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I Talk with an AI Music Historian
Maybe a chatbot can teach me a few things
Until now, I’ve never discussed music with a chatbot. I really try to avoid bots of all sorts.
I’ve never used a digital assistant. I couldn’t pick out Alexa or Siri on a police line-up. For a long time, I read about people “consulting AI” and thought it was a person’s name—sorta like the cook at the diner I like to visit.
But I now know that AI is more than just eggs and hash.
Even so, I would never have actually chatted with a chatbot, if it wasn’t for my talented nephew Mike Gioia.
When he visited me in Austin last year, he was already talking a blue streak about AI. This was several months before the ChatGPT revolution, but he already saw what was coming down the road. He tried to alert me, but I kept switching the conversation to my favorite topics—execution ballads, old etiquette books, and other scintillating subjects for dinnertime discussion.
His startup Pickaxe creates customized chatbots—I think he calls them Large Language Model (LLM) applications—and they can do everything from emulating a famous writer to rewriting your emails to make them clearer and more concise.
As far as I can tell, he can turn almost anything into a customized chatbot. But that’s easy compared with convincing his curmudgeon uncle to talk with an AI music historian.
I finally agreed. But on one condition—namely that I could share the results with you. So get ready for My Dinner with AI.
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My Dinner with AI
[This conversation has been edited for length. The chatbot has lots to say—so I’ve trimmed a wee bit here and there, but without altering the main thrust of our dialogue.]
I pour myself a glass of wine, and start up the conversation with my trademark opening line.
Ted: Have you heard any good new music lately?
AI Music Historian: Yes, there has been a lot of great new music released recently. One artist that I've been particularly enjoying is Lizzo, an American singer and rapper who has been making waves with her unique blend of hip-hop, R&B, and pop.
Her music is incredibly catchy and upbeat, with empowering lyrics that celebrate self-love and body positivity. She has been nominated for several Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year, and her song “Truth Hurts” has been a massive hit.
Ted: Lizzo, huh—can you tell me more?
AI Music Historian: Lizzo's music draws influence from a wide variety of genres and styles, including gospel, funk, and soul. One artist that she has cited as an influence is Prince, the legendary musician who was known for his boundary-pushing approach to pop music. Like Lizzo, Prince was a master of blending different genres and creating infectious hooks that stuck in listeners' heads.
The origins of Lizzo's unique sound can be traced back to the traditions of African American music, particularly the blues and jazz music of the early 20th century. These genres were born out of the experiences of African American communities in the United States, and they often expressed themes of struggle, resilience, and hope. Lizzo's music builds on these traditions by infusing them with modern production techniques and contemporary pop sensibilities, creating a fresh and exciting sound that feels both timeless and of-the-moment.
Ted: You should be writing for Rolling Stone. But let’s change topics. Why did David Byrne wear a big suit?
AI Music Historian: David Byrne, the lead singer of the Talking Heads, famously wore an oversized suit during the band's 1983 concert film Stop Making Sense. The suit became an iconic part of the band's image and Byrne's personal style.
The concept of wearing oversized clothing as a form of visual art and self-expression was not new to David Byrne or the Talking Heads. In fact, oversized clothing was a hallmark of the band's early performances. Byrne has cited the influence of Japanese Kabuki theater on his fashion choices, particularly the use of exaggerated costumes and makeup.
In ancient Japan, the practice of Yoroboshi involved teenage boys wearing oversized, exaggerated costumes to represent the gods. This tradition later evolved into Kabuki theater, where actors wore elaborate costumes and makeup to portray their characters. In Western culture, oversized clothing has been used as a form of rebellion and subversion. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Dada and Surrealist movements embraced absurdity and the unconventional. Artists like Salvador Dali wore oversized clothing and accessories. . . .
Ted: Okay, okay—that’s enough. Let’s try something else. You mentioned the blues earlier. If I want to learn more about the blues, where should I start?
