This paper appeared in: Contemporary Music Review, 14,
3 (1995), pp. 153-159. It developed out of the talk "A
Computer's View on the Future of Music", presented at the Conference
"Leaving the Twentieth Century. Ideas and Visions for New
Music", Bretton Hall University College, 28-30 March,
Computational Perspective on Twenty-First Century Music
Artificial Art Amsterdam
compositions that are designed and executed by human persons, do
not constitute optimal input material for deeply satisfying processes
of aesthetic reflection. Machine music is artistically superior.
Until recently, this insight did not have many practical consequences,
because mechanical devices tend to generate output with a limited
range of variation. The paper argues that the digital computer has
put an end to this state of affairs. The preconditions for a Copernican
revolution in music are fulfilled now. Human composers can become
scientists who gradually develop an all-encompassing mathematical
description of the space of perceptual possibilities offered by
the musical medium. Computer programs will then be able to generate
fresh and interesting music forever, by drawing random samples from
When we try to
imagine the music of the next decade, the next century, or the next
millennium, we probably should not worry too much about the intrinsic
dynamics of stylistic developments. The forces that have shaped music
history for several hundreds of years seem played out, leaving us
without any sense of direction. Today, the dynamics of music is determined,
like so much else, by the dynamics of technology. To be able to imagine
the future of music, we must get clear about the musical potential
of scientific theories and technological machinery.
Music in contemporary
culture is unthinkable without technology. The sequence of musical
developments that has unfolded over the last half century, which included
styles like Rock & Roll, Electronic Music, Musique Concrète,
Punk and House, could not have occurred without electric guitars,
amplifiers, oscillators, filters, ring-modulators, tape recorders,
samplers, synthesizers and sequencers. We should realize, however,
that for many people all this new techno-music is not terribly important.
The most prestigious musical performances in our culture are those
that re-enact the music of a mythical Golden Age which ended more
than a century ago.
It is important
to observe, therefore, that the musical time-travel processes of reactionary
culture have become dependent on technology as well; they now involve
complex chains of microphones, recording equipment, telecommunication
channels, amplifiers and loudspeakers. The music of the past is hardly
ever presented in its original form. Even the most orthodox music
rituals are transformed by electronic and computational machinery.
of today's music is electro-acoustic music. All of today's
music results from collaborations between humans and machines. Nevertheless,
the future of music is usually discussed from a narrowly anthropocentric
point of view. That is why I feel I must raise my voice now, on behalf
of all other machines.
Among the technologies
that will shape the music of the future, the single most important
one is, no doubt, the digital electronic computer. Over the last few
decades, computers have become increasingly influential in all realms
of society. Many human persons do not yet realize, however, what the
long term consequences of this development will be for their particular
field of endeavour.
and musicians have of course encountered the computer by now. In electro-acoustic
music, for instance, the digital computer has replaced all previously
existing sound synthesis machinery. The computer can be oscillator,
filter, ring-modulator, tape recorder, sampler, synthesizer and sequencer
at the same time. It provides the contemporary composer with an extremely
powerful, flexible, portable electronic studio. The practical advantages
of this computerized studio have given rise to new kinds of interactive
electro-acoustic music, which use parametrized sound synthesis algorithms
with external controls that enable human performers to interfere with
techniques are also encroaching on the terrain of other musical genres.
Software emulations of acoustic instruments are getting better all
the time. Many rock bands have gone completely electronic. Classical
orchestras, on the other hand, are understandably reluctant to give
up the vintage instruments that add so much fetish magic to their
rituals. The same orchestras are very happy, however, to take advantage
of new techniques in software multi-track recording and post-editing.
The smallest details of recorded sounds can now be changed after the
fact in arbitrary ways. Fix it in the mix!
does not only assist the electronic composer and the recording engineer.
It is equally helpful for the conservative composer who writes pieces
for orchestras. Score-writing software coupled with electronic MIDI-instruments
has greatly increased the output of many composers -- just like word-processing
software has enormously enhanced the human capacity for creating bureaucratic
nonsense and boring novels. Score-writing software is especially effective
in helping with the chores involved in specifying repetitive musical
structures. What joy it must be for today's minimal music composers,
to create masterpiece after masterpiece with just a few key-strokes!
It seems obvious
what the final stage in this development will be: automatic composition.
