Can Robots Play Music? You Bet They Can!

Where robots are extensively being used for space and underwater exploration for scientific, military, and commercial purposes, they are also being used to perform other tasks such as playing music and cooking. 

Just like cooking, robots are a reality now, robots that sing and compose their music do not belong to a utopia anymore. 

Over the past few years, many musicians have collaborated with scientists, engineers, and robot manufacturers to come up with machines that can play instruments, design their own music, and star in music videos. 

While most of these robots excel in producing jazz music, some of them also stray towards classical for some of their compositions. 

If we look at history, new genres of music have been prevalent in different timelines and cultures. 

It looks like robot music is becoming the next wave. 

This field has presented a very interesting amalgamation of robotics and creativity. 

The subject actually reveals how with the help of AI, deep learning, and semantics, robots can replicate human activities associated with creativity. 

Robots can play musical instruments and can even compose their own music using instruments like the Piano and Marimba. They use deep learning, AI, and Data Semantics.

Early Self-Playing Musical Instruments

Self-playing musical instruments were the first steps toward making machines that can play music without human intervention. 

The first self-playing automatic orchestrion was invented in 1805 by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. 

Keeping this self-playing instrument in mind, Beethoven composed Wellington’s Victory Symphony in 1813. 

After this, the world of self-playing musical instruments started booming. 

From self-playing violin and glockenspiel to pianos, musicians and engineers have created several mind-boggling masterpieces. 

The Player Piano and orchestrion are some examples of self-playing instruments. They contain pneumatic mechanisms that perform the actions using the music programmed on a perforated paper. 

Player Pianos

After its development in the 19th century, the Player Piano was mass-manufactured in the 19th and the 20th century. 

Unlike the robots being used nowadays to perform music, the Player Piano does not have a mind of its own. 

Rather, as mentioned, it plays music recorded on perforated paper, metallic rails, or on digital discs.

Contemplating the massive success it received, Player Pianos were manufactured for hotels and homes where they reproduced performances from distinguished musicians with the help of Player Piano rolls. 

Orchestrion

Orchestrion is another self-playing musical equipment that plays orchestra music. It uses a mechanism similar to the Player Piano. 

The music is already composed and noted down on pinned cylinder or a roll of perforated paper. 

This roll is then fed to the machine where it plays music mimicking an orchestra band. 

An Orchestrion mostly consists of pipes and percussion instruments. Some also come with a piano. 

There are several different types of Orchestrion. Some musicians and engineers also argue that the Player Piano is also a type of Orchestrion.

Robot Hand at KIMM

In 2020, the Korea Institute of Machinery & Materials designed the world’s strongest robotic hand that is able to perform several delicate tasks such as holding an egg and handling glasses with a liquid. 

In addition to these, the robot hand also has other skills such as playing the piano. 

Since it has fingers with joints similar to the human hand, it can move each finger separately using the motors installed. 

This allows the hand to play music by pressing the piano keys. 

However, for now, the robot hand can only play a few notes and is far from playing a Beethoven concerto. 

Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction. 

Toyota Violin-Playing Robot

In 2007, Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) unveiled a robot that was capable of playing violin as well as achieving vibrato. 

The humanoid has 17 joints in its hands and arms to achieve human-like dexterity while playing the instrument. 

According to the company, the high number of joints and motors installed increases the precision and accuracy of the tasks performed. 

Playing music is not all that this humanoid does. It also performs other domestic and caretaking tasks. 

Since robotics is a core business for the future, Toyota has allocated huge resources for the development of technologies that can support this advancement. 

The company has not specifically created any robots that are meant to play music, rather, has added music playing as a feature to most of its robots manufactured with the aim to assist humans with their daily tasks. 

Designing music-playing robots is not the goal the company wants to achieve, rather it is a way of showing how sophisticated technology produced by Toyota can be used. 

Nigel Stanford’s Automatica

Nigel Stanford is a music composer who gained fame after he used robots to come up with an incredibly creative music video starring music playing robots. 

The musician took Kuka Agilus KR10 robots on loan from the company and created a music video called “Automatics”.

The video was composed and shot in a garage where the Kuka robots are seen playing different musical instruments. 

They used the Robot Animator to create 3D animations of the way robots will act in the video. 

The translation of the animation as well as the coordinates of the movement was then translated and fed into the robot. 

The translation also included instructions for the musical instrument the robots were supposed to play. 

However, since these robots were not initially designed to play music, they cannot learn and compose music on their own. 

The Kuka robots used in Automatica were initially designed to provide factory automation services.

Can Robots Compose New Music?

Yes, there are robots that are capable of composing new music by using deep learning, AI, and data semantics. 

These robots are fed with all sorts of music from Beethoven to Lady Gaga as training data. 

Based on the dataset provided, robots draw on sources of inspiration to create new music. 

Since they are constantly keeping up with the new music being released, robots that can compose music on their own produce music considerably different than what humans produce. 

Shimon

Shimon, a robot designed by Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg and his Ph.D. student Richard Savery, is an example of a robot that can compose music on its own. 

Shimon is fed with around 20,000 rock songs and another 20,000 jazz songs to draw inspiration for its music compositions. 

The marimba-playing robot keeps up with the musical world and produces music that is a combination of different genres. 

The robot is given a starting point and it composes music based on that. After the starting point, whatever it creates is without human intervention. 

This has been made possible by combining deep learning with semantic knowledge which helps Shimon make thematic connections between things. 

Robot Bands

In addition to solo music playing robots, over the years, thanks to the advancement of robotics and the development of robots that can play music, several robot bands have emerged. 

One of the most interesting robot bands is the Compressorhead which was created by Berlin-based artist Frank Barnes. 

The band has six performers and all of them have been made using recycled parts. 

They play electric and acoustic instruments and are controlled using a MIDI sequencer. 

In addition to the Compressorhead, there are many other robot bands. These include:

  • Robotic Drum Kit
  • The One Love Machine Band
  • The Trons
  • Z-Machines

Final Thoughts

With robots taking over simple daily life tasks as well as the tasks that require being creative, many are concerned that this advancement will result in lost jobs. 

People believe that as tasks become automated, more and more humans will be replaced in their line of work. 

The same concerns are lurking over the music industry due to the rapid advancement in how robots can play and compose music without faltering. 

Nevertheless, as of now, robots are being designed to assist and work along with humans, not replace them. 

They are a way of helping humans improve their lifestyles with the help of technology. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can robots play musical instruments?

Yes, robots can play instruments like violin, marimba, and the piano.

Will robots replace singers?

Robots might replace singers in the future but for now, they cannot. 

Can AI create meaningful songs?

Yes, AI can come up with meaningful songs.

Can robots be creative?

Robots can be creative based on the training data provided to them.