Presentation at Ethnomusicology conference in Cork

Our paper “Ethnographic Considerations and Critical Reflections on the Impacts of AI on Traditional Irish Music”, authored by Anna-Kaisa Kaila and colleagues at the MUSAiC team, Elin Kanhov and Bob L. T. Sturm, will be presented at the British Forum for Ethnomusicology & International Council for Traditional Music Ireland Joint-Annual Conference in Ireland University College Cork, 4-7 April 2024.


By definition, traditional music is in a constant state of friction with innovation, exemplified by resistance to “outside” influences such as different instruments, different ways of learning, and forces of commercialization. An emerging external influence is artificial intelligence (AI), and, in particular, generative AI, capable of synthesizing music collections at scales dwarfing those crafted by communities. Different interests and values raised from this influence of AI call for further critical ethnographic investigation. How can interdisciplinary studies and developments of generative systems be conducted in responsible ways that balance the interests of academic research and those of traditional music communities, and respect their ethical and cultural values? How should researchers deal with a reluctance from traditional music communities to engage in dialogue with researchers, even if their presence takes place in the dual role of a participant musician member and ethnographic observer?

We explore the methodological challenges of engaging with a traditional music community through a case study of a generative system trained on a large dataset of transcriptions of Irish traditional dance music derived from the online crowd-sourced database, named “folk-rnn” (Sturm et al. 2016). This system is capable of generating novel music that emulates the patterns of Irish traditional dance music – to such a level of plausibility that it has raised critical commentary by some in some communities of practice. Based on experiments, surveys and digital ethnographic studies of the reception of folk-rnn on, and engagements with traditional Irish music communities in live venues, we explore how folk-rnn interacts with living traditions, and critically reflect on the resistance, tensions and concerns raised in actions and discourses around it. These efforts surface some of the pain points between innovation and tradition, reaching such a high pitch in one case that the moderator of declared on Feb 8 2023 a total ban on submitting any tune generated by AI: “Do not post a tune composed by a so-called ‘AI’. This should go without saying. I’m saying it now.”