Instruments | Computer Music | Electric & Electronic

Computer music can be defined as music that is generated by, or composed and produced by means of, a computer. The idea that computers might have a role to play in the production of music actually goes back a lot further than one might think.

As early as 1843, Lady Ada Lovelace suggested in a published article that Babbage’s ‘Analytical Engine’ might even be used to compose complex music, if only the correct data could be properly processed. Today, computers are an all-pervasive part of the music-production process and functions that were traditionally the preserve of hardware are now increasingly accomplished in the software domain.

The Role of Computers in Contemporary Music Production

It is rare to come across a piece of music that has not, at some stage, benefited from the involvement of a computer system in its composition, performance, recording or distribution. Composers and producers of music use computers throughout every stage of the process and the various tasks that a computer music system performs can be broken down into a number of discrete, yet interrelated, areas.

Computer-Generated Compositions

Composers have long been fascinated by the idea of music generated independently by systems over which they can exert varying degrees of control. As early as 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) used a system known as Musikalisches Würfelspiel to randomly select sections of music to be played.

Algorithmic and aleatoric composition was much beloved by the avant-garde composers of the 1950s and 1960s, including John Cage (1912–92). In computer-generated music, the computer produces musical material within parameters determined by the composer. One of the first computer composers, Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001), wrote a computer program, in the FORTRAN programming language, to produce musical scores that could be played by live musicians.

More recent examples include the program M – originally produced in the 1980s, now revived and distributed by Cycling ’74. M is capable of generating endless variations of cyclically looping material and triggers sound via MIDI control of synthesizers or samplers. Musician and producer Brian Eno used SSEYO’s Koan Pro software to produce his Generative Music album of 1996. This algorithmic-composition package also plays a role in his 2005 release, Another Day On Earth.


Musicians, composers and publishers use sophisticated music notation software – such as Sibelius or Finale – to produce musical scores. Effectively, musical desktop-publishing systems enable the user to input music on to staff notation using a combination of MIDI keyboard, qwerty keyboard and mouse. In this way, passages of music can be edited and laid out on the printed page in much the same way as a word processor handles language.

The software uses MIDI sound modules or built-in software instruments to play back the score and allow the composer to hear what the music actually sounds like before it is ever printed and put before live musicians. Becoming increasingly sophisticated, software like Sibelius can even interpret written instructions such as pizz. and automatically switch playback to an appropriate sound,...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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