In September 2015, a programmer named Brendon Ferris had an idea: He’d use the collective power of the internet to write a piece of music.
"I’d always been fascinated by crowdsourcing platforms like Wikipedia (for information) and Stack Overflow (for technical questions)," he says. "I thought, where else can collaborative systems be applied? And songwriting came to mind."
Using a few online tools (HTML5 Piano and Kyster Guitar notes), Ferris built a simple music player, entered the first two notes — C and D — and then set up a system where visitors to his site could vote, in real time, on which note would come next in the sequence.
To control the melody, Ferris set a few basic guidelines. He locked the chord progression to C, G, Am, F (an extremely common choice in popular music), set the length to 18 repetitions of this progression, and used the following structure for the melody: verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, conclusion.
Then he handed over all creative power to the internet.
Reddit: a crowdsourcer’s paradise
At first, Ferris wasn’t overly optimistic about how his experiment would go. "I thought [the project] would gradually gather interest," he says, "and, best case, I’d get maybe 100 votes over a long period of time."
But within 24 hours, his website hit the front page of Reddit, and thousands of votes poured in. Over the ensuing months, Ferris’s page resurfaced on Reddit another 16 times.
Last week — that is, 11 months and 67,167 votes later — the song was completed. (You can take a listen below):
Music has an underlying mathematical foundation
Traditionally, giving the internet collective decision-making power has not been the brightest idea. In 2008, for instance, the New York Mets gave their fans the authority to select a new home-game anthem online and ended up with 5 million votes for Rick Astley’s "Never Gonna Give You Up." A 2009 NASA poll that allowed internet users to name a new node at the International Space Station ended in resounding failure when "Colbert" won (as a write-in, no less). When the White House decided to crowdsource a press conference for President Obama, the forums were flooded with questions about his pot-smoking habits.
Ferris’s melody is a rare exception.
"I’m pretty surprised how good it sounds," he says. "In a way, everyone has an inherent knowledge of music — everyone knows what sounds to good to them."
What Ferris has done is not a novel concept: Online crowdsourcing has been applied to thousands of projects over the past decade. Still, his experiment is unique in that he has made a piece of art — typically a highly personal, subjective, and individualistic pursuit — into a very public, collaborative process.
"It’s hard to think that you could crowdsource an art — but music has an underlying foundation of mathematics which can perhaps be isolated as a framework," he says. "In this case, you’re just looking at what’s been done so far and adding an extra note to a sequence."
With the melody complete, Ferris is now using the same process to crowdsource lyrics for it (you can vote on them here). His hope is to eventually make his creation into an "open source, Wikipedia-style portal" where internet users can co-create music.
"I tried to write my own songs as a kid, but failed," he says. "So now, I just have the internet write songs for me."