Collaborating With An Autonomous Agent
To Generate Affective Music
FABIO MORREALE, Queen Mary University of London
ANTONELLA DE ANGELI, University of Trento
Multidisciplinary research has been recently investigating solutions to offer new experiences of music
making to musically untrained users. Our approach proposes to distribute the process of music making
between the user and an autonomous agent by encoding this collaboration in the emotional domain. In this
framework, users communicate the emotions they wish to express to Robin, the autonomous agent, which
interprets this information to generate music with matching affective flavour. Robin is taught a series of
basic compositional rules of tonal music, which are used to create original compositions in Western
classical-like music. Associations between alterations to musical factors and changes in the communicated
emotions are operationalised on the basis of recent outcomes emerged from research in the field of
research in the psychology of music. At each new bar, a number of stochastic processes determine the
values of seven musical factors, whose combinations best match the intended emotion. The ability of Robin
to validly communicate emotions was tested in an experimental study (N=33). Results indicated that
listeners correctly identified the intended emotions. Robin was employed for the purposes of two
interactive artworks, which are also discussed in the paper, showing the potential of the algorithm to be
employed in interactive installations.
Applied computing ~ Sound and music computing • Human computer interaction ~ Auditory
feedback • Interaction design ~ User interface design
Additional Key Words and Phrases: Algorithmic composition, music and emotions, musical metacreation,
Musical metacreation is a branch of computational creativity that investigates the
capability of an autonomous agent to generate creative musical output on its own
[Pasquier, Eigenfelt and Bown, 2012]. So far, researchers and practitioners working
in this area have been mainly focused on producing software that can (a) improvise
with performers playing traditional instruments, or (b) autonomously compose new
scores offline [Eigenfelt, Bown, Pasquier and Martin, 2013]. Our intuition is to
employ metacreative software as a support tool to ease music making, thus opening
this activity to musically untrained users. Creating musical experiences accessible to
anyone is a challenge that has been increasingly tackled by multidisciplinary
research in the last couple of decades [Machover, 1996]. In this paper we propose an
algorithmic composer that allows users to control some aspects of the composition in
Autonomous agents can be defined as algorithmic solutions to create new music
with limited or absent human supervision. Autonomous agents can directly map the
user input into musical and sonic features [Franinovic and Salter, 2013].
Alternatively, the input can be arbitrarily mapped into combinations of musical
parameters and acoustic events using some kind of representation conceived by the
artist. Being an arbitrary decision, the mapping is often unclear and many artists are
likely to specifically pursue this aspect to provide their users with ambiguous
experiences. For instance, Iamascope processes visual information describing the
current status of the installation and maps it into specific pitches [Fels and Mase,
1999]. Metaphone detects bio-data from the visitors and uses this information to
modulate the frequency and the amplitude of predefined tones [Šimbelis et al., 2014].
In both cases, the mapping between sensed input and musical output is unintelligible
to the listeners, who might fail to give a meaning to music and to understand how to
Our work has addressed this challenge through design solutions aimed at
increasing the transparency of input-output, so that users can intentionally
manipulate the melody they are creating. The idea was to reconsider the process of
interactive music making as a meaningful collaboration between the human and an
autonomous agent, structuring it as an interaction based on emotions, which are
available to everybody, intuitive and naturally connected with music [Morreale et al.,
2014]. As a consequence, a metacreative software had to be developed, able to
autonomously generate a musical composition and systematically convert user input,
described in terms of emotions, into musical rules, which are in turn used to direct
This paper presents a new type of generative system based on a certain type of
representation of emotions, which are used as an interactive metaphor to allow the
user to control the music. Specifically, the user communicates their intended
emotions to Robin, an algorithmic composer that interprets this information and
immediately reconfigures the composition, so that it mirrors the emotions conveyed
by the user [Morreale, Masu and De Angeli, 2013]. Associations between alterations
of musical parameters and changes in the communicated emotions were
operationalised following research in the psychology of music [Gabrielsson and
Lindström, 2010; Juslin and Sloboda, 2010]. Robin was manually fed a series of rules
that are used to generate original music played by virtual instruments. These rules
drive a number of stochastic processes that constantly update the values of seven
musical factors (i.e. tempo, mode, sound level, pitch register, pitch contour,
consonance, and repetitions), whose combinations best match the intended emotion.
This work falls under the domain of the recent research area of algorithmic
affective composers (i.e. autonomous systems that generate music with affective
flavour. This branch currently, counts only a handful of studies [Hoeberechts and
Shantz, 2009; Legaspi et al., 2007; Livingstone et al., 2010; Oliveira and Cardoso,
2010; Wallis et al., 2011], and it is characterised by a number of shortcomings largely
ascribable to the early stage of its development In particular, none of these systems
was systematically tested to validate its capability to communicate the intended
response in the listener. Also, the quality of the musical output still has large
The contribution of the present study is threefold. First, it presents a new
autonomous agent that creates original music by collaborating in real time with the
user employing emotions as a medium. Second, it proposes a methodology to evaluate
the capability of an algorithmic affective composer to communicate the intended
emotions and to test user liking. Third, it presents two interactive systems where the
collaboration between Robin and the user is employed to create music with specific
This paper is structured as follows. Section 2 reviews existing algorithmic
affective composers and the related theoretical foundations grounded in the
psychology of music and algorithmic composition. Section 3 introduces Robin,
detailing the architecture and the implementation. Section 4 describes the
experimental study aimed at testing Robin. Section 5 presents two interactive
applications of Robin: The Music Room and The TwitterRadio. The paper concludes
with reflections about the implications of this autonomous agent and discusses
possible future works.
