One could be forgiven for assuming that the “computer” is a modern invention, that it could only be of influence during the last few decades or that the sum of its parts can be found in the IBM/Windows PC or iMac that may reside on our desktops. However, the origins go back further than one might imagine when we consider that the essence of a computer is not in the hardware or the software but instead lies in the power of its calculations.
The sophistication and speed of these devices with which we now calculate, and the uses we put them to, have changed drastically since the invention of the abacus but their effect on a constantly altering society is unchanging. As science develops through computational methods and tools, the world view is changed irrevocably and as the world view changes, the populace experience the paradigm shift of new understanding and this is reflected in their music.
Within this essay I wish to investigate the influence that computers have on the composition of music and though I do not wish to get too detailed, I do wish to go back to origins of both music and the computer to hopefully show that the links between them go deeper than we may assume and how both are linked to a changing world view and are intertwined with the steady rise of technology.
Around 3000 BC, when the dust abacus was first used to calculate a purely conceptual number, humanity had moved to stage where it could utilise and manipulate abstract mathematical information. The formation of science as it was first known, springing from Babylonia to Ancient Egypt and then to Greece, was one of the consequences of this primary paradigm shift in thinking. Slowly but surely, it led to a method of discovery that all aspects of life have been changed by, as professions began to crystallise; not least being that of the theory behind music composition.
It is known that Pythagoras travelled and studied geometry in Egypt and astrology with the Chaldeans, before returning as a sage to be known as the Master; changing music forever being only one of his many achievements and it is quite probable that he was greatly influenced by the mathematical skills of his foreign hosts. Pythagoras also dealt with fundamental areas of logic, using ideas that would eventually lead to the work of George Boole in 1854 to create his binary system of algebra known today as Boolean Logic.
At this time science and music were one and the same thing. Even in the ancient classical world the computer was, if not directly influential, tied closely with the developments in music. Where there is science there is calculation; where there is calculation there is a modern day computer, just waiting to be born.
The development of notation in the Middle Ages changed the way composers worked, offering an encrypted version of music as an abstract symbolisation of communication; a representation of information, much like anything we can see on our monitor screen. For the first time in history there was a method by which musical information could be copied without much degradation or de-coherence and could also be stored for future generations. This would begin an overlaying of cultural references, as all forms of communication began to improve and music began to move independently of its originators. From ancient to modern times, technology has continued to ignite revolutions in peoples’ methods of communication and the arts.
When the printing press eventually spread throughout the globe it took with it the printed compositions of an increasing number of people. The printed score acts as a graphic display of the music, making it easier for disparate artists to analyse the structure with a greater degree of focus and be influenced by and incorporate their own take on other composers’ work. As technology improved, the techniques of notation began to change, reflecting new instrumental sound ranges, quality of sound and precision of pitch. The Renaissance saw the role of the musician changing to one of great respect and patronage amongst the courts of nobility and the twin arts of opera and ballet were being formed; uniting music, drama and dance in the first true expression of multi-media.
By the time we get to the Baroque period of music, there are two aspects that stand out above all others, both equally important in terms of their impact on composition and in their reliance upon technological innovation. The first is the invention of the piano forte and the second is the calculation of the equal temperament tuning system.
During the time of the Classical period the discovery of electricity had a profound effect on all society, not least on the entertainment industry of the time but the paths of the computer and the development of musical composition, art and science, had never been so polarised. Science had taken on a specific role in society as an absolute power and music had taken on another, exemplified by the giant shadows of Mozart and Beethoven.
When we reach the Romantic period we can see that a quick flurry of inventions were central to the globalisation of communication. Electricity, the Analytical Engine, Boolean Logic, the Telephone and Radio Transmission showed that science was expanding rapidly; defining another new outlook while the arts began to gain autonomy and independence through their celebrity status and patronage from the public instead of nobility.
During the Late Romantic period the first practical computer finally appeared but this contraption was still just a swift method of complex calculation; quite distant from musical composition. However, all those incredible achievements in technology affected the sharing of culture across the world. These events and inventions continually changed the way composers related to their material and offered them a vast new range of emotional expression.
Music, like any part of human existence, has evolved directly in line with technology. Here again, the computer is hiding beneath the science of every development; continuing to alter the world’s perception of itself and the way in which we relate to technology and our music.
The phenomenal changes in technology throughout the 20th Century do not need to be catalogued here, despite their impact on compositional inspiration and method. Here we arrive at the great leap of enterprise, when the computer first moved from raw calculation for science and the military to the wealth of the business sector and from there to the home market; where it came under the direct control of the composers themselves.
The main powers of influence it held over the creative process, as it developed into the tool we now use everywhere, are threefold. Between 1983 and 1985 the TCP/IP changeover marked the creation of the global internet (before its further evolution to the World Wide Web in 1990) and the software revolution brought home printing and studio recording to the masses.
Most memorably though, it was Macintosh computers and its ugly twin from IBM and Microsoft who brought about the most change. They gave us the Graphical User Interface to replace the command line of programming with more user-friendly windows, icons, menus and pull down screens; the home PC changed the way people would deal with computers, as a tool for many different tasks.
Digitisation of information in all forms has meant a steady rise in the volume of information available to any one person. Information once weighed a great deal; stored in books, tape, film reels and vinyl. Today it can be seen that information is weightless and instant; by instant we need only consider J.S. Bach walking two hundred miles to Lubeck in order to hear the Abendmusiken and we can compare the difference, if we wish to listen to Bach we need only walk to our nearest Internet access point.
The prime change in methodology behind musical composition is one of time. A piece of music can be created and manipulated indefinitely, instantly trying whatever whim might come into a composer’s mind and thus breaking down the rigid doctrines of classical musical composition.
Within music the computer offers us a unique relationship with sound and music composition. Some of the characteristics of this new media are positive and some are negative, depending on what effect you wish to achieve. One aspect to music is that even with a digital recording the sound held within a computer is not “real” in the sense that the subtlety of the sound is raw data and obviously a poor substitute for the warmth and physicality of live instruments; as such, it will have lost touch with some sense of humanity.
On the other hand there are no sound constraints formed by the physics of live instruments and it offers a dispassionate performance that may allow other details in the music to be uncovered. The most complex and demanding impossibilities within sound can be repeated indefinitely without being limited to any constraints of space, venue, musician intervention or time.
The computer is now used as a tool to organise sound, for anyone with a modicum of cash, that will allow global proliferation without the intervention of the corporations. Everyone can be their own record label, studio, press, agent and distributor.
“And that day the spirits of Turing and von Neumann spoke unto Moore of Intel, granting him insight and wisdom to understand the future. And Moore was with chip, and he brought forth the chip and named it 4004. And Moore did bless the Chip, saying, “Thou art a Breakthrough; with my own Corporation have I fabricated thee. Thou art yet as small as a dust mite, yet shall thou grow and replicate unto the size of a mountain, and conquer all before thee. This blessing I give unto thee: every eighteen months shall thou double in capacity, until the end of the age.” This is Moore’s Law, which endures unto this day. ” – Gospel of Tux, Lennier (1)
Moore’s Law is a famous adage that states a doubling of the number of transistors on a microprocessor every eighteen months. If this law holds true, and it has done so far, by around the year 2040 the size of a transistor will need to be measured at the atomic level and we will have entered the age of quantum computing.
Before extolling the virtues of Quantum Computing, these are the fundamentals : Silicon based computers store information in bits, which can either be in a position of 1 or 0; the binary we all understand. The quantum bit (qubit) can, however, be in both states simultaneously; allowing it to perform two calculations with a single qubit. By adding qubits together it means that two qubits allow four different super-positions, three qubits can be in eight states, and so on exponentially. By the time a hundred are strung together the resulting number of simultaneous calculations that can be made will exceed one point two quintillion.(1,267,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000); all in the time it takes the modern home PC to do one calculation.
Considering that a single qubit of information would be stored in the electron spin of an atom or the energy level of an ion, it can be shown that the real heart and soul of our future quantum computers will be smaller than can be seen with the naked eye; yet they will be capable of performing real-time, hyper-realistic simulations. The possibilities of this technology are too vast and seemingly magical to go into but if it is to be a part of our future the quantum computer will have the greatest effect of all on musical composition as it will change everything.
All sound will be replicable from any source with absolute fidelity, with physical acoustic modelling being as rich and fully textured as a live instrument. Using advanced artificial intelligence a digital score could be performed with as much sensitivity and expression as the greatest of any living human musician. The computer will be able to generate its own music, indistinguishable from the music generated by our own organic software. People will develop an experience-led participation with music when immersing themselves in virtual reality and interactive entertainment.
The most fundamental aspect to this kind of technology is that it will facilitate a merging of different media into a single Omni-media, where composition is directly influenced, effected and wholly united with all artistic forms. Successful composers will not be composing in terms of the purely acoustic experience, but will be composing with a level of non-linearity and interactivity of all senses that has never before been known.
A ‘computer’ means one who calculates. The term once referred to the human operator of these complex calculation engines but after the ‘automatic’ computer was invented the use of the word shifted and with it went the perception of what a computer actually is. Fundamentally, the computer as it is known today is a development that spans back to the first abacus and from this simple calculation tool all of our present technology has been derived. What is the true sum of influence that computers have had on musical composition?
Though from a modern perspective it would seem to be a great deal I can’t help but think that so far we haven’t seen anything radically different. Of course, the influence of modern living and culture has had undeniable effect on the way we create and consume music but with the computer we can only look at a specific and not that distant timeframe. Despite all the power and wonder of the modern computer we are only just beginning to transpose our old methods onto a new media. Other technological advances, such as magnetic audio tape, turntables, notation, amplification, power, radio, television, the electronic keyboard and guitar, the microphone and host of other interconnected inventions were in use before the advent of the modern computer and have each played their roles in effecting composition.
The computer’s influence has united all of these differing concepts and mediums, subsuming some aspects by virtue of ease or affordability and awkwardly mimicking others, but we cannot know the true effects of computers on composition at this time because the ability to fully realise their potential has not been around long enough.
The effect on composers and the composition of music should only be measured in terms of those who have grown up with the computer as part of their assumed daily life. Composers after WW2 were part of a different technology boom and computers as we now know them will only be truly influential on composers born after 1984. Those who are presently aged nineteen, and their future children, may be able to tell us the influence of computers on music composition but for now the real power has yet to be seen.