Listen to the Recently Restored ‘First Record of Computer Generated Music’

Listen to the Recently Restored ‘First Record of Computer Generated Music’

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Researchers recently restored the first recorded electronic music, on a computer produced by Alan Turing, who was a genius pioneer, mathematician, cryptanalyst, logician and theoretical biologist as well and famous for breaking the Enigma Code. Researcher duo Jack Copeland and Jason Long say that the restoration process of the 1951 recorded music wasn’t easy at all.

“A key problem facing audio archivists is how to establish the correct pitch of a historical recording. Without some independent means of knowing how the original sounded, it can be very difficult—or even impossible—to tell whether an archived recording is playing at the right pitch. An important case in point is the earliest known recording of computer-generated music.”

[Image source: Sound and Vision]

The recording was done in Turing’s Computing Machine Laboratory in Manchester, for the BBC by a collaboration with Christopher Strachey, who was a colleague of Turing in 1952. They both worked together on the first computer-generated music; while Turing developed and programmed the musical tones, Strachey strung the actual music together. Turing just said ‘Good show’ when he heard the music playing on his innovation but it was a historical moment, which changed the entire journey of music.

“The Manchester computer had a special instruction that caused the loudspeaker—Turing called it the ‘hooter’—to emit a short pulse of sound, lasting a tiny fraction of a second. Turing said this sounded like ‘something between a tap, a click, and a thump’. Executing the instruction over and over again resulted in this ‘click’ being produced repeatedly, on every fourth tick of the computer’s internal clock: tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click. Repeating the instruction enough times like this caused the human ear to hear not discrete clicks but a steady note, in fact, the note C6, two octaves above middle C.”

[Image source: Wikipedia]

“Turing realized that if the ‘hoot’ instruction were repeated not simply over and over again, but in different patterns, then the ear would hear different musical notes: for example, the repeated pattern tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick produced the note of C5 (an octave above middle C), while repeating the different pattern tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick produced the note of F4, four notes above-above middle C—and so on. It was a wonderful discovery.” ~ Sound and Vision

[Image source: Wikipedia]

Turing shaped the future of music with his genius mind, used his computers as analog synthesizers, and paved the way of electronic music. However, he was not really into programming his computer to play conventional music. He used the different notes to indicate the process of the computer. He used one for ‘mission completed’, others for ‘error when transferring data from the magnetic drum’, ‘digits overflowing in memory’, and so on.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

“It was a challenge to write routines that would keep the computer tolerably in tune since the Mark II could only approximate the true pitch of many notes: for instance, the true pitch of G3 is 196 Hertz but the closest frequency that the Mark II could generate was well off the note at 198.41 Hertz. We found there was enough information in Turing’s wonderfully pithy Programmers’ Handbook to enable us to calculate all the audible frequencies that the Mark II could produce.

However, when we ran a frequency analysis of the 1951 BBC recording (using the British Library’s digital preservation copy, ref. H3942) we found that the frequencies were shifted. The effect of these shifts is so severe that the sounds in the recording often bear only a very loose relationship to the sounds that the computer would have actually produced. So distant was the recording from the original that many of the recorded frequencies were actually ones that it was impossible for the Mark II to play.”

If you are interested in learning about Alan Turing, you can watch the movie called The Imitation Game based on his story as well. You can also watch the BBC Horizon Documentary about Alan Turing below.