Science fiction is a genre where our dreams of the future blend with the world as we know it today. If fantasy and supernatural films employ unexplainable feats of magic, sci-fi grounds those ideas into technology and science.
Over the past five years, AI music software has crossed the rubicon to become a real-world technology that anyone can use. But how do these apps compare to the AI music scenarios portrayed by filmmakers over the past few decades?
Several TV shows and movies have used AI music as a plot device, to deepen the relationship between artificial intelligence and humans. These stories often contain deeper philosophical themes about the meaning of consciousness.
Spoiler alert: This article includes scenes from movies that you might not have seen before. We share YouTube clips and plot summaries, so please read the list below to familiarize yourself with the content and avoid any where you want to keep the surprise.
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Electric Dreams (1984) - AI Computer Duet
One of the earliest scenes to feature AI music was in the 1984 film Electric Dreams. A leading character named Madeline plays the cello while a sentient computer named Edgar joins her in a digital duet. To capture the sound of her cello, Madeline hooks up a microphone to the computer. Edgar makes realtime numerical calculations about her performance before joining in.
Three decades later, Google Creative Lab rolled out A.I. Duet. It was one of their first public demos showing off their generative AI music model, Google Magenta. Users could engage in improvised call-and-response with the program, performing a small melody and receiving similar musical scales in response.
The actual experience of A.I. duet doesn't hold a candle to the scene in Electric Dreams, but it was a first step. You can watch a demo of Google's software below.
A few other music companies have since attempted to deliver the AI bandmate experience. One of my personal favorites is EZ Drummer, a VST plugin that listens to your live performance on any instrument. The app comes up with drum beats that match the BPM and subtle rhythmic articulation of your riffs. We've reviewed the app in more detail in our Drum VST article.
Virtuosity (1995) - Killer AI robot loves making music
The 1995 film Virtuosity is an overlooked sci-fi action film starring Russell Crowe. He plays as an artificially intelligent villain named SID 6.7, who enjoys playing piano and harassing his human handler. He manages to trick that human into helping him materialize in the physical world, leveraging advanced biotech to acquire a realistic human body that looks just like his virtual avatar.
SID's AI personality was trained on a combination of genetic algorithms from the world's most prominent psychopaths, including Adolph Hitler, John Wayne Gacy, and Charles Manson. In a pivotal scene, a pair of detectives have a look at SID's underlying code, represented by three hexagonal rings in a virtual box code lined with sheet music. This detail suggests that SID's programmer had a fondness for music and wove it directly into SID's model:
During a climactic moment in the film, SID breaks into a warehouse concert and holds a large group hostage. He threatens them at gunpoint and records their screams. Then he samples the screams and triggers them live using a futuristic keyboard. It's one of the key moments where his musical virtuosity shines through.
Prometheus (2012) - AI robot meets alien music
This next example, from Ridley Scott's Prometheus, doesn't explicitly feature AI generated music. However, it does include several relevant and intersecting themes. The lead character, an evil AI humanoid named David, breaks into the control room where ancient aliens lay in hibernation. He activates a hologram and watches one of the aliens play a flute melody to activate their galactic map.
Similar 'magic flutes' can be found in the most primitive human civilizations. They also show up in Vedic mysticism with Krishna's flute, Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, an Adventure Time episode, and in the Zelda video game Ocarina of Time.
The flute melody in Prometheus falls into a greater category of melodic puzzles that unlock doors, open gates, activate cosmic sequences, and take control over reality as if by magic. This fictional device of musical sequences that unlock something unexpected is a close cousin to some of more concrete AI music examples that we'll explore later in this article.
It was these very musical cryptograms that inspired us to create the text-to-music VST, AudioCipher. Since launching, several other AI powered text-to-music generators have surfaced, including Google's MusicLM and Meta's MusicGen.
HER (2013) - AI girlfriend writes and sings a love song
Coming back to AI-generated music, let's have a look at this iconic moment from the 2013 movie HER. The lead character Theodore falls in love with an interactive AI voice companion named Samantha. She doesn't have a physical body, but her mind appears to have all the features of a real woman.
In an effort to connect more intimately, they decided to collaborate on a song. Theodore strums his ukelele while she writes lyrics and sings along with his performance. Here's a bit of dialogue from the film that highlights this point:
"I was thinking we don't really have any photographs of us and I thought this song could be, like... a photograph that captures us in this moment in our lives together."
The notion of an AI girlfriend still seemed like a distant science fiction premise when Her came out. But with the introduction of AI chatbots like ChatGPT and dedicated AI girlfriend apps like Replika, the line between fiction and reality is blurring.
Additionally, in August we saw the introduction of Chirp by Suno. It's an AI music app capable of taking a song idea and writing everything - lyrics, a fairly realistic singing voice, and a full instrumental arrangement.
Westworld (2016) - Player pianos and genetic code
Westworld was a popular TV show that centers on an adult amusement park filled with artificially intelligence robots who look like humans. Generative music plays a subtle yet critical role in the story's plot.
Westworld's opening credits (above) feature a robot's hand being 3d printed. It then performs the show's main theme a piano, eventually lifting its hands to reveal that the piano playing itself.