The automatic generation of musical output with affective flavour is a
multidisciplinary subject that relates closely to the psychology of music and
algorithmic composition. While the former investigates the human perception to
music variations, eventually drawing a mapping between combinations of musical
parameters and perceived attributes, the latter studies the musicians’ capability of
composing musical scores and employs findings to automatically generate new music.
Psychology of music
Research in psychology of music has been long investigating the association between
variations of musical factors and changes in the emotional expression [Bresin and
Friberg, 2000; Bresin and Friberg, 2011; Fritz et al., 2009; Gabrielsson and
Lindström, 2010; Hevner, 1937; Meyer, 2008]. Two main approaches can be adopted
for measuring classifying emotions: the categorical and the dimensional approach.
The categorical approach postulates that all emotions can be derived from a finite
number of monopolar factors of universal basic affects [Ekman, 1992]. This approach
was adopted by several experimental studies; yet, a severe disagreement about the
number and the labels of categories is evidenced [Zentner and Eerola, 2010]. The
dimensional approach, on the other hand, discredits the assumption of independence,
postulating that emotions are systematically related to each other and can be
described using a limited number of dimensions. The most common dimensional
model was proposed by [Russell, 1980]. It describes emotions as a continuum along
two dimensions: valence, which refers to the pleasure vs. displeasure affective state,
and arousal, which refers to the arousal vs. sleep difference. Even though this model
is largely adopted in a wide range of research field, its limitations were acknowledged
by the author himself [Russell, 1980]. Among others shortcomings, he noted that the
affective states in which the two dimensions are convergent (i.e. positive valence and
high arousal, and negative valence and low arousal) occur more frequently than the
affective states in which they diverge [Russell, 1980].
In the psychology of music, both approaches have been widely employed [Juslin
and Sloboda, 2010], with a predominance of the dimensional approach [Ilie and
Thompson, 2006; Juslin and Sloboda, 2010; Schubert, 1999]. A general consensus
suggests that the most expressive parameters are tempo and mode, with a slight
predominance of tempo1 [Gagnon and Perez, 2003; Gundalach, 1935; Juslin, 1997;
Rigg, 1964]. Reporting these findings in the valence/arousal dimensions, tempo has a
major impact on arousal and a minor impact on valence, while mode only impacts on
valence (Figure 1) [Gagnon and Perez, 2003]. Specifically, fast tempo communicates
high arousal and, to a lesser extent, positive valence, while slow tempo communicates
low arousal and, to a lesser extent, negative valence. Mode influences valence only:
major mode generally communicates positive valence and minor mode generally
communicates negative valence [Gabrielsson and Lindström, 2010]. Interestingly,
music played with diverging conditions of mode and tempo (i.e. major mode and slow
tempo, or minor mode and fast tempo) seems to communicate similar, neutral levels
of valence [Webster and Weir, 2005]. Non-musicians, in particular, cannot easily
differentiate the valence in musical pieces where valence and arousal diverge
[Morreale et al., 2013].
1 In most cases, tempo describes the quantity of notes for the unity of time rather than simply measuring
BPMs. This measure is also known as note density. For the sake of simplicity, to the term tempo also refers
to note density in this paper.
Fig 1. The double effect of mode and tempo on valence and arousal.
In addition to tempo and mode, other musical factors have a clear influence on the
expressiveness of a composition. In particular, we wish to focus on sound level, pitch
contour, pitch register and dissonance. This subset of musical factors was selected on
the basis of their relevance for communicating emotions [Gabrielsson and Lindström,
2010] and their applicability to the architecture of Robin, which mainly operates on
structural factors (i.e. those related to the musical score itself), given the objective of
algorithmically generating new compositions. The emotional response related to
these musical factors is discussed below and summarised in Table I.
• Sound level. Sound level is a continuous variable that determines the volume
of the musical outcome – i.e. the velocity of individual notes. It is directly
proportional to the arousal communicated to the listener [Gabrielsson and
• Pitch contour. The emotional effect of ascending and descending melodic lines
has been widely discussed in literature [Zeiner-Henriksen, 2015], but a
general consensus on its relevance for emotional expression has not been
reached. However, a number of studies have suggested that ascending
melodies tend to be associated with positive emotions while descending
melodies are associated with negative emotions [Gabrielsson and Lindström,
• Pitch register. High pitch register is associated with positive emotions (but, at
times, also fear and anger). Low pitch register is mostly associated with
sadness [Gabrielsson and Lindström, 2010].
• Dissonance. [Fritz et al., 2009] suggested that consonance is universally
perceived as more positive than dissonance. Moreover, listeners’ culture and
musical training do not seem to influence the perception of consonance.
In addition to these factors, the psychological response of expectations is particularly
relevant to the emotional response to a musical piece. Related work suggests that the
emotional impact of expectation is remarkably complex [Huron, 2006]. In general,
listener expectations can be either fulfilled or frustrated. Fulfilment/frustration
affects the emotional response of the listener [Meyer, 2008]. According to this
perspective, resolution and repetitions suggest positive emotions, while lack of
resolution is indicative of negative emotions.
