“Ten seconds!” Her assistant yelled to her from across backstage. She gulped louder than she was expecting
“This is the first time I’ve felt nervous in a long while” she thought to herself, before stepping out onto the stage. In that instant, the crowd bellowed and she could no longer her the sound of her own thoughts. With her guitar in hand and microphone on stage, she did what she was famous for and put on the best show her fans had ever seen. The only person she could focus on in the crowd was a skinny fellow in the front row. His large glasses and gently combed hair stood him out from the rest of the crowd. He looked like he didn’t belong at a crazy music concert, yet he was easily the most excited to see Riley on stage. She recognized him instantly, it was her best friend Brett standing exactly where she thought he would be.
Before planning her trip home, Riley made arrangements to see old family and friends while she was there, and Brett was no exception. The two had been attached at the hip since they met in elementary school. Riley’s career as a musician and performer was the only thing to get in the way of their friendship, but tonight it had brought them together again, and she knew it would be that way. Brett had always shared her passion for music and the craving for musical melodies and instrumental harmony. They would always share their vast collections with each other, dwelling into some niche genre neither had discovered before, expanding their love for the art and the feeling in their songs. They had always been a little different however.
Riley was born with incredible talent. She could sing, dance, play instruments, and perform shows like a deity glowing upon the stage. Not only could she perform, but her songs connected to the listener on a deep emotional level, and they were simply catchy as could be. Brett was not nearly as lucky. His body didn’t contain a single musical bone in it. He had the brilliant mind to understand all the music theory, the drive to be able to perform and create his own, but he always just fell short. Besides a few basic chords on guitar that Riley had shown him, Brett couldn’t play music, let alone sing, play and dance all at the same time. It was for that reason that Brett had always admired Riley the way he did, but this time was going to be a little different for him, and boy was he excited for it.
Around noon the day after Riley’s concert, a familiar 2011 Ford Escape made its way up the Roger’s long winding driveway. The car screeched to a stop, and Riley was already waiting for him on her front porch with her parents, who waved as soon as they saw him. Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” leaked through his windows; it was one of Brett’s favorites from his childhood, and hearing it again filled Riley with nostalgic bliss. While singing along to the tune, Riley hopped into the passenger seat and the two drove off.
They were instantly enveloped in a conversation as they shared everything and anything that happened with each other in the few years since they’ve last seen. Riley almost missed the wrong turn Brett was about to make, but caught him just in time.
“Brett your house was back to the left, where are we going?” he was quick to respond.
“Yeah, I forgot to mention before you came. There’s something I want to show you at my office.” Brett works for a company called ZamZung, an enormous technological monopoly that manufactures everything; furniture, computers, cars, and even spacecraft parts. Brett works as a technician for some of the advanced products ZamZung has been designing. He had always been a nut for machinery and gadgets. What he lacked in musical ability he made up for in his intelligence. Riley knew whatever Brett was about to show her was going to be breathtaking.
After a brief car ride, the duo arrived at the large ominous complex that loomed over the rest of the town. Brett pulled out his identification to get through security, and parked inside a dark parking garage deep within the facility. Once inside, he led her through a series of hallways, he was almost running with excitement. Finally, they came to a door; larger, heavier, and seemingly more important than the rest they’ve been through. Brett scanned another ID card from his pocket, and the two went in.
The room was smaller than Riley had predicted. It was filled with spare parts and pieces lying about, and a large computer sat in the middle of the room, taking up a large percentage of Brett’s office space. It had four screens and four chairs facing them, all spaced evenly at 90 degrees. The machine itself was beautiful itself in design, simple and sleek yet it seemed to have lots of buttons and features. Above each screen the word Melody was engraved in a metal frame. After giving Riley a minute to take it in, Brett began to explain.
“This here is what my team of researchers have been working on. It’s an AI, a computer we developed that makes music.”
“What do you mean it makes music, like an instrument?” Riley asked, looking around to see where the noise is created. There were plenty of speakers, but no strings, keys, tubes, or anything to create a sound.
“Yeah it’s kind of like an instrument. The computer programs we’re running on here have basically every instrument known to man on it. But she’s so much more. Not only can she play every instrument, she’s able to write songs, and great songs too!” Brett exclaimed excitedly. He started powering it on, eager to show her all of Melody’s features. Riley was still confused. The computer powered on, playing a little jingle as the screen began to light up.
“If it is a machine how is it able to write songs, and how on earth could those songs be any good?” she asked, a look of disapproving confusion sprawled across her face. She could feel where this was going and she was not happy about it.
“Well, let me show you.” Brett booted up the program running on the computer in front of them. “Melody here is very intelligent you see, even for a basic computer. She has access to a database of every recorded song known to man, all with different features labeled to each one, features like the tempo, the genre, what instruments are in use, the key the song is in, the emotion it portrays in humans, every way we can describe it. That way when we tell her we want a slow song; she will give us one. Or she can produce a song on her own and she will be able to describe it as slow. She even knows how popular each song is, so she knows what sounds good to humans and what sounds not so good.”
“You said she produces songs on her own?” Riley seemed interested.
“Yes, she can, and she does. If we want a new song, we can have her create one, choosing parameters by herself to follow, and voila! Or we can even customize the settings for the song for her, designing it to sound however we can imagine. We need so many distinct little rules for her to follow, because that is what computers excel at. Music is difficult, at the same time it has no rules at all, but it can also have thousands of restrictions. That is why the process was tricky, and we needed a lot of fine tuning. But please try her out!”
Riley took Brett’s spot in the chair, and looked over all of the controls. She hit “New Project” and let Melody take care of all the controls. Riley was curious as to what this machine could really do. After a minute, a little bell chimed and the song was ready.
