Skip to Content

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

Keep Reading

Most Popular

computation concept
computation concept

How AI is reinventing what computers are

Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

pig kidney transplant surgery
pig kidney transplant surgery

Surgeons have successfully tested a pig’s kidney in a human patient

The test, in a brain-dead patient, was very short but represents a milestone in the long quest to use animal organs in human transplants.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.