In a World of Change, Tom Collins Takes Students to the Next Frontier in Music Technology

How can you model someone's creative music process with computers? That's a question Dr. Tom Collins asked himself years ago. Since then, he's been fascinated by the use of music and artificial intelligence and how to bring his research and passion to the classroom.

Dr. Tom Collins has always been fascinated by people's ability to write music and how that creative process can be duplicated with artificial intelligence, producing something comparable but unique. And now, he is bringing his research, passion, and expertise to the Frost School of Music classrooms.  

"All my life, music has been my focus, but I ultimately pursued a Ph.D. in computer science, where I was able to model that creative process with computers," explains Collins. "When I saw the Associate Professor in Music Engineering position at Frost School of Music advertised, I thought, this is a match made in heaven!" 

With Collins' profound expertise in music technology and a strong focus on AI, the Music Engineering program at Frost School of Music is embarking on a new era. As AI continues revolutionizing the music industry, Collins's arrival signifies the school's commitment to staying at the forefront of this rapidly evolving field.  

"His groundbreaking research and extensive experience in AI-driven music creation and production will pave the way for innovative advancements and unlock exciting opportunities for our students," says Christopher Bennett, director and associate professor of Music Engineering at Frost School of Music. "With Dr. Collins's expertise, we are poised to explore the next frontier in music technology, revolutionizing how we create, produce, and experience music. We eagerly anticipate the transformative impact Dr. Collins will bring to our department, shaping the future of music engineering through AI-driven innovation."

An interdisciplinary, as many people in the world of music can be, Collins hopes to help our students navigate that known world of human creativity and the unknown world of analytical ability born of AI.  

"If I say something like, write 16 measures of music in the style of Alicia Keys, if we've listened to a bit of her music, some of us can do that. And so, I was fascinated in how we achieve that, discovering and utilizing certain patterns that might indicate that it is more Alicia Keys than Beethoven," says Collins. 

Many components go into it, as Collins explains. And often, people are scared about being replaced by AI, as he would be. "But, when you consider the complexity of the tasks that we undertake in creating things, I think there's still quite a long way to go," he adds.  

One of the courses that Collins will be teaching is called Music AI, and he is excited to be planning how to translate his recent research on co-creating music with AI into class assignments. For example, an early assignment will challenge students to use several preexisting generative AI models to alter or extend audio or sheet music they've made in the past. 

"There are many different generative AI models, even within music," he says. "Students will work with those and reflect on what it does to their creative process. Maybe they find it interesting; maybe they don't. Maybe they find it scary or empowering to move from reading about these things to using them and seeing what they do for them."  

This is the kind of thought-provoking topic Collins mused as a child. His first introduction to music was playing his great-grandmother's piano and then the guitar in bands in a small town south of London. Growing up in the 90s in the UK, he listened to Brit-pop, like Oasis, Blur, and the Spice Girls. He then went to the University of Cambridge, followed by Oxford and Open University in Milton Keynes, where he earned his Ph.D. in computer science, and later Davis, California, and Linz, Austria, for postdoctoral work, where his exploration of music and AI escalated.   

Today, he asks students: "Is AI taking us to the next level of our own creativity, or are we using it as a replacement?"  

"It's a very fast pace of change at the moment," he admits. "I want to give students the ability to critically evaluate things they listen to or tools they try. What we teach is just a part of their toolset when they leave Frost School of Music to pursue various career paths so that they're well equipped to deal with that fast pace of change."