A new Dylan song, written using artificial intelligence and an old-time songwriter

This article records how two of us came to create a new Dylanesque song, with lyrics generated by artificial intelligence.  

A recording of the song can be found at the end of the article.

Part 1: by Bob Bjarke

Over recent years Artificial Intelligence (AI)  has become a bigger part of our lives, even if it’s not always obvious to all of us. From movie recommendations to autocorrect spelling assistants to traffic directions on mobile apps, AI has become a constant companion in many of our daily lives.

As a person interested in technology and creativity, I’m exploring AI’s potential as a creative partner asking the question, “Can AI be as useful to creative pursuits as it can be to navigating our cities or filtering spam from our email inboxes?”

One of the most accessible ways to experiment with AI is through text generation. There are many AI tools we can use to generate a high volume of text quickly and inexpensively, using free data sources found on the web. But before we ask AI to write, we need to teach it to read.

To do this, I used an AI software called GPT-2. AI scientists built GPT-2 by feeding it text found on 8 million web pages. Essentially GPT-2 learned to read by spending lots of time on the internet (like much of AI research and experimentation, this “education” raises lots of ethical concerns, but that’s the subject for another article), and is now able reliably to mimic human writing.

This software is also highly malleable. It can learn to mimic any additional text it reads, simply by studying a large quantity of data–and the bigger the sample size, the better the mimicry. 

This brings us to the catalog of Bob Dylan. Dylan’s catalog is an excellent dataset, including over 600 songs. His style is also notoriously unique, having been the recipient of innumerable accolades throughout his career, including the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The Dylan oeuvre is therefore excellent source material to help answer our question: can AI learn to be an inspiring creative partner?

In creating the AI songwriter I call Bob Dylain, GPT-2 generated thousands of lyrics for me, ranging from garbled nonsense to literal regurgitations of existing Dylan lyrics. Somewhere in between, AI composed lyrics that you might call Dylan-esque–exhibiting deft use of metaphor and social commentary often drawing from the experience of the American west.

Now, I’m not a Dylan scholar, but I am a fan. Sifting through these AI-generated lyrics at times felt like trudging through a dystopian nightmare, but at others it felt like flipping through an undiscovered Dylan notebook–watching new Dylan lyrics appear in front of me in real-time. 

These lyrics are not perfect. They often lack rhyme, and they haven’t grasped Dylan’s expert phrasing and structure. I’d never pretend that they achieve anything like the poetic genius Dylan has generated throughout his career. But they do begin a conversation about AI and human creative partnerships and they do give us a glimpse into the future of AI-assisted creativity.

Part 2: Tony Attwood

When I received Bob’s details of his work, I was struck by the notion that maybe I could have a go at setting music to one of these Dylan-esque lyrics.   It was a fascinating and challenging thought.

For many years I’ve been an amateur songwriter; in my early life when playing with bands I had a tiny level of success as a composer, but it was vanishingly small.  Since then I’ve just written songs as an escape from the real world, playing them to long-suffering friends and occasionally within folk clubs wherein the managers kindly lock the doors to stop the audience escaping when it’s my turn to play.

But I thought I’d be the first to have a chance at writing the music to Dylan inspired lyrics was overwhelming, and as soon as I got the transcript I sat down and… failed totally.

The lyrics I tried to write the music for were fascinating indeed, and yes I could write some music, but it was not only non-Dylan it was also truly awful.  In dismay, I gave up.

It took me weeks to go back to Bob Bjarke’s email and have a second go with a different set of lyrics.  This time the opening lines worked well, but I still got tangled up in knots later.  The lyrics are reprinted below.  I’ve not changed any to fit with the music – the music has to fit with the lyrics.   However the division of the lyrics into verses and a “middle 8” is mine.

This is very much a home, (not a studio) recording, and I want to stress I’m not suggesting that this is a Dylanesque song – it is a setting to music of the lyrics by an amateur songwriter.

And I’m not saying Bob would ever write music like this.  Rather when faced with these lyrics, this is what I came up with.  The lyrics are below.

I had a long talk with your aunt       
In the churchyard, in the alley
She told me all about your death
I lay in bed and talked to myself

But I didn’t know what to do
Three bodies lyin’ there was nothin’ I could do to stop it
Memory is like a rolling cloud
Where the ancient light never fades

I had a long talk with your uncle
In the county jail
He sat in a rocking chair
He talked about the golden age

When men, women, and children went free
He said the darkest hour was still ahead
When men, women, and children went free
I had a right to be saved by love, I had a right to be

I had a long talk with your grandmother
In the home of the living
She talked about the trials and the tribulations
She said you had a right to know

What she knew about disease
and about how it was to be killed
How many people died from it, and what was left? 
How many more would be left to rot?

   When you died, your body was buried in the rocks
   In the gutter like a boiled fish
   I never saw my heart begin to bleed
   I never saw my whole being disappear

I had a long talk with my brother
In the cold dark of night
He spoke of the great final struggle
When all is lost and all is made of stone 

You and me we had completeness
I gave you all of what you wanted I did it my way
You followed your own fancy I had a right to be 
Saved by love, I had a right to be

I enjoyed this little project enormously and having got the hang of this particular process (which included me giving myself the rule that I would not change the lyrics, no matter how obtuse, nor how difficult they were to set) I’d like to have another try.

If you find my music is nonsense, by all means have a go yourself, and then send it to me attached to an email – as ever it is Tony@schools.co.uk    I’ll be delighted to publish the results.

And as long as the daily audience of Untold Dylan doesn’t fall off the edge of the cliff as a result of this, I’ll have a go at another song shortly.

 

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8 Responses to A new Dylan song, written using artificial intelligence and an old-time songwriter

  1. Trev Gibb says:

    Thats really wonderful

  2. TonyAttwood says:

    Trev: in a world in which the most common comment on one’s writing is to call it a load of rubbish, your comment was utterly uplifting.

  3. Matthew says:

    Interesting. The lyrics read a little bit like a more meandering Dignity, but also have a surprising originality to them… unexpected, just like you would expect a new Dylan song would be. I like the music too though it doesn’t sound like something Dylan would come up with. Of course it’s hard to find much of an internal rhyming scheme which makes for a bit of a departure from Dylan both lyrically and musically. But I like it, it bears repeated listening. Well done!

  4. Filip says:

    Now, what pops up in my head is to pass the AI lyrics through AI translator and have it in Polish.
    And then – have the dylan.pl band arrange it and off we go!
    What an adventure…

  5. Filip says:

    And that’s exactly what I’ve just done, i.e. I passed it through the AI translator.
    It’s pretty good although gender-bending too (in Polish, verbs in the simple past tense adopt different suffixes depending on the gender of the subject).
    Besides, it’s amazing.

  6. I was delighted.
    I would buy this!
    However it came to be it is a wonderful lyric and ahuting tune.
    Well done!
    Micheal

  7. TonyAttwood says:

    Filip – what a brilliant idea. I look forward to hearing an example. Please write an article about it for Untold, and include a recording!

    Tony

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    That is really kind Michael. Thank you, it means a lot to me.

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