2011-01-27 / Local & State

CMU Whiz Goes ‘Inside-Out’ To Help Songwriters

By Joe Mandak

PITTSBURGH (AP) – The next time a stumped songwriter has a hot riff and no lyrics, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher and moonlighting musician hopes that the confused composer will turn to the Internet for inspiration.

Burr Settles’ online tool, The Muse, randomly suggests song plot lines (“Write a song in the second person in which the main character is addressing the listener ...) and structures (verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus). But it can even suggest lyrics and song titles – features that grew directly out of his day job.

Settles, 32, is a postdoctoral fellow in CMU’s Machine Learning Department, which develops programs and algorithms that enable computers to learn or think. His research involves developing computers that can “read’’ by programming them to recognize how words relate to each other.

Settles, a pop guitarist and songwriter himself, fed the lyrics of nearly 140,000 songs into a computer and applied his research principles to them to create his musical Web site.

“I just realized that, some of the analytical tools that we use in natural language process in my research, you could sort of flip them insideout to help write songs,’’ Settles said.

The pet project of CMU’s Machine Learning Department is NELL, or Never-Ending Language Learning, a computer system that is teaching itself how to read by trolling through Internet sites and tracking the way words are used in various contexts.

For example, when a computer repeatedly sees the word “Pittsburgh’’ capitalized, it can be taught to recognize that it is likely a proper name. Seeing the word next to “mayor of’’ repeatedly suggests “Pittsburgh’’ is a municipality – as would the suffix “-burgh’’ and countless other contextual clues the computer is programmed to notice.

“They all clue you in to the fact that ‘Pittsburgh’ is referring to a city, even if you’ve never seen the word ‘Pittsburgh’ before,’’ Settles said.

Settles turned that research on its head to create The Muse’s two key features: LyriCloud and Titular, which spit out suggestions based on patterns that his computer discerned from the lyrics and titles from songs by artists ranging from Beyonce to Van Halen.

If research is Settles’ job, music is his passion. He’s a singer, guitarist and songwriter with the Delicious Pastries, an “unapologetic pop band borrowing from the Beatles and Beach Boys with more of a contemporary delivery.’’ (They’re loud and aggressive.)

But like all songwriters _ Settles has written 150 to 200 tunes – he gets writer’s block, which is why he created Lyri- Cloud and Titular.

Typing a word into Lyri- Cloud produces a “cloud’’ of related words. “Love’’ produced 26 options ranging from “made,’’ “forever,’’ and “ooh’’ to less obvious connections including “incarceration’’ and “doo-doo-doo-doo’’ – presumably, in case the writer has already used the phrase “yeah, yeah, yeah.’’

Titular is a random song title generator that churned out “I Shall Always Crush Your Warrior’’ and “The Altar of the Overdue Vendetta’’ in one recent test, along with “Airports Don’t Bleed.’’

Settles acknowledges that some suggestions are nonsensical. But the website isn’t meant to write the songs – it’s meant to inspire the writer, and the head of one songwriters’ group thinks it’s a great idea, if not exactly new.

Barton Herbison is executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, which has 140 chapters – including one in the Pittsburgh area – which provide songwriting instruction and feedback, both from professional reviewers and other members who meet monthly to play their new songs for one another.

“I’m not aware of any hit song in any genre that’s ever been written this way, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Songwriting has changed like society has changed. People co-write songs on Skype, for example,’’ Herbison said, referring to the Web-based, face-to-face communicator.

“I think it’s really cool that technology can get into the songwriter’s head after a while,’’ Herbison said, noting other programs exist that include rhyming dictionaries and which can detect a writer’s word patterns and even suggest entire lines of lyrics.

Settles is more concerned about jump-starting creativity and keeping things fun. How else to explain his previous band, The Pine Box Orchestra, a guitar, trumpet and cello trio that played a jazzswing version of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.’’

That humorous approach is one reason Pittsburgh songwriter Ron “Hookstown’’ Brown likes Settles’ approach. Brown, a 53-year-old jeweler from Heidelberg, helps coordinate the Pittsburgh NSAI chapter and has published six songs. (One tells of a girlfriend who moved out and took “Them Stanky Feets’’ with her: “Them stanky feets... Like rotten eggs with... toes! And I know it won’t be long ‘till I’m no longer alone. ‘Cause now that you’re gone I expect the dog will come home!’’)

Asked to try Settles’ program, Brown fell in love with it.

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