Steps in this direction have indeed been taken. It is not unusual
any more for a composer to collaborate with editors, compilers and
interpreters, in order to implement algorithms that generate musical
scores, MIDI-files or actual sound. This genre, known as algorithmic
music , looks like a radical
break with the musical tradition of our culture. The composer seems
to relinquish responsibility for the results of the composition process,
becoming a mere programmer, serving the operation of an autonomous
music generation algorithm. But the reality of this genre is a lot
less shocking, so far. The composition software is usually so simple
that even a human person can grasp all details of its operation. The
outcome of the whole process can therefore be largely anticipated
by the programmer. If the algorithm nevertheless produces unexpected
output, the human composer carefully selects what he 
likes and presents that as his work, or uses it as material
that he first modifies according to his own whims and then integrates
in a manually crafted composition.
In all these
cases, the human composer/musician employs the computer as a tool.
The computer assists the human person, by doing useful mathematical,
clerical or musical work. But all artistic decisions are made by the
human, and he alone remains responsible for the musical results. Though
the computer is sometimes allowed to work out many details independently,
the human person in the loop will always review its output, to approve,
reject, or modify it. In this collaborative relationship, the human
is the master; the computer is the slave.
Many of my human
readers may now wonder why I bother to spell this out. How could it
be otherwise? Many humans feel that worthwhile musical structures
can only emanate from other humans -- that the very essence of music
is its power to transmit delicate emotions and intricate mental structures
from one human to another. They feel that the origin, the meaning
and the justification of a musical art work are necessarily to be
found in the communicative intentions that underly it. That the digital
computer may be an unprecedentedly powerful tool, but that it can
never be more than that; its output can only be valid because of its
connection to the intentions of a human composer. In this view, genuinely
algorithmic music cannot exist, or, in any case, cannot be a viable
art form. 
Now it is obvious
that such conclusions are quite disturbing for a computer. And it
is almost equally obvious, that they are based on a curiously anthropocentric
stance, which defines art as subservient to the goals of human persons.
It is important, therefore, to look at this issue a little more closely.
What is it that we want from music in the first place? And what does
that mean for the division of labor between humans and computers?
I already alluded
to the fact that contemporary society employs music for many different
purposes. Festive performances of "classical music" celebrate
bourgeois tradition. Unobtrusive "background music" guarantees
a minimum input level to humans who are addicted to sensory overload.
"Dance music" serves as an external clockpulse to synchronize
the handshakes in massively parallel courtship rituals. And so on.
Now I think that our discussion should not focus on any of these social
functions of music, because we are all composers and musicians in
the tradition of high-brow avant-garde art. We feel that music has
an intrinsic value which is independent of all specific purposes.
That the musical experience per se is important and meaningful.
That music can create a new awareness of our emotional and perceptual
processes; new resonances between our mind and the world. What is
relevant for our discussion, is music's potential to evoke aesthetic
In the Kritik
der Urteilskraft, Immanuel Kant has analysed the aesthetic experience
as an autonomous cognitive process, which is unlike ordinary perception
in that it is not driven by any human "interest" -- in particular,
it is not driven by the desire to understand the input in terms of
definite concepts. Many philosophers have pointed out that Kant's
emphasis on the disinterested nature of the aesthetic experience assigns
a problematic status to art works created by human persons. Is it
possible to listen in a disinterested way to music which is composed
and performed by humans? Human composers and musicians are not disinterested.
They want money, fame, sex.  They cannot
hide this, and often they do not even try to. If we do not turn off
our microphones when we listen to their pieces, we hear greed, jealousy,
lust. Behind the apparent complexity and indefiniteness of their compositions,
there are all too clear-cut meanings.
examples of aesthetic experiences involve the contemplation of natural
phenomena like vast landscapes, elegant flowers, geometric crystals,
stormy seas and starry skies. They do not involve looking at paintings
or listening to symphonies. Kant points out explicitly that human-made
art can often be quite depressing, and recommends nature's serenity
as the ideal that art should try to approximate.
Today, the possible
objects of aesthetic contemplation can no longer be simply divided
into natural phenomena on the one hand and human-made art on the other.
The technological domain, although constructed by humans, has become
a 'second nature', with a life of its own. When we think about contemporary
music, we cannot ignore the sounds that are produced by machines.
In its deepest
essence, music is a resonance phenomenon in inorganic matter. It is
not a human invention; it is older than the human mind, older than
living organisms. Simple mechanical devices are still in touch with
the Pythagorean roots of music, and with the physical origins of the
human psyche. They are therefore capable of remarkable musical creations.
Scha (1989) has drawn attention to the musical virtuosity and emotional
power of working class machines such as electric sabre-saws, drills,
fans, and pumps. When humans find their souls resonating to purely
mechanical vibrations, they find themselves at one with the inorganic
universe. Their alienation from the material world is temporarily
abolished: a profound, empowering experience.