Table I. Mapping between musical structures and the emotional dimensions of valence and arousal
Positive (less influential)
Negative (less influential)
The algorithmic composition of original music is a creative process combining formal
compositional rules with randomness. This combination has been exploited to
compose music for centuries. Mozart’s Musicalisches Würfelspiel (‘Musical Dice
Game’) uses the randomness associated with dice to compose a minuet. Short sections
of music are assembled by rolling dice to form a composition with 1.3 × 1029 possible
combinations. Given these rules, the musicality of the resulting outcome relied on the
coherence of the pre-composed sections. Three of the 20th-century finest musicians,
John Cage, Iannis Xenakis and Lejaren Hiller, engaged with a number of
compositions that explored stochastic processes for composing music [Schwartz and
Godfrey, 1993]. In the final decades of the last century, the interest in exploiting
randomness in composition resurfaced, partly due to the improved power of
computational systems. Computers have been used to develop algorithms capable of
generating unpredictable complex structures that are correct from a phraseological
perspective [Cope, 2005; Jacob, 1996; Lewis, 1999].
The next three subsections review the most common approaches to algorithmic
composition: rule-based, learning-based, and evolutionary [Todd and Werner, 1999].
For a more complete review, refer to [Roads and Strawn, 1985; Miranda, 2001].
Finally, the last subsection discusses the algorithmic affective composers, an
encounter between studies in music perception and algorithmic composition.
2.2.1 Rule-Based Approach
The rule-based approach proposes to manually or statistically define a set of
compositional rules that provide the system with information on how to compose
music autonomously [Boenn, Brain and De Vos, 2008; Henz, Lauer and
Zimmermann, 1996]. These rules drive a number of stochastic processes that
generates an original music composition. They can be very basic, as in the previously
mentioned musical dice games by Mozart, but they can also embody complex
harmonisation rules [Todd and Werner, 1999]. The quality of the music generated
with this approach substantially depends on the quality of human intervention, i.e.
the number of taught rules [Steedman, 1984]. As a consequence, meta-composers
(those who design the algorithm) need to have a deep knowledge of music theory and
a clear sense of their compositional goals.
2.2.2 Learning-Based Approach
The learning-based approach proposes to reduce the reliance on human skills.
Systems adopting this approach are trained with existing musical excerpts and
automatically learn compositional rules [Hiller and Isaacson, 1957]. Following this
approach, [Simon, Morris and Basu, 2008] developed MySong, a system that
automatically selects chord accompaniments given a vocal track. This study was
followed by Songsmith2, a commercial application that empowers users to compose an
entire song starting from the vocal track sung by the user. After roughly predicting
the notes in the vocal melody, the system selects the sequence of chords that best fits
the singing. A music database of 300 excerpts trained a Hidden Markov Model
(HMM) that feeds the system with basic statistics related to chord progressions.
Another system exploiting the learning-based approach is The Continuator [Pachet,
2003], ideated to provide realistic interaction with human players. The algorithm
exploits Markov models to react to musical input, and can learn and generate any
style of music While this approach reduces the human involvement in the
algorithmic composition process, the quality of music is heavily dependent on the
training set. Also, this approach is not suitable when there is a need to have direct
control on individual musical factors.
2.2.3 Evolutionary Approach
Evolutionary algorithms are stochastic optimisation techniques loosely based upon
the process of evolution by natural selection. Evolutionary algorithms have been used
to generate original musical compositions [Mitchell, 1996; Miranda, 2007]. In most
cases, evolutionary compositions attempt to evolve music pieces in the style of a
particular composer or genre [Miranda, 2007]. In this approach, a population of
short, monophonic motifs evolves during the composition. Some other systems also
evolve pitch and/or rhythm sequences [Miranda, 2007]. In general, the evolutionary
approach is particularly effective in producing unpredictable, and at times chaotic,
outputs. However, the music might sound unnatural and experimental if compared
with rule-based systems, which are generally superior by virtue of the context-
sensitive nature of tonal music [Nierhaus, 2009]. Furthermore, the evolutionary
approach lacks structure in its reasoning and cannot simulate human composers’
ability to develop subtle solutions to solve compositional problems such as
harmonisation [Wiggins et al., 1998].
2.2.4 Algorithmic Affective Compositions
Over the last few years, a handful of studies have attempted to combine theory on
music and emotion with algorithmic composition in order to automatically compose
expressive music. One of the most interesting examples is AMEE, a patented rule-
based algorithm focused on generating adaptive soundtracks [Hoeberechts and
Shantz, 2009]. The algorithm generates monophonic piano melodies that can be
influenced in real time by adjusting the values of ten emotions with a web applet.
The categorical approach was also adopted by [Legaspi et al., 2007], who employed an
evolutionary approach to composition. Both systems propose interesting methods to
adaptive composition, but they employ a categorical approach to emotion
classification that fails to address the complexity of the human emotional space
The dimensional approach can limit this problem as explained in [Livingstone et
al., 2010], who follows a rule-based approach that manually collated a set of rules of
2 Microsoft Corporation. Microsoft Research Songsmith, 2009.
music theory. The system maps emotions, described along the dimensions of valence
and arousal, into structural and performative features. The user interaction is
limited to a GUI, where the user can select the desired values of valence and arousal.
A similar interface is proposed by [Wallis et al., 2011] and by [Oliveira and Cardoso,
2010] to allow users to interact with the composition. These systems have
contributed to defining a novel research topic concerning algorithmic composition of
tonal music, allowing users to alter its expressivity in real time. However, a number
of significant limitations reduce their practical applicability:
1. The actual capability of the algorithms to communicate correct emotions in the
listener has not been validated. The only attempt to determine the extent to which
the listener evaluation of valence and arousal in music corresponded to system
parameters was performed by [Wallis et al., 2011]. However, the limited number
of participants who took part in the study (11), combined with the lack of
discussion on the results, undermined the validity of the study.
