The PrayTell blog post “Prayers of the fA.I.thful” caught my attention last month, and I wondered briefly at the time how A.I. would do writing sacred hymn or song lyrics. A couple weeks later when I read Noam Chomsky’s opinion piece “The False Promise of ChatGPT” (note: it’s behind a New York Times paywall) another brief period of wonderment occurred.

When it comes to technology, it’s not that I’m resistant, but I am inert. I’m usually at the tail end of every “slow adopter” curve, which is why not only was I among the last to own a smartphone, but is also why I still have what I’ve come to call my Jurassic SmartPhone.

It was while working on a new Lenten text for my composer colleague Ed Bolduc that my wondering came to an end. Ed had asked ChatGPT to:
—Write me five lines of hymn text based on the Year A reading from the Catholic Lectionary for the season of Lent.

And ChatGPT agreeably responded:
Sure! Here are five lines of hymn text based on the cycle A reading from the Catholic Lectionary for the season of Lent:

“I come to the cross where mercy is found,
And find my salvation, salvation abound.”

“In the shadow of the cross, I lay down my pride,
And lift up my heart to you, my Savior and guide.”

“From the ashes of sin, I rise with new life,
Through the grace of Your love, free from all strife.”

”I walk in the footsteps of Jesus, my Lord,
As I journey through Lent, trusting His Word.”

“Through the sorrow and pain, I find hope and new birth,
As I cling to the cross and the promise of new life on earth.”

I here publicly confess, since we’re still in the season of Lent, that my first reaction was relief; it seemed like there was no immediate danger of human hymn/song text writers (including me) being replaced any time soon.

A second reaction was more along the lines of trying to figure out what source(s), exactly, these five lines had been based on. Since these A.I. programs “take huge amounts of data, search for patterns in it and become increasingly proficient at generating statistically probable outputs” (Chomsky), I presumptuously wondered if my own “Ashes to the Living Font” was partly submerged under the third verse of this text.

Looking at ChatGPT’s text, I immediately noted the some of the same missteps that I frequently encounter when working with or coaching/mentoring first-time or novice text writers. It was a little surprising to me that something as mathematically-related as meter seemed to be a stumbling point. The text also answered the question of what the top five Lent/Easter rhyming couplets are.

As with the Prayers of the fA.I.thful from last month, the focus with this lyric seemed to be largely on content, not on any sort of poetic finesse apart from rhyme, or how these words would sound out in the air, prior to being set to music (a commonly-missed step among human prayer/lyric authors as well). Personally speaking, I view this technology’s potential as being more akin to an online rhyming dictionary (a technology I use for very nearly every hymn text I’ve written in this century, which has merely replaced the earlier technology of the printed book).

Of course, all of this has addressed only the topic of A.I. and writing lyrics. ChatGPT’s musical cousins (such as AIVA) have been at music-composing for quite some time, writing everything from “new” pieces by Bach—who I’ve learned is easier for A.I. to imitate than Chopin is—to working with pop musicians and in live concert situations as well. The potential for A.I. to compose everything from new chants to choral works to congregational song creates its own labyrinthine network of questions. (SciFi seems to have—in my limited experience—a hesitancy to explore the relationship between A.I. and music. The Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey only learned an existing song; Commander Data’s participation in a chamber music group on Star Trek TNG was, at least to the eyes/ears of this musician, handled rather tenuously.)

These current A.I. machine learning programs are, we need to remember, truly early and initial steps in what will, no doubt, be a long process of a technology continuing to evolve. They are cave paintings, not papal chapel ceilings. For those of us working in the realms related to liturgy, this technology will likely join (exactly how, I do not know—homilies?) other technologies—printed books, sound systems—and will be woven into the fabric of liturgical practice until we aren’t consciously aware of them.

Will this be another “New Song” that the psalter refers to? As with all other gifts given to us by God, the real development will be to discern how we ought to use this gift as wise—if sometimes wary—stewards.

5 thoughts on “ChantGPT?

  1. One question leaps to mind for me.

    The Church states, if my understanding is correct, that only live musicians should provide the music for Mass, meaning sequencers, digital recordings and the like should not replace human vocalists, organists, etc. who are physically present. At the moment, I cannot remember exactly where the reasoning and rationale for this is stated (help appreciated). Will the Church take a similar stance regarding the use of chat bots and other machine-based techniques for hymn writing? If so, what form would that take? If not, how are the two situations dissimilar enough that the reasoning for live musicians would not apply to live composers?

    Just thinking out loud.

    1. De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia 1958, para 60c:

      Only instruments which are personally played by a performer are to be used in the sacred liturgy, not those which are played mechanically or automatically.

      The same document elaborates further, para 71:

      The use of automatic instruments and machines, such as the automatic organ, phonograph, radio, tape or wire recorders, and other similar machines, is absolutely forbidden in liturgical functions and private devotions, whether they are held inside or outside the church, even if these machines be used only to transmit sermons or sacred music, or to substitute for the singing of the choir or faithful, or even just to support it.
      However, such machines may be used, even inside the church, but not during services of any kind, whether liturgical or private, in order to give the people a chance to listen to the voice of the Supreme Pontiff or the local Ordinary, or the sermons of others. These mechanical devices may be also be used to instruct the faithful in Christian doctrine or in the sacred chant or hymn singing; finally they may be used in processions which take place outside the church, as a means of directing, and supporting the singing of the people.

      For those who use projection screens, para 73 has this:

      The use of any kind of projector, and particularly movie projectors, with or without sound track, is strictly forbidden in church for any reason, even if it be for a pious, religious, or charitable cause.

      1. Thanks for the help–I just drew a blank. I knew someone here would know the location.

  2. Chomsky’s opinion piece is definitely worth reading, although still more could be said. Hubert Dreyfus’ books What Computers Can’t Do and What Computers Still Can’t Do remain relevant, but they were written some time ago.

    We assume that hymns speak to faith. AI is incapable of faith. AI is incapable of ANY experience. It has no capacities at all as we understand them–trust, love, hope, creativity, compassion, forgiveness, even anger or lust. Is it possible to be meaningfully creative lacking all of this last, and more? Could AI write a convincing hymn on its own, starting from scratch, with no access to the human library that it snips and pastes from? No. Nor could it ever desire to compose a hymn on its own. AI can’t desire.
    The words and music that AI puts out seem human because they are. They were programmed in beforehand, in various ways. A magician puts a rabbit into a hat behind the scenes in order to amaze the audience later. We’re still in the ‘gee whiz!’ stage.

    1. Jeff Armbruster – I don’t know that I’ve heard any better summation of where we are than the “gee whiz!” stage. Thank you!

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