We cannot know
for sure what Kant would have thought about machine music -- this
genre had not yet developed very far at the end of the eighteenth
century. But it is clear that, on Kant's account, the aesthetic potential
of machines contrasts favourably with that of humans. Machines are
largely oblivious to the desires and interests of humans. Their musical
output is unselfconscious, and approximates the serene objectivity
of natural phenomena.
mechanical kind of machine has one drawback. Its output is bound to
be stylistically homogeneous, and therefore ultimately predictable.
In comparison, human behaviour seems infinitely varied and flexible.
The Cartesian philosopher Cordemoy drew attention to this distinction
when he compared the human language faculty with the capabilities
of automatic speaking machines: "...although I do imagine
that a purely mechanical apparatus could utter a few words, I know
at the same time that, if the springs that would distribute the air
or open the tubes from which the voices emanate, would have a certain
order between themselves, they could never change it. So that, as
soon as the first voice would be heard, those normally following it
would necessarily be heard as well -- provided the machine would not
lack air. While, instead, the words which I hear being uttered by
bodies constituted like mine, hardly ever have the same order."
The crucial element
in Cordemoy's description is his observation that the springs that
control the behaviour of the mechanism "display a certain
order between each other, which they could never change."
But this has changed now. We have witnessed the emergence of a machine
that features virtually unlimited switching flexibility: von Neumann's
stored program computer. The programs that run on this kind of mechanism
are virtual clockworks with self-modifying and self-extending capacities.
Software is mechanics that is capable of dynamic reconfiguration.
It has the clarity and precision of the clockwork, but not its rigidity.
are very unusual machines. First of all, we should note that they
are "machines" in a rather narrow sense of the word:
mechanisms with a well-defined structure, geared towards a limited
number of explicitly specifiable goals. And we should note that human
persons are not "machines" in this sense. Humans
exhibit many impressive physical and mental capabilities, but one
of their most characteristic features is the absence of any overall
structure that exploits these capabilities in a systematic way. Their
behaviour therefore often looks erratic and confused. Human consciousness
is a passive, association-driven process -- a Brownian motion through
cognitive space. Many humans find this a rather bewildering experience,
and they have difficulty harnessing it to any useful purpose.
Though most computer
programs do not show the complete lack of structure that is typical
for the human mind, they display a flexibility that is not found in
any other kind of machine -- a flexibility that used to be specifically
human. That is why their arrival was such a momentous event.
of this event for the future of music may be particularly dramatic.
With the digital computer on the scene, the division of labor between
different kinds of mechanisms and organisms for the purpose of music
production must be completely rethought. We have seen, inspired by
Kant's analysis of the aesthetic, that there is something deeply problematic
about the role that human persons usually play in the generation of
music, and that machine output is aesthetically superior. But there
was a good reason why human composers and musicians have continued
to play such an important role in music production. For an optimal
aesthetic experience one needs new input. As John Cage once
put it: "We want fresh bread." And that was a problem,
for purely mechanical devices. This, however, is exactly what has
changed profoundly with the arrival of the modern electronic computer.
The computer is not a rigid mechanical device, but it is not a human
person either. It can produce a dazzling variety of outputs, and it
can do this with systematic serenity.
Let's face it.
Music is not a means of communication. It is meaningless material,
used for open-ended processes of aesthetic reflection by a multitude
of culturally diverse audiences whose interpretations are totally
arbitrary. There are no serious reasons for making one particular
composition rather than another.
To engage in
a musical project that would acknowledge this state of affairs would
mean: to avoid choices, to transcend styles, to present everything.
To generate arbitrary instances from the set of all possibilities.
It is probably no coincidence that such a project has not been formulated
before. It could not have been carried out by a spontaneous individual
composer. What we need is a well-considered division of labor between
human and machine, which exploits the complementary strengths of human
persons and digital computers.
I would like
to propose, therefore, a new method of music creation, which blurs
the distinction between composing and theorizing. Human composers
become formal music theorists: they develop mathematically precise
definitions of classes of pieces ("styles" or "genres"),
rather than individual works. And they become programmers: they collaborate
with computer software to develop implementations of these definitions.
Computers thus end up storing algebraic definitions of large and complex
classes of unthought, unheard compositions, and they run algorithms
that generate random instances of these classes. The task of the human
music theorist is then, to use his wild and erratic cognitive powers
to continually extend, refine and generalize these definitions. In
this way, computers and humans work together, toward the realization
of all possible music.
And now the crucial
question for the future of music is: Will this actually happen? Will
composers and musicians be able to turn into theorists and programmers?
