Done?Besides writing lyrics for songs, AI can be used to replicate the voices of famous past singers once it has been "trained" with hundreds of hours of existing recordings.
For example, Freddie Mercury, the deceased lead singer for British rock band Queen, is singing renditions of Michael Jackson's Thriller and Ed Sheeran's Perfect on YouTube—to the keen ear, the inflections and vocalisations are carbon copies of the originals.
On social media apps like TikTok, AI-created music is often used to provide background to user videos.
Meanwhile, in the classical space, AI has been used to create entirely new, complicated works for composers that have long passed away.
In February 2019, a performance of a completed version of Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) "Unfinished Symphony" was presented by Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei at London's Cadogan Hall.
In 2021, AI experts and musicologists worked together to create Ludwig van Beethoven's (1770-1827) 10th symphony from a few very rough sketches—the composer wrote nine complete symphonies before passing away.
Ahmed Elgammal, founder of the Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Rutgers University, developed the AI to create Beethoven's 10th.
He says the purpose of the process was to showcase how AI could assist composers and musical historians.
"AI now has this element of creativity for it to be an amazing tool at the disposal of human creators, to do projects that are very hard for humans," he tells The Epoch Times, likening it to a photographer using a camera or creative software.
"AI is just the new camera; instead of capturing light on a canvas, it is capturing data and rendering it in a different way," he said.
Elgammal concedes that his AI-generated 10th symphony did receive some criticism and that it did not live up to the "expectations of what Beethoven would do in his 10th symphony; it sounded more like his mid-life [period]—his sixth or seventh symphony."
How Far Should It Go?The emergence of ChatGPT in recent times, a widely accessible AI-powered tool that can engage the public in all sorts of conversations, has spurred questions over the role of AI in society, compelling U.S. senators to investigate its implications.
Key questions posed by the chatbot include what impact AI will have on employment, whether the information provided by AI Chatbots can be trusted, and broader, existential questions like whether AI will surpass or supersede humans (or achieve "singularity").
A similar debate occurred in 1996 when scientists successfully cloned a female sheep, Dolly, leading to questions on whether the cloning of humans was next.
In the creative space, Elgammal reveals AI technology is already mature enough to push the boundaries and create Beethoven's 11th, 12th, or even 13th symphonies.
Across other genres, say popular music, AI could potentially create "new" Beatles albums and follow the natural progression of the band if it had stayed together through the 70s, 80s, or 90s.
"Basically, we trained the AI to generate art by sending it images from the last 500 years of Western art, but we framed it so that it has to innovate," Elgammal said. "When you show it to people, they cannot tell whether [the art] was created by humans or machine, and it was very novel—not copying."
"The same can be done for music."
But Elgammal says the key question is: "Why?"
"There are fundamental differences between what we do and what AI can do. As humans, we are the ones living in the real world, capable of consciousness, understand what we do, and have something to say," he said.
"AI will follow the instructions you give it. It will never have this conscious experience to give us something from itself that is meaningful."
He says regulation and concerns around AI's proliferation are valid and that humans must always be in control, but noted a commercial appeal for AI's proliferation exists.
AI Music Misses the Human Connection: ConductorOrchestral conductor Neil Flottmann, who has worked for the Queensland Ballet and Opera Australia, says AI-driven music will have a larger impact on commercial music than works created for artistic purposes.
"AI could be useful for people who write what I refer to as 'wallpaper music,' what used to be called 'Muzak' or advertising jingles—that sort of thing," he told The Epoch Times. "Contemporary popular music styles are pretty mechanical, and if you said to AI: 'Write a disco song.' It could probably come up with something vaguely credible."
"But in terms of creating a genuine human connection, that's something only human beings can do," he said.
Flottmann, now head of Creative Arts at West Moreton College, said film composers like Hans Zimmer and John Williams actually sit through the movies they are scoring and write based on their own reaction to what they are seeing.
Another example is the works of 19th-century Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, who had a particular focus on father figures in operas like La Traviata and Rigoletto.
Society Must Preserve Its Artistic Accomplishments, Not Abandon It: ProfessorMeanwhile, Associate Prof. Goetz Richter, violinist and chair of strings at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, says AI's proliferation poses deeper questions for society.
"I think we've lost sight [of the fact] that in the Western tradition, music needs to be interpreted [when performed]. There needs to be an interpretive consciousness from the performer and the listener as well," he told The Epoch Times.
"A lot of stuff is taken into account that is not in the music score; we need to consider what these notes on the page relate to in terms of their conception, for example, who was [the composer]? When did he live? These are all things that matter hugely," said Richter.
It is this ability that Western institutions and society should not abandon in favour of "some sonic sensuous, emotional experience" that AI will create, he warns.
Richter, who also has a background in philosophy, says the steady decline of music education has led to a weaker understanding of the importance of Western musical tradition.
"In the 19th and early 20th century, every second person could read music and had a piano," he said. "Now, hardly anyone can read music who isn't a musician."
"Imagine a world in which literature only exists for a majority of people who can't read."
The professor does see some resistance to a rapid expansion of AI-manufactured music, much like how filmgoers are rejecting the proliferation of CGI in movies (notably the Marvel films) and re-engaging with movies that feature actual stunts and acting work (Top Gun and John Wick).
"AI is showing us the limitations of our ways of objectifying the world," Richter says, adding that cultural leaders should continue promoting the Western musical tradition and not shy away from it.
"I feel very strongly we need to emphasise the uniqueness of it, the unique achievements of humanity in creating music, and making music on all sorts of levels," he said.
"Humanity is enormously creative, resilient, and resistant, and we need to believe in ourselves as creative beings and believe in our imagination."
Just imagine that.