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In Survival Of The Funkiest, Bad Music Dies First


Human evolution is all about survival of the fittest. Over thousands of generations, the weak have been weeded out, and the strong have survived. But how would that kind of natural selection work in other settings - like, say, music? Well, one biologist decided to find out. He designed a website where listeners can rate collections of notes according to their musicality. The nice sounds survive, and other users listen to them. But the ugly sounds die off.

The site is called DarwinTunes, and its mission is survival of the funkiest. Bob MacCallum is a biologist at Imperial College in London, and the mastermind behind DarwinTunes. And he joins us from the BBC Studios in London. Bob, Welcome.

BOB MACCALLUM: Hi, thank you.

GREENE: So let's start off by having you tell us what, exactly, you're going for here. I mean, if we imagine evolution creating, you know, a more and more perfect human being - I mean, what sort of song are you trying to create through this process?

MACCALLUM: Really, the question we're asking is, how strong is the creative role of the listener? What happens when we throw away the composer; we throw away the marketing and the peer pressure? And we were really, pleasantly surprised to see well the music has evolved.

GREENE: I want to hear some of the evolution. We're going to play a little bit of how the song has been changing over time, so to speak.


MACCALLUM: OK. So this is how the population of loops started. The sounds are really, just very crude combinations of sine waves and...


MACCALLUM: Oh, that sounds a bit better. But the first one, I would've thrown out immediately.


MACCALLUM: Now here, we have rhythm quite well-developed; and there is major harmony - major chord harmony.


MACCALLUM: Now, I've got some bass and some nice, rich timbres developing.


MACCALLUM: Now, there is actually a kick drum that has emerged - or evolved completely, spontaneously in the bass there.

GREENE: Yeah, you know, it really is beginning to sound like music.

I want to get a sense for - if I'm one of your subjects - what, exactly, you're having me do. I mean, you give us sort of two choices, and then I would tell you which one I like more?

MACCALLUM: We give you a constant stream of music; these loops are four measures long, and they're played twice. So that gives you about 15 seconds to decide how you feel about them. And you can go on the Web, and you provide your rating, between 1 and 5 - or between "I can't stand it" to "I love it."

GREENE: It's so funny - I listened to the product that you've created so far and, you know, it's not something that you hear a lot of on the radio. But, you know, it's there. I mean, I think of this song "Firefly," by Owl City, which has become pretty popular on the radio, and it's not that far off from what you have created so far. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The name of the Owl City song is "Fireflies."]


GREENE: Am I crazy, or does that sound a little bit like what you've got going on?


MACCALLUM: It's - so there are a lot of similarities there. What's happening in most music that you listen to - on the radio, or in a club - is, things build up gradually. And what happens in DarwinTunes is, you're always hearing and selecting the finished product.

GREENE: So you do want humans involved.

MACCALLUM: Yeah. Yeah, humans are much better at putting together notes and sounds than computers. But it's surprising how well the completely blind, random approach of the computer still works. I'm pretty thrilled at the quality of the music.

GREENE: Bob MacCallum is the inventor of the DarwinTunes music evolution project, and he was speaking to us from the BBC Studios in London. Bob, best of luck with the project, and thanks so much.

MACCALLUM: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
We misidentified the song "Fireflies" as "Firefly."