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The Emerging Art of Algorithmic Music

Artists have begun searching the space of simple computer programs for algorithms that generate music. Now they want to crowdsource the problem

The composition of music that has the power to move and stimulate us is one of the great artistic pursuits. Indeed, composers are honoured in all societies for their creative genius. We know good music when we hear it but most of us have trouble creating it.

So the work of Ville-Matias Heikkila, a Finnish artist and computer programmer, might come as a shock. In the last year or so, he and others have been experimenting with the audio output of simple computer programs in an infinite loop. The output is a modulated stream of pulses that, when played through an audio speaker, sounds melodic.

Today, he outlines this work and some of the techniques and tools that he uses to generate the code, listen to it and even visualise it. He’s posted some of these tunes along with their source code on Youtube.

Heikkila says that these programs generate surprisingly interesting music, sometimes by repeating only two or three arithmetic operations. So he and others have been exploring the space of all possible simple algorithms, albeit in a rather disorganised way.

Now Heikkila, who also goes by the online moniker viznut, is proposing a more methodical search of this space. He wants to set up a program that generates new formulas automatically and a website that allows people to rate the music it finds. In essence, he wants to crowdsource the task of music discovery.

One half of this problem may have already been cracked for him. Ten years ago, Stephen Wolfram argued that the laws of physics are no more than a set of simple algorithms. In his book A New Kind of Science, he explores and characterises the entire space of simple algorithms for cellular automata and argues that the Universe is governed by rules like them. The difficult task is finding these rules.

Heilkkila and friends clearly want to do a similar thing for music.

That sounds like the kind of thing the Galaxy Zoo people would be good at. These guys have become experts at crowdsourcing. Having cut their teeth on the problem of characterising galaxies, they’ve since expanded into many other areas, such as crater counts on the moon, evaluating old meteorological records and recently announced a project to unravel the mystery of whale song.

Perhaps the search of symphonic algorithms could be next.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1112.1368: Discovering Novel Computer Music Techniques By Exploring The Space Of Short Computer Programs

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