2. By our estimation, the quality of the music generated by these systems seems to
be only acceptable only used for testing the possibilities of an autonomous agent to
compose expressive music, rather than being enjoyable by listeners on the basis of
its own merits. Again, a formal user study that can disprove this assertion is
missing from all of the reviewed literature.
3. In most cases, the actual interface consists of a simple applet that allows users to
select the intensity of discrete emotions, or values of valence and arousal.
This limited utilisation, combined with the low quality of the compositions, suggests
that these systems are primarily intended as pioneering explorations of a new
research field, rather than serving as fully functional systems to be used in
interactive contexts. To date, indeed, only [Oliveira and Cardoso, 2010] have
attempted to apply their algorithm to a simple interactive installation, but the
audience interaction merely consists in transforming pre-composed musical pieces
rather than creating music de novo.
ROBIN - DEVELOPING
Robin was designed to make the experience of musical creation accessible to all
users. The system generates a tonal composition in real time while the user interacts
with it through control strategies based on basic emotions, described in the valence
and arousal dimensions. To ensure consistency with user interaction, the system
continuously monitors input changes and adapts the music accordingly, by managing
seven musical factors (Section 2.1). As these factors need to be directly accessed and
manipulated, a rule-based approach to composition was adopted. This approach
allows the designer to manually code the compositional rules and therefore to have
full control on the musical factors of interest. As this approach largely relies on
human intervention (Section 2.2.1), the quality of the generated music depends on
the characteristics and the correctness of the taught rules. To this end, a professional
composer was continuously involved at design and testing stages.
Considering the target user population, a second requirement had to be met: the
generated music style had to be understandable even by musically untrained users.
For this reason, tonal music was adopted. As opposed to atonal and experimental
music, tonal compositions are indeed ubiquitously present in Western culture: even
those who lack musical training internalise the grammar of tonality as a result of
being exposed to it [Winner, 1982]. The process of score generation is grounded upon
a number of compositional rules of tonal music driving stochastic processes, which in
turn generate harmony, rhythm, and melody (Figure 2). The harmony module
determines the chord progression following a probabilistic approach. The selected
chord is combined with (i) a rhythmic pattern that is completed with pitches from the
scale thus generating the solo line; and (ii) an accompaniment line selector that
generates an accompaniment line. Finally, the system outputs a stream of MIDI
messages that are processed by a Digital Audio Workstation and transformed into
music. Robin is currently implemented in SuperCollider.
Fig 2. The architecture of Robin, the algorithmic affective composer.
Traditionally, harmony is examined on the basis of chord progressions and cadences.
Following previous works [Nierhaus, 2009; Steedman, 1984], the transition
probabilities between successive chords are defined as Markov processes. Chord
transition data can be collected by analysing existing music, surveying music theory,
or following personal aesthetic principles [Chai and Vercoe, 2001]. In our case, a
Markov process determines the harmonic progression as a continuous stream of
chords. The algorithm starts from a random key and then iteratively processes a
Markov matrix to compute the successive chords (Table II). The architecture of the
system supports nth order Markov chains. However, for the sake of simplicity, in the
current version of the system chords correlation does not depend on previous states of
Table II. Transition probability matrix among the degrees of the scale.
accompaniment solo line
rhythmic pattern selection
The 10 x 10 matrix contains the transition probabilities among the degrees of the
scale. The entries are the seven degrees of the scale as triads in root position, and
three degrees (II, IV, V) set in the VII chord. The transition probabilities are based
on the study of harmony presented by [Piston, 1941]. For each new bar, the system
analyses the transition matrix and selects the degree of the successive bar. The
probability for a degree to be selected is directly proportional to the transition value:
for instance, being VII the current degree of the scale, the I degree will be selected as
the successive chord in the 80% of cases on average, whereas the II7 degree will be
selected in the 20% of cases. In addition, in order to divide the composition into
phrases, every eight3 bars the system forces the harmonic progression to a cadence
(i.e. a conclusion of a phrase or a period). Finally, in order to to generate compositions
with more variability, Robin can switch between different keys performing V and IV
For each new bar, a new rhythmic pattern is selected; nearly all rhythm
combinations composed of whole, half, quarter, eight and sixteenth notes are
available. The same combinations of notes in triplets are also available. The rhythmic
pattern is computed in three steps. First, the time signature of the bar is chosen;
second, the values of all the notes played in the bar are selected; third, the selected
note values are placed in a particular order. Different time signatures and note
values and placement are influenced by two factors, complexity and density, as
1. Time signature. The complexity factor determines the time signature: in case of
simple rhythms the time signature is duple, triple, or quadruple. By contrast,
complex rhythms have irregular time signatures.
2. Notes values selection. The selection of the values of the notes is influenced by
both by complexity density. In case of simple rhythms, all the notes in the bar
have similar values. By contrast, complex rhythms permit notes with very
different values to be played in the same bar. In addition, density determines the
value of the longest note available: very dense rhythms have generally short
notes values, whereas low density rhythms are mostly composed of long note
3. Notes values placement. The complexity factor also determines the placement of
the notes values. In case of simple rhythms, notes of the same value are placed
one after another, whereas in complex rhythms notes with very different values
can be placed nearby.