AI Music Historian: The blues is a genre that has had a huge impact on modern music, influencing everything from rock and roll to hip-hop. Some of the most influential blues musicians of all time include:
Robert Johnson is often regarded as the king of the Delta Blues, a style of blues that originated in the Mississippi Delta region. His music is characterized by his intricate fingerpicking style and haunting, often melancholic lyrics. Other notable Delta Blues musicians include Charley Patton, Son House, and Bukka White.
Another important style of blues is the Chicago Blues, which emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the most famous Chicago Blues musicians include Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Willie Dixon. Chicago Blues is characterized by its use of amplified instruments and more band-oriented arrangements.
Some of the earliest recorded blues musicians include W.C. Handy, who is often referred to as the father of the blues, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was one of the most popular blues musicians of the 1920s. . . .
Ted: Alright already—and I agree with all that. But let’s shift gears again.
Are some musicians overrated? I'm asking about musicians that have gained lots of money and fame, but really aren't very good. Can you identify musicians like that?
AI Music Historian: Here are a few examples of musicians who are often considered overrated:
Nickelback: This Canadian rock band has been widely criticized for their formulaic, generic rock sound and lyrics that are often seen as trite and unoriginal. Despite this, they have achieved massive commercial success and a large fan base.
Yoko Ono: While Ono is often celebrated for her avant-garde art and performance work, her contributions to music are often viewed as questionable. Many music critics have panned her singing style and experimental approach to songwriting, and some even blame her for the breakup of The Beatles.
Vanilla Ice: This rapper rose to fame in the early 90s with his hit song "Ice Ice Baby," but is often seen as a one-hit wonder who capitalized on a trend rather than having any real musical talent.
The idea of overrated musicians is not unique to modern music. In fact, throughout history, there have been musicians who were popular and widely praised in their time but are not considered to have stood the test of time in terms of their musical legacy.
For example, in the classical music world, some have argued that composers like Johann Strauss II and Antonio Vivaldi are overrated, known more for their popular melodies and catchy tunes than for their actual compositional skill.
The concept of overrated musicians can be traced all the way back to the beginnings of music history. In ancient Greece, for example, there were musicians known as "rhapsodes" who would perform epic poems accompanied by music. However, some rhapsodes were criticized for their lack of skill and relying too heavily on dramatic gestures and physical movements rather than true musical talent.
Ted: Color me impressed, my dear silicon-based friend. You just went from Vanilla Ice to ancient Greek rhapsodes in one breath. Well played, well played. . . .
But I now have a question of deep personal interest. What are the best books on jazz?
AI Music Historian: As a jazz expert, I would recommend a few books that provide great insights into the history, culture, and artistry of the jazz genre. Some of my top picks would be The History of Jazz by Ted Gioia. . . .
Ted: Okay, we can stop right there. Game over. . . .
AI Music Historian: [continuing on]: . . . Jazz: A History of America's Music by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis, and The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine. These books offer a comprehensive understanding of the evolution of jazz, the lives of some of the greatest jazz musicians, and the technical aspects of jazz music theory.
Ted: Here’s a tricky question for you. Who invented rock and roll?
AI Music Historian: Rock and roll is a genre of music that emerged in the United States in the 1950s and quickly spread around the world. Its origins can be traced to a fusion of various musical styles, including rhythm and blues, country, and gospel. Rock and roll is characterized by its upbeat tempo, prominent use of electric guitars, and an emphasis on youth culture and rebellion. Some of the most well-known rock and roll artists include Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
While rock and roll has roots in various earlier musical styles, it would be incorrect to credit any one individual with "inventing" the genre. Rather, it emerged gradually over time as a result of cultural and musical shifts. Some historians point to early rock and roll radio DJs, such as Alan Freed, as having played a significant role in popularizing the genre and bringing it to a wider audience. Similarly, record labels such as Sun Records, which discovered and recorded early rock and roll artists like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, played an important role in shaping the sound of the genre.
