Johann Sebastian Bach: How to Get the Most Out of Google’s A.I. Doodle

Create your own Bach-like chorales.

Google celebrated the life of composer Johann Sebastian Bach on Thursday, with its first-ever A.I.-powered homepage doodle. The creation, released on Bach’s birthday, enables users to try their hand at composing their own melodies before the system creates an accompanying harmony in the composer’s style to make it sound more tuneful. The doodle includes some hidden secrets that can make your tunes sound even more groundbreaking.

It’s a fitting tribute to the German composer, born in 1685 and widely regarded as one of history’s great musical minds. Bach’s chorales have a specific pattern of four voices, with a structure that makes them ideal for demonstrating Google’s talents with artificial intelligence — talents that have also enabled robots to take phone conversations and help video game players complete the game.

Although Bach only saw a few of his melodies published during his life, the 19th-century “Bach revival” brought his work to the forefront and today thousands of his works are in circulation. The “Illiac Suite,” a project in the 1950s to use a computer for music composition, also used Bach’s chorales as its starting point.

Johann Sebastian Bach: How to Use Google’s A.I. Doodle

Composing your own tune is simple. Just press on the empty sheet to place a note where requested. The trash can button on the bottom will discard your song, while the play button plays it without any processing. Once you’ve composed your tune, you can press “Harmonize” to hear it come to life! Once finished, you can save the result as a MIDI file or share it via social media using the buttons to the side.

Here are some top secret tips on how to get the most out of the doodle:

  • The star button on the left reveals a new dial on the control panel that changes the key of your music.
  • Press the figures at the top to reveal facts about Bach’s life.
  • Press the sticky note with a sheep to hear a “Bachified” version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
  • Press the star-covered sticky to hear a new version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
  • Press the amplifier on the right to activate a rocking ‘80s mode with synthesizers!
  • While in ‘80s mode, press the sticky note with a hand gesture to hear Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” the horror movie classic, played out on synth.
The '80s Google Doodle in action.
The '80s Google Doodle in action.

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Story Behind the Doodle

Thursday’s doodle was created in partnership with the Google Magenta and PAIR teams. It uses a machine learning model, where Google showed a system 306 chorale harmonizations from Bach and asked it to create a new one. The model, known as Coconet, can also be used for composing new melodies from scratch.

PAIR used a system called TensorFlow.js to run the resultant creation inside the user’s web browser instead of using a series of servers as with normal machine learning setups. Google moves the processing onto its servers when it detects the device is not fast enough for the doodle, using a chip called a Tensor Processing Unit to help it run faster. It’s also the first time that a doodle has used one of these TPUs, previously limited to offerings like mail and photos.

It’s not the first time A.I. has been used to write music. Music collaborative Skygge released a pop album made in collaboration with machines in December 2017. Similarly, a Celtic folk music project in London, “folk-rnn,” produced a series of tunes in June 2017 from 23,000 transcriptions. The resultant works, surprisingly tuneful, were played in St. Dunstan’s church. Its creators were keen to stress, however, that the goal was to help musicians instead of replacing them.

“In this concert, we were interested in exploring how useful this is to creating music,” Bob Sturm, lecturer in digital media at Queen Mary, University of London, told Inverse. “We don’t want to replace people, we want to augment one’s creative explorations.”

With Thursday’s doodle, visitors to the world’s largest search engine can augment their creativity with a major historical figure.