Is ChatGPT a reliable way to learn about music?

With the recent introduction of ChatGPT, we humans find ourselves at a crossroads of human history; a crossroads at which the forces of technological “progress” are pushing us down one particular road without giving any of us individuals any real decision about which path we’d prefer to take. Simply put, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is here to stay and will affect every one of us, whether we like it or not.

Although no one can predict exactly where AI will take us, the business word, for example, is already touting AI as a way to speedily write blog posts and even emails. With this in mind, I recently decided to ask Chat GPT some questions about music, in order to experience it firsthand.

Before I get to my questions and ChatGPT’s responses, let me start out by saying that all of ChatGPT’s answers were incorrect. Every single one!

For my first question, I decided to test ChatGPT’s ability to dive deep into an arcane topic, albeit one that is on the internet. I asked it, “Who was Charlie Parker’s favorite saxophonist?” ChatGPT immediately answered that, as far as it knew, Charlie Parker never publicly stated who he favorite saxophonist was. True enough, but my question wasn’t about Parker’s public statements. Any jazz historian or Parker enthusiast would have mentioned Parker’s love for Lester Young’s playing, and the fact that Parker once spent a summer learning Lester Young solos from records, and that this make a huge difference in Parker’s improvisational ability. Certainly, Lester Young would at least deserve a mention, even a qualified mention, in response to my question.

But we can go further, and find at least one eye-witness report of Parker directly stating that Chu Berry was indeed his favorite saxophonist. This is surprising, because Berry played very differently than his Basie band mate Lester Young, who did have a more direct musical influence on the young Parker. But maybe the choice of Berry does make sense, since Parker named his son Chu.

For my second question, I decided to go easy on ChatGPT and ask it a simple, factual question based on readily available information: “What albums did Wayne Shorter appear on as a sideman. Although I can name about 20 of them off the top of my head, ChatGPT only managed to list 7 albums. Furthermore, one of these albums, The Real McCoy, is incorrect since Joe Henderson played tenor sax on that album, not Shorter.

For my 3rd question, I followed up by getting very specific: “List ALL of the albums that Wayne Shorter appeared on as a sideman.” Instead of providing a complete list, ChatGPT responded with a list of only 17 albums, although it did note that “This is a partial list.”

For my final question, I wanted to see if ChatGPT could assimilate information from various sources and formulate an answer based on a syntheses of facts, much like we humans do when seeking to understand a given topic. I asked it, “Why do jazz musicians play Autumn Leaves in the key of E minor?” The real answer to this question is fascinating, because for over a decade, jazz musicians generally didn’t play the tune in E minor, preferring G minor because Miles Davis had recorded it in that key with Cannonball Adderley in 1961. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that some jazz musicians began playing Autumn Leaves in E minor. This was because the popular fake book The Real Book put the tune in E minor, presumably because they had a copy of the original sheet music which is in that key.

ChatGPT’s answer to this question was ludicrous. It began by explaining that jazz musicians play Autumn Leaves in E minor because the original sheet music is in G major, and E minor is the relative minor of G major. The answer ins to sound like a university music student making up stuff in a vain attempt to answer a difficult test question. ChatGPT explained to me that the key of E minor is particularly good for this tune because a lot of chord substitutions are possible in his key, such as substituting F#m7(b5)/B7/Em for Am7/D7/Gmaj7. Anyone familiar with how these chord sequences are used in Autumn Leaves will instantly know that one is not a substitution for the other. Chat GPT made up other substitutions that are good in E minor, without noting the fact that all chord substitutions are equally good in all keys, not just one key such as E minor.

There we have it; four questions and four wrong, incomplete, or misleading answers.

What can we learn from this experiment? First, ChatGPT cannot be relied upon to provide accurate information. This is perhaps understandable since it’s in the beginning stages and yes, an improved version has already been developed. Yet despite this, we’ll see an increasing amount of blog posts, articles, and emails written using ChatGPT. Without proper proofreading by real people, this means that we’ll be fed more and more false information in the years ahead.

Secondly, I think we need to remember that a computer run with artificial intelligence cannot know if the information it spits out is accurate. It is merely passing along what it finds, albeit in new ways at times.

Thirdly, we cannot become lured into accepting faster and faster answers to our questions at the expense of accurate information. Yes, ChatGPT will give us a partial list of Wayne Shorter’s sideman appearances in a fraction of a second, but why not take a few minutes and search for a discography or two, and compare them?

And lastly, we’ll benefit by using the technology, instead of letting the technology make us lazy. Wanting to know to know who Charlie Parker’s favorite saxophonist was can lead us on a fun and educational journey of discover, by both studying his music and comparing it with that of his predecessors, as well as reading everything we can find about Parker, as I myself did when I made this surprising discovery about Chu Berry.

ChatGPT is here, whether we want it or not. Let’s find ways to use it for our benefit and development as musicians.

Enjoy the journey, and let the music flow!


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