Figure 3 illustrates a number of rhythmic patterns generated by Robin in 4/4 time
signature in the complexity/density dimensions. This technique results in a space of
possible solutions with a Gaussian distribution (grey area). Very complex rhythms
can happen only when combined with mid-density, and very high (low) density
necessarily correspond to very low (high) complexity.
3 Setting the length of a section to eight bars is an arbitrary choice made by the authors. Given the
architecture of the system, adopting a different unit or even using a different unit for each section are
Fig 3. The grey area represents the space of possible rhythmic solutions.
In order to generate the melody of the solo line, the rhythmic pattern is filled with
suitable pitches. This process happens in three steps:
1. The pitch selector receives the rhythmic pattern and the current chord (Figure
2. All the significant notes in the bar are filled with notes of the chord. The notes
regarded as significant are those whose duration is an eighth note, or longer,
or that are at the first or the last place in the sequence (Figure 4.b).
3. The remaining spaces are filled with notes of the scale. Starting from the
leftmost note, when Robin meets an empty space, it checks the note on the left
and it turns it into a higher or a lower pitch, depending on the value of the
pitch contour (Figure 4.c). The pseudo-code of the algorithm follows.
ALGORITHM 1. PITCH SELECTION
Input: The rhythmic pattern
Output: The rhythmic pattern filled with pitches
starting from the leftmost note of the bar
if (current note value > eight note) do
melody(current note) = random(note from the chord)
if (pitch contour == ascending) do
melody(current note) = melody(previous note).next note from the scale
melody(current note) = melody(previous note).previous note from the
until (number of notes left) > 0; !
The accompaniment line is selected at each new bar. A number of accompaniment
lines are available. The accompaniment lines essentially differ in the density of the
notes in the arpeggio. Each accompaniment line defines the rhythm of the
accompaniment, and the notes of the accompaniment are degrees of the chord.
Fig 4. Melody notes selection. a) The pitch selector receives the rhythmic pattern and the chord. b) The
relevant notes of the melody are filled with notes of the chord. c) The remaining spaces are filled with
notes of the scale to form a descending or ascending melody.
Definition of High-Level Musical Structures
As opposed to similar affective composers such as AMEE [Hoeberechts and Shantz,
2009], Robin does not allow the definition of high-level musical structures like
phrases and sections. Human composers often make wide use of high-level structures
such as phrasing and articulation, to create emotional peaks, or to develop changes in
the character of the composition. However, including such structures in a real-time
algorithmic composer is not a viable solution. In order to deal with such structures,
the system would need to know the evolution of the piece from the beginning.
However, we cannot predict the evolution in advance, as it is controlled by the user.
AMEE simulated high-level musical structures by introducing forced abortions in the
process of music generation [Hoeberechts and Shantz, 2009]. However, this solution
causes dramatic interruptions, thus reducing both musical coherence and the natural
evolution of the composition itself. To this end, the only high-level structural
elements manipulated by Robin are repetitions of short themes (which partially
simulate choruses and phrases) and cadences (which define phrases).
Operational Definition of Emotion
Seven musical factors are manipulated to infer changes in the communicated
emotions, defined in terms of valence and arousal. These factors are: tempo, mode,
sound level, pitch contour, pitch register, dissonance and expectations (Table I). This
section discusses the operationalization of the alteration of the emotional response of
• Tempo. Tempo is a continuous variable measured in BPM. Note density is also
manipulated by selecting rhythmic patterns and accompaniment lines with
appropriate density (Section 3.2).
• Mode. The change between modes is supported in the Harmony module, where
the chords transition probability matrix is populated with notes based on the
• Sound level. Sound level changes by manipulating the velocity of the MIDI.
• Pitch Contour. The direction of the melody is determined employing the
method described in Section 3.3.
• Pitch Register. The pitch register centre of the compositions generated by
Robin ranges from C2 (lowest valence) to C5 (highest valence).
• Dissonance. Dissonance is achieved by inserting a number of out-of-scale notes
in both melody and harmony.
• Expectations. Fulfilment of expectations is operationalised repeating themes
and recurring patterns that the listener quickly comes to recognise as
familiar. By contrast, frustration of expectations is operationalised avoiding
ROBIN - VALIDATING
This section reports an experimental study aimed at testing the capability of Robin to
communicate specific emotions to the listener. For the purposes of this experiment,
participants were asked to listen to a number of snippets generated by Robin in
different emotional conditions and to self-report the communicated levels of valence
and arousal. The experiment could be declared successful if participants correctly
identified the intended levels of valence and arousal.
The experimental design was a 2*2 within-subjects design with intended valence
(positive vs. negative) and intended arousal (high vs. low). The tested variables were
the reported valence and arousal. For each condition, we used Robin to generate five
different piano snippets (30 seconds long), for a total of 20 snippets4. A 3-second fade-
out effect was added at the end of each snippet. No other processing was made, nor
was any generated snippet discarded. Robin manipulated mode, tempo, sound level,
pitch contour, pitch register and expectations5 were manipulated in order to generate
music in the four emotional conditions. All the other musical parameters were left
constant and high-level structures were not considered at this time.