“Ooh a swing jazz song, this should be interesting. As you can see the song doesn’t have a title yet, or any lyrics. But we can add those later. Hit play and let’s see what it sounds like” Brett pointed at the screen to where a little triangle had appeared. Riley clicked the play button, and the music filled the room. It started slow; a simple tune played on a trumpet. The drums kicked in, followed by a piano, then suddenly an entire band started erupting. The audio quality was excellent, and the instruments sounded like they were being played by humans. There was one instrument in there Riley couldn’t identify however.
“What’s that instrument being played, the one that almost sounds like a bird?”
“That’s just a whistle. The only instrument Melody struggles with is the human voice. All the syllables and pronunciation with singing is a little more difficult, and it is impossible to make it sound any good. Which is part of why I wanted to bring you here, Riley. Not only are you my best friend and one of the biggest names in music, but Melody cannot sing in any of her songs.” The two continued to listen to Melody’s newest song, which lasted them about 5 minutes. By the time the song was nearing its end, Riley had a few stray tears in her eyes.
Her mind raced at a million miles an hour. What was she to think of this? Never before had anything like this even been contemplated, but Melody sat right in front of her eyes, and the song she heard was clear as day. She looked back to the screen and found the “New Project” button again. This time she changed all the parameters, creating a seemingly impossible song. The song was to be upbeat, yet sad. It was to be simple, yet technical and complex. Riley did her best to try to stump the machine however she could, and when she was satisfied, she clicked “Create Track”. After a brief moment, Melody dinged and the song was ready for her.
Melody had done it. The song fit all of the improbable qualifications and still managed to be an entertaining piece to listen to. Riley started becoming even more emotional. Both songs sounded so intense and incredible. Riley caught herself becoming enchanted by the melodies of the music.
“No!” she yelled. “I hate it!” Riley shocked herself, for she never used the word hate in any meaningful manner. But she really did hate what Melody was. “I don’t quite understand it, but the music that computer is creating is good. I hate it because there’s no way a machine could create music that connects to our human emotions,” she complained. She wasn’t so sure of that as she said it. She continued listening, and the music seemed to sway catch her again in its mesmerizing aura. The music was powerful and the melody was breathtaking, all of it was more than Riley was prepared for. Brett could see her becoming upset and tried to intervene.
“What’s the big problem Ry? You know my team and I have worked so long on Melody here; can’t you see how amazing this is, and what it means for the music industry?”
“Of course I see what this means for the music industry!” Riley yelled back at him. “This is going to put so many hard-working musicians out of their careers! How is anybody…how am I going to compete with something like this?”
“Well we wanted you to be our voice for Melody, if there’s anybody that would make a great vocal representation for her it’s you. That has been the plan from the very beginning.” Brett began to get upset as well. Riley was the only person in the world whose opinion mattered to him. It was breaking his heart to hear her rejections.
“Well it’s not happening Brett! I can’t stand for a machine like this. Music is not meant to be manufactured, and you’re a scam artist if you claim the music has real human emotion in it.”
It was finally enough for Brett to take. Fighting the cracks in his voice and the soreness in his throat, he yelled for her to leave, and had her driven back to her parent’s house.
It was a rough evening for both Riley and Brett, each kept to themselves that night, thinking through the events that had occurred. Brett was mortified. He was incredibly pleased with the machine he had built, and was certain Riley would be in love with it. She was the one he built it for after all. Brett had always admired, and had always been jealous of Riley and her talents. This was his way of showing her his own way of making music. This was his way of working with her again. In Brett’s mind, Melody and Riley would be the unstoppable musical force. He could only imagine the music they would be able to create together. But what was the point if Riley hated it so?
The machine truly haunted Riley. It was simply not possible for a computer to create anything emotional; Riley repeated this thought to herself in her head. The songs Melody had played earlier were absolutely beautiful, and they had the emotion that frightens her. Will robots take her job from her too? What is to become of the music industry when this machine becomes public? Or would Brett and his team at ZamZung keep it a secret? The more Riley thought about it the more she became sick to her stomach. She took some Advil for her pain, and sat down in her home studio. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Riley didn’t want to play anything. Instead, she decided to turn in for the night and sleep.
Riley woke up the next morning refreshed, and relieved. While preparing for her day, she thought back to everything that happened the day before. Melody still disturbed her, but she felt bad for Brett. He was extremely excited to show her his creation, and she reacted rather harshly. She felt bad thinking about hurting his feelings. He was her best friend after all, and she knew he only had good intentions. Suddenly she was struck with an idea, she reached for her phone and called Brett as quickly as she could.
“Hello?” the groggy voice on the other end answered.
“Brett! Hey I’m so sorry about yesterday. My initial reaction was strong, and I apologize if your feelings were hurt. But before you say anything, I have an idea.”
About a month later, to the surprise of all of her fans, Riley retired from her music career. Instead, she now co-owns the world’s newest and fastest growing record label with her best friend Brett. Together the two seek out and hire the world’s most deserving artists. Instead of using Melody to begin music creation, Brett destroyed her. He trashed every part, blueprint and data for her, and turned his team of researchers into the company that now runs the music industry. Melody records, named in memory of the machine Brett had spent so much time on.
He had spent a great deal of time thinking about the things Riley said, and he felt she was right. It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the artists fighting every day to try and make it big. Together in their record label, Brett and Riley extend to the furthest reaches of human civilization to try and find the most deserving artists to have their artwork heard.
Before retiring from her musical career, Riley crafted one final album to appropriately wrap up her legacy. It featured ten of her best songs yet, culminated from her expansive career. It also featured two extra songs to conclude the album, and those songs were the two that Melody had written. She had decided to call them “What Would Have Been” and “The Melody”.