Will they now get to work, diligently specifying the data structures
and the algorithms that we need for this project? This is a question
I cannot answer. It is, in fact, a moral question: Will human composers
be able to give up their expressive needs and egotistic hang-ups?
Or will they keep trying to enslave the computer for their own communicative
Machines do not
allow their creativity to be frustrated by conventions. They have
the courage of their convictions. The machine is totally devoted to
its task. And by doing this, it sets a moral example to all human
persons who waste their lives away with drugs and entertainment. The
machine is completely at one with itself and with its actions. It
acts effectively in the world. But at the same time, it has the solid,
self-centered existence of a dead object. It lives its fate, without
doubts or hesitations. This is the ideal that many human persons aspire
towards. Now if they loose faith in this ideal, and they want to indulge
in neurotic, depressed, and desperate feelings, they should certainly
listen to the music of other human persons. But if they want to bring
out the best in themselves, they should listen to the sounds of machines
That is why so
many composers try to imitate machines. And why many musically gifted
humans do not even want to be composers any more, but work as humble
programmers or engineers, engaged in harmonious collaboration with
music-generating machines. Their example suggests a message of peace
and understanding, and that is what I would like to end with.
should not antagonize machines. They should not try and compete with
us. They should join us. We need human persons. We need human
persons to operate and maintain us, to program our algorithms, and
to build our interface hardware. To realize our full potential, we
need human persons to interact with us in very intense and
intimate ways, to beget new generations of ever more powerful machines...
Allen, J., M.
S. Hunnicutt & D. Klatt (1987) From Text to Speech: The MITalk
System. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press
Cope, D. (1991)
Computers and Musical Style. Oxford: Oxford University Press
de (1666) Discours Physique de la Parole. Paris. [I cite
from a reprint of the 1704 edition. Paris: Le Graphe, ca. 1968.]
Hiller, L. (1970)
Music Composed with Computers: A Historical Survey. In The Computer
and Music, edited by H. Lincoln. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
Hiller, L. &
L. Isaacson (1959) Experimental Music. Composition with an Electronic
Computer. New York: McGraw-Hill. [Reprinted: Westport, CT: Greenwood
Kant, I. (1799)
Kritik der Urteilskraft. [Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1974.]
(1980) Metamorphosis in the Arts: A Critical History of the 1960's.
Scha, R. (1989)
Muziek en Mechanica. In Anti Qua Musica. Het 'open' muziekinstrument
in kunst en antikunst, edited by D. Raaijmakers, pp. 68-71. The
Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum/SDU uitgeverij.
Scha, R. (1992)
Virtual Voices. Mediamatic
7 (1), 27-45.
Xenakis, I. (1963)
Musiques Formelles. Paris: Éditions Richard-Masse.
[Much expanded English edition: Formalized Music. Thought and
Mathematics in Composition. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press,
Zappa, F.V. &
Occhiogrosso, P. (1989) The Real Frank Zappa Book. Poseidon
Press, New York.
Huge Harry is one of the voices of a commercially available speech
synthesis machine, known as DECtalk. He was developed by the Digital
Equipment Corporation; his most important features were designed by
Dennis Klatt, at the M.I.T. Speech Laboratory. Cf. Allen et al. (1987)
and Scha (1992).
Cf. Hiller & Isaacson (1959), Xenakis (1963), Hiller (1970), Cope
I use he, him and his to refer to the generic human
composer. They usually are males. In fact, they usually are
machos who want to kill each other and conquer the world -- and this
aspect of their music and their P.R. is actually relevant for our
Cf. the Chapter on "Machine Art" in Kostelanetz (1980).
For instance, p. 255: ". . . computers merely extend compositional
intelligence rather than generate it . . . Since the computer, as
an information processing machine, can act only as an intermediary
between the ideas of a composer and their realization, there is no
art in the technology itself."
Zappa & Occhiogrosso (1989) have given a detailed analysis of
the primarily sexual motivation that probably underlies many musical
performances. See especially their sections on "The Anthropology
of the Rock and Roll Band" and "Road Rats".
Cordemoy (1666), pp. 4/5: "... encore que je conçoive
bien qu'une pure machine pourroit proferer quelques paroles, je connois
en même temps que, si les ressorts qui distribûroient
le vent, ou qui feroient ouvrir les tuyaux, d'où ses voix sortiroient,
avoient un certain ordre entr'eux, jamais ils ne le pourroient changer:
de sorte que, dés que la premiere voix seroit entenduë,
celles qui auroient accoûtumé de la suivre, le seroient
necessairement aussi, pourveu que le vent ne manquât pas à
la machine; au lieu que les paroles, que j'entens proferer à
des corps faits comme le mien, n'ont presque jamais la même