All factors, except for tempo, influence either valence or arousal. Tempo, on the other
hand, has a major effect on arousal, but it also influences valence (Table I). This
secondary effect is particularly evident for non-musicians [Morreale et al., 2013]. The
double influence of tempo was operationalised as follows:
• snippets with high arousal were twice as fast as snippets with low arousal;
• snippets with high valence were 8/7 times faster than the snippets with low
5 Control on dissonance was added to the architecture of the system at a latter stage so it was let out of the
experiment. Evaluating listener’s response to changes in dissonance is left to future work.
Table III shows the mapping between the six factors and the four conditions of
valence/arousal (+ + = positive valence / high arousal, + - = positive valence / low
arousal, - + = negative valence / high arousal, - - = negative valence / low arousal).
The hypotheses of the study are listed in Table IV.
Table III. The value of the six factors in the four different conditions of valence and arousal.
Table IV. The expected values of valence and arousal.
Positive valence – High Arousal
Positive valence – Low Arousal
Negative valence – High Arsoual
Negative valence – Low Arousal
Participants were recruited among students and staff of the University of Trento,
Italy. A total of 33 participants (11 F, average age 29) took part in the experiment.
Sessions ran in a silent room at the Department of Information Engineering and
Computer Science]. Participants sat in front of a monitor wearing AKG K550
headphones. Before the experiment, participants were given written instructions
about the task they had to perform. They were initially presented with four training
excerpts in order to become familiar with the interface and the task. Then, the
snippets were presented in a random order. In order to measure valence and arousal
separately, participants were asked to rate them on two semantic differential items,
from 1 (negative or relaxing) to 7 (positive or exciting). In addition, they were asked
to indicate, from 1 to 7, how much they liked each snippet (liking). To assign the
desired value of valence, arousal and liking they typed the numbers 1-7 on a
keyboard when prompted by the interface (e.g. “Please rate 1-7 arousal”). Between
each listening, the computer played a sequence of random notes arbitrarily selected
from a set of five pre-recorded 15-seconds snippets composed of random notes. Such
random sequences are necessary to mask the effects of previously played music
[Bharucha and Stoeckig, 1987].
A two-way within-subjects ANOVA was performed on reported valence, arousal and
liking ratings separately. In both cases, intended valence (positive and negative) and
arousal (high and low) were the within-subject factors. To disambiguate between the
intended valence and arousal (independent variables) and the tested valence and
arousal (dependant variables), we will refer to the first couple as intended and the
second couple as reported. We used a p level of .05 for all statistics, and we reported
all analyses that reach these levels. The average values of reported valence, arousal
and liking are illustrated in Figure 5.
Fig 5. Graphs describing the averages for the reported valence, arousal and liking in the four conditions
4.2.1 Reported Valence
The analysis showed significant main effects for intended valence [F(1,32) = 32.90,
p<.001] and for intended arousal [F(1,32) = 36.8, p<.001]. The interaction between
the two factors was not significant. As expected, the analysis of the means of the
reported valence revealed that + + scored the highest value (5.21), and - - scored the
lowest value (3.22). The double effect of tempo on arousal and valence produced side
effects: + - and - + resulted in similar neutral scores (4.26 and 3.91, respectively).
These results indicate that the manipulation of valence and arousal contributes to
defining the perception of valence, but that the two factors do not intersect.
• regardless of arousal, the snippets with positive valence result in more positive
values than those with negative valence;
• regardless of valence, the snippets with high arousal result in higher values than
those with low arousal.
4.2.2 Reported Arousal
The ANOVA showed significant main effects for intended valence [F(1,32) = 29.4,
p<.001] and for intended arousal [F(1,32) = 147.9, p<.001]. The interaction between
the two factors was also significant [F(1,32) = 12.6, p<.005]. The analysis of the
means of the reported arousal matched our expectations. Snippets composed with
high arousal (+ + and - +) scored high values (5.31 and 4.95 respectively), and those
with low arousal (- + and - -) scored low values (3.52 and 2.52 respectively). These
data suggest that the manipulation of both valence and arousal contributes to
defining the perception of arousal, and that their intersection also has en effect,
which is evident in the difference between the + - and - - conditions: snippets
composed with low arousal communicate higher arousal when combined with positive
The rating values for each snippet varied between 3.72 and 5.15, with an average of
4.38. The ANOVA revealed that intended arousal was the most significant factor
with respect to liking [F(1,32) = 8.978, p<.01]. The interaction effect of arousal and
valence was also significant [F(1,32) = 4.735 p<.05]. The favourite condition was high
valence combined with high arousal (mean 4.80, SD .88), while all other conditions
produced the same values (4.18, 1.21).
The experiment showed that listeners’ emotional responses to the music composed by
Robin met our expectations to a significant extent. The reported arousal matched the
intended arousal in all conditions. Results on reported valence are more complex. The
reported valence matched the intended valence only when the conditions converged.
In the case of diverging conditions, the reported valences of - + and + - reported
similar, neutral averages (Table V).
Table V. Measured levels of reported valence and arousal.
Positive valence – High Arousal
Positive valence – Low Arousal
Negative valence – High Arousal
Negative valence – Low Arousal
This finding can be explained in the light of the difficulty experienced by non-
musicians in distinguishing divergent emotional stimulations [Morreale et al., 2013;
Webster and Weir, 2005]. A possible solution to improve the accuracy of Robin in
eliciting correct valence among listeners in these condition would be to decrease
tempo in the – + condition or to increase it in the + -. The new values for rebalancing
tempo might follow the results of a recent study conducted by [Bresin and Frieberg,
2011], who suggested that happy performances are usually played almost 4 times
faster than sad performances.
