Computer music is the applications of computing technology in music composition. It includes the theory and application of new and existing technologies and basic aspects of 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 origins of electronic music, and the very first experiments and innovations with electronic instruments at the turn of the 20th century.
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 1963 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.
In Japan, experiments in computer music date back to 1962, when Keio University professor Sekine and Toshiba engineer Hayashi experimented with the TOSBAC computer. This resulted in a piece entitled TOSBAC Suite, influenced by the Illiac Suite. Later Japanese computer music compositions include a piece by Kenjiro Ezaki presented during Osaka Expo ’70 and “Panoramic Sonore” (1974) by music critic Akimichi Takeda. Ezaki also published an article called “Contemporary Music and Computers” in 1970. Since then, Japanese research in computer music has largely been carried out for commercial purposes in popular music, though some of the more serious Japanese musicians used large computer systems such as the Fairlight in the 1970s.
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. One way around this was to use a ‘hybrid system’, most notably the Roland MC-8 Microcomposer, where a microprocessor-based system controls an analog synthesizer, released in 1978. John Chowning’s work on FM synthesis from the 1960s to the 1970s allowed much more efficient digital synthesis, eventually leading to the development of the affordable FM synthesis-based Yamaha DX7 digital synthesizer, released in 1983. In addition to the Yamaha DX7, the advent of inexpensive digital chips and microcomputers opened the door to real-time generation of computer music. In the 1980s, Japanese personal computers such as the NEC PC-88 came installed with FM synthesis sound chips and featured audio programming languages such as Music Macro Language (MML) and MIDI interfaces, which were most often used to produce video game music, or chiptunes. 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.