Beginnings of Computer Music

Digital sound synthesis dates back to the first experiments of Max Mathews at Bell Labs in the 1950s. Mathews created the MUSIC programming language for generating musical sounds through additive synthesis on an IBM 704. The Silver Scale, realized by Newman Guttman in 1957, is (probably) the first ever digitally synthesized piece of music (Roads, 1980):

MUSIC and its versions (I, II, III, ...) are direct or indirect ancestors to most recent languages for sound processing. Although the first experiments sound amusing from todays perspective, Mathews already grasped the potential of the computer as a musical instrument:

“There are no theoretical limitations to the performance of the computer as a source of musical sounds, in contrast to the performance of ordinary instruments.” (Mathews, 1963)

Mathews created the first digital musical pieces himself, but in order to fully explore the musical potential, he was joined by composers, artists and other researchers, such as Newman Guttman, James Tenney and Jean Claude Risset. Later, the Bell Labs were visited by renowned composers of various genres, including John Cage, Edgard Varèse and Laurie Spiegel (Park, 2009).

Chowning & CCRMA

The synthesis experiments at Bell Labs are the origin of most music programming languages and methods for digital sound synthesis. The foundation for many further developments was laid when John Chowning brought the software MUSIC VI to Stanford from a visit at Bell Labs in the 1060s. After migrating it to a PDP-6 computer, Chowning worked on his groundbreaking digital compositions, using the FM method and spatial techniques.

Puckette & IRCAM

Most of the active music programming environments, such as Puredata, Max/MSP, SuperCollider or CSound, are descendants of the MUSIC languages. Graphical programming languages like Max/MSP and Puredata were actually born as patching and mapping environments. Their common ancestor, the Patcher, developed by Miller Puckette at CCRMA in the 1980s, was a graphical environment for connecting MAX real-time processes and for controlling MIDI instruments.


  • John Chowning. