What does it sound like when a robot has the blues?
That’s the assignment for this week’s Disquiet Junto music project.
I created a song sung by a lonely robot seeking companionship. You can listen to it here:
My inspiration began by considering B.B. King’s classic blues song Woke Up This Morning, thinking how a robot might sing the blues. The first thing I did was rewrite the first verse lyrics to be more fitting for a robot:
I rebooted this morning, my wifi was down. Rebooted this morning, my network was down. I feel so bad, I am all alone.
I briefly went down the cheese-covered path of a heavily synthesized robotic voice rapping those lyrics to a 12-bar blues progression. You should be grateful I deleted that effort early on.
But that final phrase “I am all alone” stuck with me.
How might a lonely robot, disconnected from the network, try to communicate with other robots? By singing in ASCII code, of course! ASCII is the encoding for most computer text in Latin-based languages, with each letter represented by a number. For example, the letter A is 65, B is 66, etc. You are reading ASCII encoded text right now (for the purists, you’re actually reading UNICODE or UTF-8, but ASCII is a subset of both. I digress).
I took the ASCII code for the phrase “I am all alone.” along with its capitalized variants “I Am All Alone.” and “I AM ALL ALONE!” and used them as MIDI note numbers. MIDI is the most common way computers represent musical notes. In MIDI, the number 65 is F4, the note F in the 4th octave, which has a frequency of 349.23 Hz. The number 66 is F#4, 67 is G4, etc. I used the sequences of notes from those three ASCII phrases as the melody sung by the robot over and over throughout the song. I created chords by grouping together every 4 adjacent notes in the melody. There are no other pitched notes in the piece. Every note is based on those ASCII sequences. I also added a vaguely robotic percussion track and some occasional sound effects. The percussion and sound effects are the only parts of this piece that are not directly based on the phrase “I am all alone.”
So, the robot uses a MIDI representation of the ASCII encoding of “I am all alone” to sing that phrase over and over in melody and chords to any other robots that may be within hearing range. Since robots have big brains, they can listen really fast, so the robot sings fast thirty-second notes. Kind of like how bird song is fast because birds have big brains. Ummm, right… Of course, humans may be listening as well, so the robot occasionally speaks the phrase in English, in case human brains are too small to decode frequency to MIDI to ASCII to English 32 times per beat at 110 beats per minute.
You may be puzzled why this song does not sound sad. It doesn’t sound sad to you because you are not a robot (unless you’ve been lying every time you fill out a captcha form). If you are a robot, this song will sound very sad. To my human ears, it sounds more frantic than sad.
For a more technical answer, the song does not sound sad because the ASCII/MIDI sequence does not form any minor chords. Sad songs are usually comprised of minor chords. I am not a music theorist, so I have no idea what chords are in this tune. Some of the chords sound like when your cat sits on the piano and butt-plays a bunch of adjacent keys. In short, dissonance.
Given the self-imposed constraint of using only notes from that single phrase, this piece is surprisingly musical, and I enjoy listening to it. Of course, I am biased. I hope you enjoy it too.
DANGER WILL ROBINSON: Some of the lower-case ASCII characters are extremely high-pitched. If you are past a certain age, those notes may be at the limit of your perception. Your dog may or may not enjoy this piece.
The cover art is a piece of digital art I created in 2016 titled Lonely Robot. I modified it to a square format for this project.