Generative Music (Without AI), Part 1
AI has been grabbing the lion’s share of headlines lately, as any new technology does. However, did you know there are other techniques besides AI? Some of these are old, some are new—but ALL can stimulate creativity and don’t require any programming or the most powerful GPUs currently available. Let’s explore some of these techniques at a basic level and examine some of the ways they can be used.
Aleatoric music is music where some elements are left to chance, and others may be undictated, or left to the performer’s imagination. While it wasn’t widely used until the early 20th century, the foundations of aleatoric music go back to the late 15th century. Franz Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are among the classical composers rumored to have used “musical dice” (Musikalisches Würfelspiel). In fact, I’m positive that reading about Mozart using them inspired my first experiments with aleatoric music over 30 years ago.
The classical version of musical dice, “consisted of a sequence of musical measures, for which each measure had several possible versions and a procedure for selecting the precise sequence based on the throwing of a number of dice.” However, not having that description available, I made up my own way to use them—feel free to use my method, or craft your own!
There are nine rules I’ve developed over the years for audio production, but can apply to any artistic situation. The first three are basic assumptions I use when I’m doing anything musical, such as composing. They are:
- There are no rules, only guidelines.
- If it sounds good, it IS good.
- When in doubt, refer to rules 1 & 2.
- Materials: (2) 6-sided dice
Let’s use the chromatic scale and assume 12-tone equal temperament tuning to keep things easy. It contains 12 notes, the same number of options as two 6-sided dice have available. See where this is going? Assign each number of Die A one of these 12 notes, not necessarily in order, and do the same for Die B. Make sure you log your mapping! One example might look like this:
Roll up some number sequences, and log the results. I generally do either 2-roll or 4-roll sequences, but this is where personal creativity starts to enter the process—roll as many sequences as you want! Using our map from above, we arrived at this example:
As you see, the results probably aren’t going to be musically pleasing. That’s okay, we aren’t looking for perfection, we’re looking for inspiration. Curation of results is an important skill when dealing with generated music—one I foresee becoming more valuable as AI-created or -assisted results start to be utilized more.
Let’s take the first set of two rolls: A, D#, A#, E. If we decide to eliminate the sharp notes by raising them a semitone, we arrive at A, E, B, E—which can be viewed as VI, I, V, I in the E pentatonic minor scale (I started on guitar so I gravitate to typical “guitar keys”). If we apply the same practice to the next set of results, we arrive at the longer progression of G, D, B, A, D, A, D, D.
At this point we have two chord progressions, one of four chords and one of eight chords. Personally, I would use the eight-chord progressions for the verses, the four-chord one for the chorus, and chop the middle four chords from the eight-chord progression to create a bridge. Then, adjust the harmonic rhythm—how often the chords change—to taste. Look at that, an entire song arrangement in minutes!
Remember, the process we just explored is adaptable. What happens if you take one of the dice and assign 1-6 to chord “flavors”, like major, minor, diminished, augmented, dominant 7th or minor seventh? What about using a die to determine scale choice? Rhythmic phrases? What are other RNGs (random number generators) that could be used? What are other mappings that could be used? What does it look like if one uses the alphabet as a base for mapping? The possibilities are endless, you’re only limited by your imagination.
That’s a “hidden joy” of generative music, for me – there’s just as much art and creativity in crafting the algorithms/rules as there is in composing via more traditional methods. What methods have you used to break out of ruts and inspire yourself?
The Rest of The Thump’s Rules for Audio Production
I know you’re probably curious about the other six rules I’ve assembled, here they are:
- Be cool.
- Be educated, be fearless and ALWAYS experiment.
- Principle over process.
- Murphy was a goddamn optimist.
- Eat a live toad first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day (probably).
- Take it, break it, make it yours!