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Musical computing: a scientific and artistic discipline

Music and mathematics


If music is now a discipline in the human sciences, it has long belonged to mathematics. In the 6th century BC, Pythagoras considered that the harmony of two sounds played together could be explained by numbers. He then devised a system for calculating the pitch of notes and dividing intervals, a method that gave rise to Pythagorean tuning, which was used until the end of the Middle Ages. Musicologists now recognize Pythagoras as one of the founders of music theory.


Throughout history, many composers and scientists have been interested in the relationship between music and science, strengthening the links between these fields. It’s not uncommon to find scientific personalities who also have careers in music. This is the case, for example, of the singer Karen Vourc’h who, after a master’s degree in quantum physics and a postgraduate diploma in theoretical physics, finally left her laboratory to join the opera as a soprano. In an interview, she declared « imagining sounds, universes, through mathematical formulas or in the form of melodies is the same intellectual research process ».


Indeed, musical composition is very much like a mathematical exercise, and properties of sound such as duration, frequency, intensity, and timbre can be represented numerically. This is why the computer has been an excellent tool for composition since its creation. With sound research being an important concern, the arrival of the first computers provided an opportunity for composers to make music in a different way, giving rise to a new practice: music computing.


Computer science for music


Concretely, the term « music computing » refers to everything that has to do with computers and music, so it’s a rather broad discipline. In general, music computing concerns the fields of music creation with computer tools, the design of software for music, and research. It includes tools for computer-assisted composition (CAC), computer-assisted music (CAM), computer music composition (CMC), music interpretation (e.g. orchestra simulation), music analysis, sound synthesis techniques, music pedagogy, and sound recording and processing.


As early as the 19th century, Ada Lovelace, the woman mathematician who created the first computer program spoke of the possibility of computer-assisted music: « […] the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent ». But it 2 was in 1957 that Max Mathews, an engineer at MIT, designed MUSIC, the first computer-based sound generator program. It was a computer system for sound synthesis that gave rise to Music from Mathematics, a record that brings together several pieces programmed by engineers and musicians.


In the 1970s, the first personal computers arrived on the market, making it possible to create music with computer technology outside the research laboratory. During this period, the Italian woman composer Doris Norton acquired an Apple II. She used the alphanumeric keyboard to program notes into her compositions and became the first-ever Apple music sponsor. In 1984, Beverly Grigsby composed the first computerized score for an opera and in 1985, together with Jeannie G. Pool, founded the International Institute for the Study of Women in Music, a duo that has worked for the recognition of music created by women.


From analog to digital: an example with the synthesizer


Let’s take a look at the history of the synthesizer to better understand the impact of computer science on music. At the beginning of the 20th century, electric instruments such as the Theremin (1919) and Ondes Martenot (1928) already made possible the creation of synthetic sounds. In the 1950s, two engineers, Harry Olson and Herbert Belar, who worked at RCA (Radio Corporation of America, manufacturer of public entertainment equipment and military electronics) created the Mark I, then the Mark II, two of the first analog synthesizers. These very large machines made up of oscillator circuits and electronic tubes allowed new sounds to be created.


At that time, electronic music was used to do experiments on sound in laboratories and was not well known. It was Wendy Carlos, an American woman physicist, and composer, who popularized the sound of the synthesizer with the recording of Switched-On Bach in 1968, a cover version album of some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works on a modular synthesizer. Wendy Carlos went on to collaborate with Robert Moog, the creator of the Moog synthesizers, on the development of new machines. During the 1960s synthesizers were commercialized, they were cheaper and smaller and therefore more accessible to the general public. During this period, many women composers such as Laurie Spiegel, Eliane Radigue, and Suzanne Ciani (creator of the Coca-Cola bottle-opening sound) used these tools to create new sounds.





The first digital synthesizers, an alternative to the sometimes unstable analog synthesizers, appeared in the 1980s with the evolution of computer science, more precisely micro-computing. In order to extend the possibilities for musical creation, musical instrument manufacturers searched for a way to connect these synthesizers together and they created the MIDI standard (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). This communication protocol, widely used in computer science, now allows electronic instruments, controllers, sequencers, and software to communicate with each other. This digital mode of communication can, for example, connect an instrument to a computer to transmit detailed information about how the musician is playing. MIDI is a revolution that radically changes the musical world as it’s finally possible to make musical arrangements with very few resources, making music creation more accessible.


Computer science has really impacted music to the point of transforming all aspects of the discipline, from music creation to the music industry. Today, with technological advances, laboratories such as IRCAM or INA-GRM as well as universities are conducting research in music computing and working on the development of software to answer specific needs related to music. But music also creates links with other scientific disciplines because a lot of jobs in music are interdisciplinary jobs that require technical and scientific skills: sound engineer, mixer, sound designer, acoustical engineer, psychoacoustics, etc. So if you like music and science, you don’t necessarily have to make a choice!


Written by Alice Sauda


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