ROBIN - INTERFACING
This section presents two interactive installations, The Music Room and The
TwitterRadio, in which the generated music results from a collaboration between
Robin and the visitors. The contribution to the field of interactive art lies in the
employment of an algorithmic composer that is specifically designed to communicate
predictable emotions. The input communicates to the system the emotions users
want to convey; Robin interprets this information by adapting the values of seven
musical parameters to match the desired emotional configuration. The collaboration
is mediated by the metaphor of emotions and put into practice through application-
specific metaphors. In The Music Room, the user communicates their intended
emotions via body gestures; in the TwitterRadio, emotions are inferred from textual
information describing people feelings on trending topics.
Fig 6. The Music Room
The Music Room
The Music Room (Figure 6) is an interactive installation for collaborative music
making [Morreale et al., 2014]. The installation was designed to be experienced by
couples of visitors, which can direct the emotional character of music by means of
their movements. In order to communicate the desired emotions in an intuitive and
engaging manner, we adopted the metaphor of intimacy. Distance between people
influences valence: the more proximal the visitors are, the more positive the music.
The speed of their movements influences arousal: the faster they move, the louder
and faster the music. The process of generating music from user movements involves
1. Participants’ movements are detected using computer vision techniques. The
motion of the couples is captured through a downwards-looking bird-eye
camera installed on the ceiling of the room. The detection of the moving
subjects has been implemented by applying a standard background
2. The extracted values of average speed and relative distance are communicated
to Robin. Following the mapping detailed in Section 3.5, valence and arousal
are transformed into combinations of musical factors, which determine the
change produced in the generated music. By matching the values of speed and
proximity to emotions, Robin adapts the musical flow, as has been previously
For the purpose of increasing the diversity and the liking of the composed music,
different musical instruments were associated with as many conditions. The piano
was constantly present in all conditions, a violin harmonised the piano voice when
couples were particularly close, and a trombone harmonised the piano voice when
couples were on the opposite sides of the room6. This choice, which was grounded on
6 An extract from The Music Room can be viewed at https://youtu.be/OSEvfjVivlw
both personal taste and related work [Eerola, Friberg and Bresin, 2013; Juslin and
Sloboda, 2010], was particularly appreciated by the audience of the installation.
Formal evaluations of the installation are reported in previous publications, which
describe visitor experiences as collected during three exhibitions of the installation
[Morreale and De Angeli, 2015]. On each occasion, people were queuing up for long to
try the installation and attendee reviews also seemed to confirm its successful
reception. Integrating evidences collected through an array of evaluation techniques
disclosed a number of interesting themes. Several visitors reported the feeling of
being empowered to create a “meaningful” music simply by means of their
movements. Others stressed that they had been enabled to have control on music for
the very first time in their life. Furthermore, a quantitative analysis revealed that
there was a significant negative correlation between visitors’ musical expertise and
engagement, suggesting that non-musicians had a more creative experience
[Morreale and De Angeli, 2015].
These results confirmed that the system is capable of offering the audience a
unique experience of music making where the control over the composition is shared
between the visitor and Robin. Some user argued that they would have preferred to
have more control on the music, for instance by moving their limbs or fingers. We
purposely decided to let the user interact on a semantic level only, as to ensure a
quick engagement with the installation, which might have been hindered by a more
complex mapping between user gestures and musical output. However, given the
modular architecture of Robin, future editions of the installation could allow users to
directly interact with lower-level parameters such as rhythmic complexity and pitch
Fig 7. The TwitterRadio
The next case study utilises Robin as a sonification tool for interactive visualization
of data. The TwitterRadio offers a novel environment for experiencing user-generated
contents in an auditory form [Morrele, Miniukovich and De Angeli, 2014]. The idea is
to use music as a means to express data describing public opinions on trending
topics. The visitors of The TwitterRadio can browse a list of trending topics and listen
to the mood of the world population on those specific topics. The adopted data source
is Twitter, which counts over 300 million active users (by May 2015) who constantly
share their thoughts and feelings on personal and social issues. The system collects
all recent tweets labelled with trending hashtags and retrieves information about
their emotions and popularity. These features are then mapped in the musical
domain in order to create melodies that match the mood of the tweets. The
architecture of The TwitterRadio is composed of three main modules: the user
interface, the server and Robin.
1. The user interface resembles a retro-style radio composed of a wooden box, a
colour display, a knob, and four led lights (Figure 7). The display shows
information about the list of available channels and a red bar indicating the
currently playing station. The user can operate the radio rotating the knob,
whose position information is digitalised by an Arduino hidden inside the box.
Besides choosing existing trending topics, the user can type their favourite
hashtag with a wireless keyboard. Finally, the led lights communicate the status
of the system: playing, loading or waiting.
2. The server forwards the user requests for a new station to Twitter and gathers
all the tweets labelled with that particular hashtag that were posted within the
previous 5 hours. The scraped messages are then processed and information
about the average tweet mood, the tweet frequency, and the re-tweet percentage
is processed. Tweet mood is computed by means of the MPQA Subjectivity
Lexicon [Riloff and Wiebe, 2003], which describes the polarity (positive, neutral,
negative) of 8221 English words. The frequency of the tweets is defined as the
number of tweets per minute. Re-tweet percentage refers to the overall amount of
re-tweets. This information is then forwarded to Robin, while data describing the
status of the system is displayed through the led lights.