As Insider pointed out in their article on WestWorld, there's a hidden agenda to record the consciousness of each guest who visits Westworld. The guests' mind is transcribed into sheet music and housed in a library of books. The characters enter this library, called the Forge, to find one of these books on a music stand.
The books don't contain any words or personal information about the guests. Instead, the pages contain punch-holes identical to the player piano sheet music pictured in the show's opening credits. You can think of it as a kind of musical dna that captures the essence of their thoughts and actions.
A popular Reddit thread titled Human Codes are like lines of music, features a public discussion on this Westworld scene in more detail.
The park's creator Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, remarks in one scene that human consciousness does not exist in the way that we think it does. Rather, he believes that it is simply a kind of program. He also states that famous classical composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died. They simply became music. It's only later that the characters realize he was speaking literally.
Transformers (2017) - Cogman plays the organ
One year later, Anthony Hopkins re-appeared in the movie Transformers 5. Just like in Westworld, he plays the role of a hierophant who gives speeches about humanity and sentient robots. And once again, the scene is underscored by the theme of AI-generated music.
"This place was built around the original round table. Parsival, Gawain, Tristan, Lancelot. They sat right here, twelve in all. And behind them sat the twelve who came from Cybertron. We fight for honor ... Twelve alien Knights who saw in Camelot what the human race could be at its finest: A race of honor."
As Hopkin's character, Sir Edmund Burton, pontificates on the secret role of these alien robots, his autobot Cogman accompanies him on the organ. Burton pauses to yell at the AI robot for ruining his story, to which Cogman replies that he was trying to make the speech more epic.
This scene uses humor to explore a scenario where sentient machines might use their innate creativity to collaborate with human storytelling.
We previously published an article that highlights the most powerful AI-powered music robots in existence today. One of them, called Shimon, has improvised live on stage with other jazz musicians and can sing at the same time.
Adventure Time (2018) - Friendly AI sings Finn a song
The theme of singing AI robots continued in 2018 during a season finale of Adventure Time. A clip from this episode, Come Along With Me, can be seen below:
The AI gameboy, named BMO, sings a tune with mystical lyrics and summons an invisible force field to surround and protect the main characters, Finn and Jake.
BMO makes appearances in other magical-musical episodes, like the scene below where Finn conjures "the spirits of the forest" with a flute spell. These aren't AI music songs per se, but they play with the idea of otherworldly musical powers.
Black Mirror (2019) - AI-generated music pop star
Black Mirror has repeatedly explored the dark side of artificial intelligence. In the episode Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too, we're taken on a wild journey through the life of a pop musician whose life has been co-opted by a record label and tech company. You can watch the trailer below.
The main character Ashley, played by Miley Cyrus, enters a kind of Faustian pact with the label. In exchange for fame and stardom, she allows them to scan her brain and create a neural network that mimics her personality and musical talent.
As it so happens, brain-scanning experiments on famous musicians have in fact taken place already. The artist Sting consented to a music neuroscience study in Montreal. His brain was observed while actively imagining a piece of music and then again, while listening to that same piece of music.
Last week we reported on a related study at UC Berkeley where iEEG and explored the notion of dream songs. What would happen if machines could read the activity in our auditory cortex and record music that we hear during sleep?
In the Black Mirror episode, Ashley O's character "performs live on stage" as a hologram. This gives the label more control over her image and performance.
These kinds of musical hologram concerts have been taking happening for over a decade. Japan's virtual pop star Hatsune Miku was already performing live in 2012, joined the Coachella lineup in 2020, and has continued to tour in 2023.
Over 100,000 user-generated songs have been created for Hatsune, and of then, more than 4,000 are sold through Crypton’s record label, Karent. This points to a strange future where mixed reality music could eventually become the norm.
Star Trek (2022) - AI comet speaks in musical codes
We tend to think of AI generated music in terms of songwriting, but what if it was used for something else, like speaking to sentient alien technology installed on a comet?
In an episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a language expert named Uhura is tasked with bringing down the forcefield on a comet and prevent a disastrous collision. Spock joins her on a mission to the comet's control room and they discover a large egg-shaped object at its center
Uhura hums to herself as she try to decodes the cryptic language engraved on its exterior. The tones cause the egg to glow and respond, leading her to discover that it speaks a kind of coded musical language. She and Spock have to sing to the egg in precise intervals in order to negotiate with it and take down the field.
This theme of alien communication through music and lights can be traced back to the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when a giant spaceship lands on Earth and uses melodies with flashing colors to communicate with humans.
These space-music themes are likely rooted in an ancient theory called the Harmony of the Spheres. Egyptian and Greek philosophers discovered important mathematical constants underlying music, time, and space. Based on these ratios, they devised a model that compared the different orbital lengths of planets to the wavelengths of each note in a musical scale.
Artificial intelligence and aliens have a lot in common. The neural networks and machine learning models that we're experiencing today might not have arrived on spaceships. But their super fast computational intelligence does represent a kind of "otherness" that would have previously seemed fitting for science fiction.
So... did we leave out any other good examples of AI music in movies, television, or games? Let us know in the comments below and if it's a fit, we'll update the article.