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One of the most amazing things about (Western tonal) music is how much variety has tumbled out of a few basic materials. Twelve pitches in four triads in two main modes, maybe ten basic rhythms and a half dozen common meters and 20 instruments — shake well, and out pours Danny Boy and Mozart’s Lacrimosa and So What and Uptown Funk and the Nokia Tune and Sacred Harp 457 and madrigals and national anthems and this and this and god help us Happy Birthday. Millions and millions and millions of unique pieces created by repeatedly dipping a pan into the same stream, then picking through the nuggets.

What distinguishes one genre from another, or one composer or band from another, is the choices made among those nuggets. Handle harmony and rhythm and timbre in one way and you’re Bach, another and you’re Brahms, another and you’re nobody. Same with pop music. The reason you can tell the Stones from Coldplay is largely about the different approaches they take to the elements of music.

Scientists at SONY CSL Research Lab fed huge amounts of data from Beatles songs — choices made in harmony, melody, instrumentation, etc — into an algorithm that then composed a “typical” Beatles song. Uh…enjoy?

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It’s a little uncanny in that slightly queasy way, but I’ve got to admit — the essence is absolutely there.

So what is it that’s so bang-on Beatles-y?

There’s that rhythmic flow that starts at 0:05 (quarters in the drums, dotted quarter/eighth in the bass, eighth note strum in the rhythm guitar), the falsetto background vocals, the George Martin tubular bells, trippy background voices, all Beatles favorites. All good stuff. But it’s the harmony that our robot overlord has gotten (if I may say so, Your Excellency) exactly right.

[Be advised that the following includes theoryspeak. If that isn’t your thing, just listen at the times provided. You’ll get the idea.]

The drifty ahhhhh at the very beginning makes a slippery diminished triad. Which way is up, where is home? It doesn’t much help when the full harmony comes in (0:05): First there’s a triad that isn’t a triad (B C# F#), then an F# major triad, then A minor. It’s still hard to know where home is because no key contains both F# major and A minor chords. Then suddenly, boom, we’re in the key of B minor at 0:12, though the progression that follows is not at all typical.

We modulate to A minor (0:39), then to G major (0:47). A and G are close to B and to each other on the keyboard, but they are on different planets harmonically. So we have not only crossed into three different keys in under a minute, but three wildly unrelated keys, and gracefully at that.

Starting at 0:47 we get a progression that is all Beatle: G-A7-C-G, or I – V7/V – IV – I. Just listen to 0:47-1:07 and try to think of any other band. Then keep going a few seconds for the very cool jump back to B minor at 1:09.

“Down ON THE ground” (0:39- ) might be the most Beatlish spot in the whole thing. “ON” is a non-chord tone called an appoggiatura — a leap to a note that’s not in the chord, then a step in the opposite direction to resolve, something in a lot of Beatles songs — and it’s over a descending chromatic scale in wavery guitar, another fingerprint of theirs.

So if you wonder what made The Beatles The Beatles and everyone else everyone else — it’s mostly about the harmony. Sure, they wrote some four-chord pop songs. But the songs that really left a mark include harmonic adventures that no one else even approached. And even if you don’t know a thing about theory, you can hear it and feel it.

If you are fuming about the idea of a computer performing a credible facsimile of the human creative process, take heart. It’s easier to imitate than to create an original piece of genius. No robot has written the equivalent of “Eleanor Rigby” or “Because.”


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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.