3. Robin collects the information coming from the server and generates music
accordingly, diffusing sound through two desktop loudspeakers, which are also
hidden inside the box. Tweet mood is mapped into valence and tweet frequency
into arousal. Also, when the re-tweet percentage is above a certain threshold,
theme repetition is triggered. Resembling the functionality of traditional radios,
when the bar is not perfectly aligned with the indicator of a radio channel, the
auditory output is buzzing.
The installation was showcased during two academic events held in Trento and at
the Art Museum of Rovereto7. A formal evaluation of the experience is currently
under study. However, preliminary observations suggested that the audience visibly
appreciated both the aesthetic and the functionality of The TwitterRadio, and found
it particularly entertaining. Furthermore, a number of creative interpretations of the
system took place. For instance, some visitors rotated the knob in and out of a
channel to rhythmically alternate noise and music and others tried to create a song
structure by purposely switching between themes with different moods.
7 A short video demoing The TwitterRadio can be found at https://youtu.be/GD0a_bNEQCg
The work presented in this paper provided substantial contributions to the research
field intertwining metacreative software with interactive installation. The first
contribution is Robin, an algorithmic composer that generates real-time tonal
compositions with affective connotations. A possible alternative to the generative
approach would have a database of pre-composed melodies with different
combinations of valence and arousal. However, we maintained that the generative
approach would better match our objectives for two main reasons. First, the
generative approach permits continuous adaptations of different musical parameters,
and therefore nearly endless number combinations. The combinatory approach would
have required an enormous database of pre-composed melodies, which, beside
requiring a huge amount of time to be created for each new interaction, would have
dramatically increased the size of the software. Second, the generative approach
creates a completely new and original composition, thus allowing users to create
This paper also offered a methodology to assess the capability of an algorithmic
affective composer to communicate the intended emotions. We validated such
capability in an experimental study. This study was of primary importance in that
the collaboration between the human and the autonomous agent is encoded with the
metaphor of emotions, thus it was necessary to make sure that the music created by
Robin actually stirs among listeners the intended emotional flavour. A systematic
validation of the mapping proposed to communicate user meanings is new to the
interactive art community. In interactive artworks mapping strategies have to be
defined to transform audience behaviours into musical output. Instead of arbitrarily
mapping audience behaviours into musical parameters, we introduced an
intermediate layer to mediate users intentionalities through semantic descriptors
translating them into rules that are used by Robin to compose matching music.
Robin put forward other contributions in the field of automatic composition of
affective music. In particular, the authors’ opinion is that the quality of the music
generated by Robin constitutes a progress with respect to the music generated by
related studies. Moreover, the tunes generated by these systems do not match our
personal aesthetic. We believe that this is an important issue that should be taken
into primary consideration when discussing works intersecting art and research. This
belief echoes the statement of [Eigenfeldt, Burnett, and Pasquier, 2012], who
suggested that metacreative works should reflect the artistic sentiment of their
designer. Aesthetic and tastes play indeed a crucial role in the evaluation of such
systems, which might potentially be flawless from a methodological point of view, but
still unable to meet the wishes of designers and listeners.
A number of shortcomings, partly ascribable to infancy of this field, suggests that
there are indeed wide margins for future improvement. First and foremost, the
evaluation of Robin so far has been limited to validating its actual capability to
communicate the intended emotions to the listener. Appreciation on the quality of the
music, however, was simply questioned during an exhibition of The Music Room. On
that occasion, visitors generally enjoyed the music [Morreale and De Angeli, 2015]. In
the future, we aim at setting up an experimental study with both experts and non-
musicians to systematically enquire into the quality of the compositions generated by
Our investigations disclosed that naïve listeners tend to use an emotional
vocabulary when describing musical pieces. In the process of simplifying music access
to this category of users, then, our first objective was to allow them to have control on
the affective flavour of the song. However, we acknowledge that musical grammar is
much more complex and can by no means be reduced to an emotional grammar.
Future implementation of the system will allow users to interact on other dimensions
Currently, the system does not support high-level musical structures; as music
progression cannot be predicted in advance, being the evolution of the piece under
the control of the user. Should high-level structures be included in the system,
sudden input changes from the user would make the transition unnatural. This issue
remains open to investigation.
The current implementation of Robin only deals with structural factors to infer a
change in the communicated emotions. To enhance communication of the correct
emotional flavour, future implementations of the system will include those
performative behaviours whose variations define a change in the communicated
emotions. Phrasing, for instance, has a direct effect on the communicated emotions:
forward-phrasing is usually associated with sad and tender performances, whereas
reverse-phrasing is usually associated with aggressive performances [Bresin and
Friberg, 2011]. The real-time score generation capability of Robin can be easily
combined with existing systems for the automatic modelling of expressive contents of
musical scores, such as pDM from [Bresin and Friberg, 2011], in which performative
factors are mapped into emotions.
So far, musical metacreation systems have been mainly designed for the community
of musicians, advancing solutions to autonomously improvise with performers or to
autonomously generate new compositions [Eigenfelt, Bown, Pasquier and Martin,
2013]. This paper proposed a new direction for musical metacreation by employing
computational creativity to provide musically untrained users with experiences of
music making. We presented a computational system that distributes the complexity
of music making between the user and Robin, an autonomous agent that generates
music on its own, allowing the user to interact with the composition on a semantic
level. This protocol, which was employed in two interactive artworks, proved
particularly efficient in the light of the engagement the boost of musical creativity
experienced by the users.
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