Hear the First Recording of Computer Generated Music: Researchers Restore Music Programmed on Alan Turing’s Computer (1951)


How­ev­er you feel about elec­tron­ic music, you’ll still find your­self lis­ten­ing to it most places you go. For bet­ter or worse, it has become mood music, sooth­ing the jan­gled nerves of cus­tomers in cof­fee shops and lulling bou­tique shop­pers into a pleas­ant sense of hip. Some com­put­er music pio­neers have moved on from com­pos­ing their own music to mak­ing com­put­ers do it for them. It’s pre­cise­ly the kind of thing I imag­ine Alan Tur­ing might have pur­sued had the com­put­er sci­ence giant also been a musi­cian.

In fact, Tur­ing did inad­ver­tent­ly cre­ate a com­put­er that could play music when he input a sequence of instruc­tions into it, which relayed sound to a loud­speak­er Tur­ing called “the hoot­er.” By vary­ing the “hoot” com­mands, Tur­ing found that he could make the hoot­er pro­duce dif­fer­ent notes, but he was “not very inter­est­ed in pro­gram­ming the com­put­er to play con­ven­tion­al pieces of music,” note Jack Copeland and Jason Long at the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog. Tur­ing “used the dif­fer­ent notes” as a rudi­men­ta­ry noti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem, “to indi­cate what was going on in the com­put­er.”

Instead, the task fell to school­teacher, pianist, and future com­put­er sci­en­tist Christo­pher Stra­chey to cre­ate the first com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed music, using Turing’s gigan­tic Mark II, its pro­gram­ming man­u­al, and “the longest com­put­er pro­gram ever to be attempt­ed.” After an all-night ses­sion, Stra­chey had taught the com­put­er to hoot out “God Save the Queen.” Upon hear­ing the com­po­si­tion the next morn­ing, Tur­ing exclaimed, “good show,” and Stra­chey received a job offer just a few weeks lat­er.

Once the BBC heard of the achieve­ment, they vis­it­ed Turing’s Com­put­ing Machine Lab­o­ra­to­ry and made the record­ings above in 1951, which include a ver­sion of Strachey’s “God Save the Queen” pro­gram and ren­di­tions of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” The “orig­i­nal 12-inch disc the melodies were record­ed on,” writes The Verge, “has been known about for a while, but when Copeland (a pro­fes­sor) and Long (a com­pos­er) lis­tened to it, they found the audio was not accu­rate.” The two describe in their blog post how they went about restor­ing the audio and how it came to exist in the first place.

While the music Turing’s com­put­er pro­duced sounds painful­ly prim­i­tive, it would be sev­er­al more years before com­posers began to real­ly exper­i­ment with com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed music beyond the rudi­men­ta­ry first steps, and well over a decade before the design of sys­tems that could oper­ate in real time.

Now, although they still require human input (“the sin­gu­lar­i­ty isn’t upon us,” writes Spin)com­put­ers have begun to com­pose their own music, like “Daddy’s Car,” a Bea­t­les-esque song gen­er­at­ed by a SONY CSL Research Lab­o­ra­to­ry AI called Flow Machine. Here, a com­pos­er mix­es and match­es dif­fer­ent ele­ments, a style, melody, lyrics, etc. from var­i­ous data­bas­es. The machine pro­duces the sounds. SONY labs have been gen­er­at­ing com­put­er-made jazz and clas­si­cal music for some time now—some of which we may have already heard as back­ground music.

As Spin points out, already a new start­up called Jukedeck promis­es to “gen­er­ate a song in the genre and mood of your choos­ing…” per­haps as “back­ground music for adver­tise­ments or YouTube vlogs.” True to the spir­it of the man who inad­ver­tent­ly invent­ed com­put­er music, and who the­o­rized how a com­put­er might demon­strate con­scious­ness, the soft­ware will ask you to con­firm that you are not a robot.

via The Verge

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Enig­ma Machine: How Alan Tur­ing Helped Break the Unbreak­able Nazi Code

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music, 1800–2015: Free Web Project Cat­a­logues the Theremin, Fairlight & Oth­er Instru­ments That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Music

Pio­neer­ing Elec­tron­ic Com­pos­er Karl­heinz Stock­hausen Presents “Four Cri­te­ria of Elec­tron­ic Music” & Oth­er Lec­tures in Eng­lish (1972)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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