Computer Music From Alan Turing’s Lab

I have sometimes pointed out to people that the early and ubiquitous development of computer music is scarcely surprising. Humans make music. (Neanderthals probably did, too. [2]) We make music with everything, and if we have nothing else, we make music with our body.

Every technology ever developed has been deployed first to stay alive, then to kill things, and then to make music. Computer technology is no different.

Evidence: Alan Turing’s lab used the computer to generate music.

Think about that for a second. There could not have been more than a handful of computers in existence, and no one had any idea what these expensive beasts were for except maybe calculating math tables.

With access to Sensei Alan’s hulking Mark II computer, Christopher Strachey thought, “Whoa! Let’s make music!” (Sensei Alan himself used the sound effects for what we now call ‘sonification’.)

With an all night hackathon (yes, children, we did this long before you were born!), he made it do music! And, as Jack Copeland and Jason Long comment, “In the wake of Strachey’s tour de force a number of people in the lab started writing music programs”.  And we have never stopped.

This month researchers in NZ released recovered audio from 1951, documenting what must be one of the first ever computer generated tunes. Awesome!

Copeland and Long note, “There are unsettled questions about the authorship of the three routines that played these recorded melodies”, because people immediately started hacking and modifying the code. Even at this early date, digital music was problematic!

  1. Jack Copeland and Jason Long, Restoring the first recording of computer music, in Sound and vision blog. 2015, British Library.
  2. Steven Mithen, The Singing Neaderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2006.


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