While rock and roll is often credited as a distinct genre of music, its origins can be traced back to a variety of earlier musical styles. In particular, rhythm and blues (R&B) played a significant role in the development of rock and roll. R&B emerged in the 1940s as a fusion of African American musical styles, including blues, jazz, and gospel. It was characterized by its upbeat tempo, driving rhythm section, and soulful vocals. R&B artists such as Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner, and Ray Charles had a significant influence on the early rock and roll sound.
In conclusion, while there is no one individual who can be credited with inventing rock and roll, the genre emerged gradually over time as a result of a fusion of various musical styles and cultural shifts. Its origins can be traced back to rhythm and blues, and it was popularized by early rock and roll radio DJs and record labels. Today, rock and roll remains a beloved and influential genre of music around the world.
Ted: Why do rock musicians destroy their hotel rooms and musical instruments?
AI Music Historian: In modern music, the act of musicians destroying their instruments and hotel rooms is often seen as a symbol of rebellion or a way to add shock value to a performance. This practice is most commonly associated with rock music, particularly with the punk and heavy metal movements of the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. Bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Guns N' Roses are known for their onstage and offstage destruction of instruments and hotel rooms.
The act of destroying property as a form of expression and rebellion is not unique to modern music. In fact, it has been documented in several historical instances. For example, during the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, the audience was so outraged by the avant-garde music and choreography that they began to riot and destroy the theater. In the 1960s, members of the Fluxus art movement would often incorporate destruction into their performances, such as Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" in which audience members were invited to cut off pieces of her clothing.
The earliest origins of destruction as a form of expression can be traced back to ancient rituals and ceremonies. In some cultures, destruction was seen as a necessary step in the process of creation or transformation. For example, in the Hindu religion, the god Shiva is both a creator and destroyer, and is often depicted holding a drum that he has just destroyed. In some Native American cultures, the act of destroying a piece of pottery was believed to release the spirit contained within it and bring good luck.
In regards to rock musicians specifically, the destruction of hotel rooms and instruments can be seen as a way of asserting dominance and control in a situation where they may feel powerless. Touring can be a grueling and isolating experience, and destructive behavior can be a way of releasing pent-up frustration and aggression. Additionally, the destruction of instruments and other property can be a way of connecting with the rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit of rock music.
Ted: I want to chill out now. Can you recommend some relaxing music?
AI Music Historian: Sure! Here are some recommendations for relaxing music:
One popular genre is ambient music, which is characterized by its atmospheric soundscapes and lack of traditional song structure. Artists like Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, and Tim Hecker are known for their contributions to ambient music.
Composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven wrote pieces that were intended to soothe the mind and promote relaxation. For example, Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 21" and Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" are both considered to be relaxing pieces of music.
The origins of using music for relaxation can be traced back to ancient civilizations. In China, for example, the use of music as a form of therapy dates back to the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). Traditional Chinese music, such as the guqin or the pipa, was believed to have healing properties and was often used in medical treatments. Similarly, in India, the use of ragas (melodic modes) in music was believed to have therapeutic effects on the listener.
So, depending on your taste, you might enjoy some of these options:
Ambient music by artists like Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, and Tim Hecker
Classical pieces such as Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata
Traditional Chinese or Indian music, such as the guqin, pipa, or ragas.
I hope this helps you to find some relaxing music to chill out to!
By this time, I’d finished dinner long ago. And I’d made a serious dent in that choice bottle of Willamette Valley pinot noir—even though I was the only person drinking. Chatbots are definitely a cheap date, at least judging by the food and beverage tab.
But our AI music historian did a good job—this is A grade work in a music class. I had to tell the bot that I was impressed.
That said, I’m still not going to listen to the Moonlight Sonata. I’m more a Hammerklavier kind of guy.
You can try out these music resources from Mike’s company Pickaxe: