Fascinating Paper on Algorithmic Music Composition

Peter Langston was a pioneer in the early video game world. He founded what is now known as LucasArts (it was originally LucasFilm Games) in 1982. He contributed the self-generating music in the LucasArts classic “Ballblazer” which modified the music according to the action in the game, and would generate pleasing music based on random numbers, ensuring that you would never hear the same soundtrack twice. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I left that game on in the background for many, perhaps even hundreds, of hours. This was 25 years ago, when this kind of thing was cutting edge.

Langston is also a dedicated banjo player, and has done some serious study into the mechanics of playing banjo from the point of view of a computer scientist. He wrote a scientific paper named “Six Techniques for Algorithmic Music Composition” which includes a proof-of-concept algorithm for generating authentic-sounding banjo solos randomly using a computer. It also includes a fairly interesting early description of MIDI and the Roland MPU-401 (the first MIDI breakout box).

One of the fascinating aspects of the technique outlined in this paper is that it uses fractals to select musical notes in keeping with a basic melody. This paper has it all: fractals, diagrams of a banjo and several fretboards, and lots of C source code.

I won’t pretend that this paper will be interesting for everyone, but for the computer-minded banjo players out there, or even the banjo-minded computer geeks, this is a great read. Serious electronic music geeks might also get a thrill.

More information on the LucasArts game, including a sample of the generated music: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballblazer

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