Google’s latest art project recruits an animated bird — and AI — to play the cello

Google might be laser focused on generative AI these days, like the majority of its Big Tech competitors. But that hasn’t stopped the search giant from patronizing pretty out-there art projects, true to its experimental roots.

Enter the latest creation from Google’s Art & Culture Lab, Viola the Bird, which uses AI to understand cello and violin compositions. The work has Viola — an animated bird that evokes a Sesame Street character — “perform” famous Beethoven, Vivaldi, Holst and Ravel stringed pieces as a user moves their mouse back and forth along a virtual cello in their web browser.

David Li, the artist behind Viola, worked with cellists and violinists as well as music arrangers to develop the AI, which he then applied to create an audio synthesis engine that generates the sounds of a cello or violin based on a user’s mouse movements.

Google Viola

Viola playing music, powered by AI.

“The result is an interactive music experiment that is both fun and educational,” Pamela Peter-Agbia, a program manager at Google Arts & Culture, writes in a blog post. “Viola the Bird is a great way for anyone to learn about string instruments and to explore their own creativity through music.”

Having spent some time with Viola, I can attest to the “fun” part — but wouldn’t go so far as to say the project is educational. It doesn’t provide sheet music or notes to accompany your “playing,” and there aren’t any guardrails to prevent someone from performing songs wildly off-tempo.

Questionable pedagogy aside, there’s enough to keep even casual classical fans entertained for a minute, like a recording feature and a freestyle mode that lets you jam via Viola, on the viola, until you’ve had your fill.

If you’re bored during the next lunch break — or have young kids to keep entertained — give Viola a try. It’s free. Just keep your expectations in check — unlike some of Google’s other AI-powered explorations in music of late, this bird won’t exactly blow your mind.

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