Encounters with ChatGPT

ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is a chatbot which uses Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Programming to interact with the user in a remarkably conversational way. One of its most interesting features is its ability to remember the thread of your dialogue, using previous questions and answers to inform its next responses. It sources its answers from huge volumes of information on the internet.

It has, understandably, induced quite a storm amongst creatives (see this article by composer Thomas Hewitt Jones about the threat of AI to music), who fear not just their replacement by AI but also the potential for plagiarism, copyright and royalty issues, lack of regulation and much more, which Thomas explains in his article.

Others see it as a potentially chilling example of the “power of the robots” and a sign that AI is gradually replacing human beings and human ingenuity. (Remember the AI computer on the spaceship in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey which turned against the astronauts?).

Alicia Vikander in the film Ex Machina

In fact ChatGPT, by its own admission, is probably not going to do that – because it doesn’t exactly know everything. It’s a form of Artificial Intelligence that is trained (by human developers) to recognise patterns in vast areas of text harvested from the internet which is then trained, with human assistance, to deliver more useful or better dialogue. The answers you get may sound plausible and even authoritative, but they might well be entirely wrong – as OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, warns.

Because I am curious minded, and because I was interested in the slightly hysterical response, from some quarters, to ChatGPT, I decided to try it for myself.

It’s very simple to use, but it does, like most computer programmes, function on the GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) principle – so if you ask it vague, non-specific questions and requests, you are like to get vague, non-specific replies.

In an early encounter with ChatGPT, I asked it to write programme notes for a concert. To make it simpler, and so that I could assess the responses, I asked it to write a separate programme note for each piece in the programme. What quickly emerged was a very generic, bland text, with certain phrases and statements repeated in each instance (such as “this is one of the finest works in the piano repertoire, admired for its virtuosity”).

Another time, I asked it to write me a “short essay highlighting the key points of Schubert’s last three piano sonatas” and this is what it produced:

Schubert’s last three piano sonatas, composed between 1822 and 1828, are considered some of his most profound and challenging works for the instrument. They showcase his unique musical voice and mastery of form, harmony and texture. Some key features of these works are:

  1. Complex forms: Schubert employs unconventional structures in these sonatas, blending traditional classical forms with his own innovations, such as incorporating variations, multiple themes and unexpected modulations.
  2. Emotional expressiveness: Schubert’s last sonatas are known for their intense, melancholic and introspective character, reflecting his state of mind during the final years of his life. He achieves this through lyrical melodies, harmonic ambiguity, and the use of contrasting moods and tempos.
  3. Diversity of textures: Schubert experiments with a wide range of textures, from delicate and ethereal to powerful and dramatic, to create different emotional effects. He uses innovative techniques like cross-handed playing and rapid arpeggios to create rich and complex textures.
  4. Expansion of the piano’s capabilities: Schubert pushes the limits of the instrument, exploring new technical and sonic possibilities, and creating a large-scale, symphonic sound. He also incorporates elements of chamber music, such as dialogue between different voices, into his solo piano works.

In conclusion, Schubert’s last three piano sonatas are considered landmarks of the genre and demonstrate his unique musical vision and creativity. They are complex and emotionally charged works that challenge the performer and reward the listener with a rich and deeply moving musical experience.

It’s not a bad attempt. In fact, I think it would probably secure a decent pass in a GCSE exam. But a little deeper, and really this response reveals very little actual “depth”. If I was marking this essay, I would mark the candidate down for lack of actual examples from the music to underpin certain statements, and the whole text does come across as rather bland and superficial, with meaninglessly vague or clichéd descriptions of, for example, texture, and a distinct lack of question, argument, comparison or contextualisation – the sort of elements one would expect from an A-level or undergraduate essay.

However, what I do think this offers is a starting point from which to develop a far more detailed and involved essay – and for me this is probably how I would use ChatGPT.

I have also used it to generate marketing plans and social media posts for my publicity work. Like the programme notes exercise, the responses have been rather generic, with recurring phrases appearing regardless of the topic, but once again, I have found this a useful spark for my own creativity. I see ChatGPT as a tool, a kind of “office assistant”, if you will, but certainly not as a replacement or substitute for me

Finally, for a bit of fun, and because it was Schubert’s birthday the day I was playing with ChatGPT, I asked it to do the following:

“Rewrite this essay in the style of a poem by Heinrich Heine” – and it obliged with this fine piece of doggerel

Schubert’s final sonatas, so grand and divine,
Piano masterpieces of his final nine.
Complex forms, a blend of old and new,
Unconventional structures, for a pianist’s view.

Intense, melancholic, introspective, these works,
Reflecting his soul, so beautifully lurks.
Lyrical melodies, harmonious dreams,
Contrasting moods, and emotional streams.

Texture diverse, delicate to strong,
Creating emotional effects, in each and every song.
Innovative techniques, cross-handed play,
Arpeggios rapid, in musical array.

Piano’s capabilities, Schubert did push,
Exploring new sounds, so grand and lush.
Chamber music’s elements, in his solo sound,
Dialogue of voices, all beautifully wound.

Schubert’s final sonatas, a masterpiece of the art,
Complex and emotional, a beautiful start.
Challenging performer, rewarding the ear,
A rich experience, so deeply sincere.

In a later article, a friend of mine shares his own encounters with ChatGPT, with some intriguing results….

Further reading

In the Ear of the Beholder: Music composed by AI

This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

Make A Donation