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Darwintunes dot org – Music, Evolution, Finches… Perfection?

Two scientists from Imperial College London are testing a theory that natural selection not only has a role in the organic world – animals, plants, viruses, Darwin’s finches – but also in cultural artifacts – words, songs, images, ideas. Their website is http://www.darwintunes.org .

Dr Bob MacCallum (nicknamed Uncool Bob) is a bioinformaticist in the Laboratory of Immunogenomics at Imperial College London developing genomic research tools for the insect disease vector community.

Prof Armand Leroi is Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College London. He studies the growth and ageing of a particular worm, (caenorhabditis elegans).

They write that “the underlying mechanisms [of cultural evolution] are poorly understood. For example, how important is human creative input compared to audience selection? Is progress smooth and continuous or step-like? We set up DarwinTunes as a test-bed for the evolution of music, the oldest and most widespread form of culture”

Their paper “The evolution of music through public choice has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US). The methodology behind their study is here. The abstract which is publicly available says:

Music evolves as composers, performers, and consumers favor some musical variants over others. To investigate the role of consumer selection, we constructed a Darwinian music engine consisting of a population of short audio loops that sexually reproduce and mutate. This population evolved for 2,513 generations under the selective influence of 6,931 consumers who rated the loops’ aesthetic qualities. We found that the loops quickly evolved into music attributable, in part, to the evolution of aesthetically pleasing chords and rhythms. Later, however, evolution slowed. Applying the Price equation, a general description of evolutionary processes, we found that this stasis was mostly attributable to a decrease in the fidelity of transmission. Our experiment shows how cultural dynamics can be explained in terms of competing evolutionary forces.


The Telegraph, interpreting their work, suggests that they are on the way to creating “the perfect pop song.” The BBC asks “Is this the end of the composer?“Each to his own. I reckon if they get on a couple of buses (73 + 30) from Imperial SW7 to the Vortex in N16 they can start to savour the unpredictable for its own sake, and gleefully watch their algorithm (described on page 7 of this) collapse in a heap every time Liam Noble starts a solo. 

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