Music That Writes Itself

Music That Writes Itself

In ambient music pioneer Brian Eno’s 1996 book A Year with Swollen Appendices, the composer wrote, “I really think it is possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say: ‘you mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?’” Eno was talking about generative music, a process by which a computer creates unique works from fixed parameters set by the artist. In its simplest form, you twist a few knobs (virtual or otherwise) and the computer takes it from there, creating music that can be credited to the system itself. The term generative art is most likely derived from “generative grammar,” a linguistic theory Noam Chomsky first proposed in his book Syntactic Structures (1965) to refer to deep-seated rules that describe any language. Steven Holtzman, author of Digital Mosaics (1997), traces the art form to the dawn of the information age in the 1960s, when musicians like Gottfried Michael Koenig and Iannis Xenakis pioneered computer composition. Decades later, a number of generative music apps are bringing Eno’s vision to our smartphones.
Here are a few apps where the artist is an algorithm:



Scape is a new kind of interactive album created by Eno and Peter Chilvers. The two previously collaborated on Bloom, one of the first generative music apps for iOS. Using a lovely interface, you combine colors and backgrounds tied to musical tones and combinations. Based on a series of rules coded into the app, a strange and compelling symphony emerges and it’s never duplicated. The result, the creators say, is “music that thinks for itself.” “You’re setting up the initial conditions, then letting the thing run,” Eno has said. Of course, you can then save your Scapes and share them via email.



Soundrop is a fantastically easy generative music app that both my first grader and I find endlessly compelling. The user draws lines of various colors and representing differently-pitched sounds to “contain” an array of bouncing balls in what’s called a “musical geometry.” Each time a ball hits a line, a sound is heard. You can even control some of the balls’ physics to further alter the curious rhythms and melodies.



Bucephalus is similar to Soundrop in that the music emerges from bouncing spheres, but there are many more knobs to twiddle. The user can control the hardness and resonance of up to 20 balls within the “virtual physics environment” and also adjust several built-in effects like reverb and distortion.


The Buddha Machine iPad App

The Buddha Machine iPad App is based on the a classic “transistor radio”-styled music box loaded with loops of ambient drones. The listener can adjust the pitch to alter the sound of each loop. The Buddha Machine iPad App enables you to layer multiple loops and “create your personal evolving ambient symphony!”


David Pescovitz / Boing Boing
David Pescovitz
As co-editor of Boing Boing, David Pescovitz is a collector of online anomalies, esoterica, and curiosities. He is also a research director at Institute for the Future.
Read More From David Pescovitz
  • anonymous coward

    While I’m sure it makes for good copy, I seriously doubt Noam Chomsky factors at all into the derivation of the term “generative music”… Rather, the term stems from the fact that the music is “generated” by the machine. In the same way that “Genesis” describes the set of things that went into creating existence. It’s the root meaning of the word…

    • pesco

      The term “generative grammar” does directly relate to “generative music” as both are about an underlying set of rules upon which the language, or music, is based. And thanks, I’m glad you like the text.

    • Winston Blake

      Naom Chumpsky is a clueless turd…

  • Anonymous coward

    Eno has been ahead of his time for the pop world, but Lejaren Hiller was doing this decades earlier. Eno was also preceded by the landmark work: A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, by Lehrdal and (sic) Jackendoff.

  • ca_guy

    RJDJ is a great iOS App for generating music that interacts from your surrounding environment.


    my favorite is MegaCurtis