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Computer Music Lessons

Computer music is a term that was originally used within academia to describe a field of study relating to the applications of computing technology in music composition; particularly that stemming from the Western art music tradition. It includes the theory and application of new and existing technologies in music, such as sound synthesis, digital signal processing, sound design, sonic diffusion, acoustics, and psychoacoustics. The field of computer music can trace its roots back to the origin of electronic music, and the very first experiments and innovations with electronic instruments at the turn of the 20th century. More recently, with the advent of personal computing, and the growth of home recording, the term computer music is now sometimes used to describe any music that has been created using computing technology.

History

Much of the work on computer music has drawn on the relationship between music theory and mathematics. The world’s first computer to play music was CSIRAC which was designed and built by Trevor Pearcey and Maston Beard. Mathematician Geoff Hill programmed the CSIRAC to play popular musical melodies from the very early 1950s. In 1951 it publicly played the Colonel Bogey March of which no known recordings exist. However, CSIRAC played standard repertoire and was not used to extend musical thinking or composition practice which is current computer-music practice.

The oldest known recordings of computer generated music were played by the Ferranti Mark 1 computer, a commercial version of the Baby Machine from the University of Manchester in the autumn of 1951. The music program was written by Christopher Strachey. During a session recorded by the BBC, the machine managed to work its way through “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, “God Save the King” and part of “In the Mood”.

Two further major 1950s developments were the origins of digital sound synthesis by computer, and of algorithmic composition programs beyond rote playback. Max Mathews at Bell Laboratories developed the influential MUSIC I program and its descendents, further popularising computer music through a 1962 article in Science. Amongst other pioneers, the musical chemists Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson worked on a series of algorithmic composition experiments from 1956-9, manifested in the 1957 premiere of the Illiac Suite for string quartet.

Early computer-music programs typically did not run in real time. Programs would run for hours or days, on multi-million-dollar computers, to generate a few minutes of music. John Chowning’s work on FM synthesis from the 1960s to the 1970s, and the advent of inexpensive digital chips and microcomputers opened the door to real-time generation of computer music. By the early 1990s, the performance of microprocessor-based computers reached the point that real-time generation of computer music using more general programs and algorithms became possible.

Computer-generated music

Computer-generated music is music composed by, or with the extensive aid of, a computer. Although any music which uses computers in its composition or realisation is computer-generated to some extent, the use of computers is now so widespread (in the editing of pop songs, for instance) that the phrase computer-generated music is generally used to mean a kind of music which could not have been created without the use of computers.

We can distinguish two groups of computer-generated music: music in which a computer generated the score, which could be performed by humans, and music which is both composed and performed by computers.There is a large genre of music that is organized, synthesized, and created on computers.

Computers have also been used in an attempt to imitate the music of great composers of the past, such as Mozart. A present exponent of this technique is David Cope. He wrote computer programs that analyse works of other composers to produce new works in a similar style. He has used this program to great effect with composers such as Bach and Mozart (his program Experiments in Musical Intelligence is famous for creating “Mozart’s 42nd Symphony”), and also within his own pieces, combining his own creations with that of the computer.

Machine Improvisation uses computer algorithms to create improvisation on existing music materials. This is usually done by sophisticated recombination of musical phrases extracted from existing music, either live or pre-recorded. In order to achieve credible improvisation in particular style, machine improvisation uses machine learning and pattern matching algorithms to analyze existing musical examples. The resulting patterns are then used to create new variations “in the style” of the original music, developing a notion of stylistic reinjection. This is different from other improvisation methods with computers that use algorithmic composition to generate new music without performing analysis of existing music examples.