Generative Music: A Brief Guide

Most of the time when I think about computer-generated music, I imagine a conspiracy of Dr. Luke and RedOne repeatedly hitting "enter" on some software that mass produces club banging beats. It turns out though, that computer-created music is an actual thing, and various established artists leave it up to their machines to create some genuinely interesting works. Coined by electronic music pioneer Brian Eno, generative music is music that constantly changes or develops and is guided by a system or algorithm. In a 2012 article with the Guardian, Eno described his initial fascination with the medium through "the idea of music that could make itself". From this idea, Eno created his own algorithmic compositions since the 70s (most notably Music for Airports) but probably produced his most ambitious work through Generative Music 1.

Although initially an art form only explored by the scholarly, generative music has become increasingly democratized over the past couple years. Smartphones have enabled apps for people to make their own computer generated sonic experiments. As a result, the output and potential for generative music has become widely varied, from serious artworks to goofy music apps. We'll take a general look at what computer generated music has offered us.

Brian Eno, Generative Music 1

Released in 1996 on an old-school floppy disk, Generative Music 1 consisted of 12 songs played through the Koan Plus Player, causing each song to change in structure every time it was played. The piece was meant to act as a trade-off between recorded technology and the ephemeral appeal of live music.

The Flaming Lips, Zaireeka

On the more analog side of generative music, the Flaming Lips released an album a year after Eno's floppy disk consisting of four compact discs to be played at the same time. Through this album, the band hoped to make packaged music more of a social experience where people would have to wrangle together boom boxes and play the album properly. The idea also attempted at focusing on generative music's ever-changing aspect, that sound systems would play differently, that the discs could be turned off at different times. The listener was given control over how the album sounded.

Video Games

In the past decade, generative music and video games have been closely linked. Lucasarts originally designed algorithmically generated music called iMUSE that used music as part of the game design so that players believed the music had anticipated their actions. A good video game experience blends the music into the experience, so that it feels like part of the soundscape. The sound effects also work as part of the music and compliment the listening experience. If the sound effects sound out-of-place with the tone of the game, it will be distract from the game. Sound effects in video games have a naturally musical nature to them, which is why electronic artists like Burial use sounds from video games for their drums.

iPhone Applications

The world of generative music is becoming further explored with iPhones as artists explore how to utilize technology to let the user experience the music making process. One notable example is the Biophilia iPad app Bjork made for her album, that combined visuals and allowed listeners to interact with the music and create new versions of the songs she produced.

Want to further explore the intersection of music and technology? Head over to Chromatik for free sheet music and tutorials.