Algorithmic Composition

Algorithmic Composition

Algorithmic Composition - in the stricter sense - treat the generation of musical structure on a symbolical level and has a century old tradition not only in occidental music history. Recent paradigms encompass Generative Grammar, Transition Networks, Genetic Algorithms, Cellular Automata, Neural Networks and some approaches of Artificial Intelligence.

Algorithmic Composition

Algorithmic composition - composing by means of formalizable methods - has a century old tradition not only in occidental music history. The history of algorithmic composition has its beginning shortly after the turn of the first millennium with a system developed by Guido of Arezzo enabling the generation of melodic material from texts (In: „Micrologus de disciplina artis musicae“), spans over the application of algorithmic principles in the developing complex polyphony and is also found in the “composition machines” of Athanasius Kircher in the Baroque period. Furthermore, first applications of algorithms for compositional tasks can be found in the popular “musical dice game” in the 18th century. Finally, on August 09, 1956 the “Illiac Suite,” the first computer-generated composition, had its world premiere at the University of Illinois. In regard to the history of algorithmic composition, this date, however, marks only the beginning of a number of forthcoming fascinating developments which involve technical advancements as well as the investigation of new scientific disciplines.

If one now poses the legitimate question about which musical approaches actually may be subsumed under the term “algorithmic composition,” an answer can be found in the investigation of some general definitions of “algorithm”:

  • „A set of mathematical instructions that must be followed in a fixed order, and that, especially if given to a computer, will help to calculate an answer to a mathematical problem.“ [Cambridge Dictionary 2006]

  • „A systematic procedure that produces - in a finite number of steps - the answer to a question or the solution of a problem.“ [Encyclopedia Britannica 2006]

  • „[...] (especially computing) a set of rules that must be followed when solving a particular problem.” [Oxford Dictionary 2006]

Disregarding further special classifications, an algorithm may be, based on the abovementioned definitions, very generally described as a formalizable and abstracting procedure which – applied to the generation of musical structure – determines the field of application of algorithmic composition.

For the musical applications of the specific classes of algorithms, only examples are selected that, - in the stricter sense of algorithmic composition – treat the generation of musical structure on a symbolical level. This means that in these cases the outputs mostly represent control data or note values, whose acoustical realization – be it with conventional instruments or synthesis processes – is no longer a task of the generating algorithm.

Models for generating musical structure may be obtained from nearly every scientific discipline. Apart from that, interesting musical results may also be reached through simple but innovative compositional strategies or an appropriate mapping of data onto musical parameters. Accordingly concerning classification and description  of the procedures of algorithmic composition one has to restrict to algorithm classes which are on the one hand very well suited to the generation of musical structure, and on the other hand represent a class of algorithms that can process or generate musical information in a specific way.  Herein, the scope ranges from generative grammars that process and produce musical material in concise formalisms, to cellular automata in which a few simple initial rules lead to a complex behavior.

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