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CMU fellow's online tool prods songwriters short on inspiration

| Monday, Jan. 24, 2011

The next time a stumped songwriter has a hot riff and no lyrics, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher and moonlighting musician hopes 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 create his website:

"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 inside-out to help write songs," Settles said.

His department's pet project is NELL, for Never-Ending Language Learning, a computer system that is teaching itself how to read by trolling through websites and tracking the way words are used.

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

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."

But like all songwriters -- Settles has written 150 to 200 tunes -- he encounters writer's block, which is why he developed LyriCloud and Titular.

Typing a word into LyriCloud 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 "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 songs -- it aims to inspire the writer, and the head of one songwriters group thinks it's a great idea, if not exactly new.

"I think it's really cool that technology can get into the songwriter's head after a while," said Barton Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. His organization, which has 140 chapters -- including one in the Pittsburgh area -- provides songwriting instruction and feedback, both from professional reviewers and other members who meet monthly to play their new songs for one another.

There are other programs, Herbison said, with rhyming dictionaries that can detect a writer's word patterns and even suggest lines of lyrics.

"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," Herbison said.

Settles is more concerned about jump-starting creativity and keeping things fun.

That appeals to songwriter Ron "Hookstown" Brown, 53, a jeweler from Heidelberg who helps coordinate the Pittsburgh chapter of the songwriters association.

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

"He's absolutely right. When you're short of inspiration, if you get something like this feeding you ideas, it gives you a jumping-off point," Brown said. "Writer's block is kind of your creativity going into a 'reset' mode. This gets it moving again."

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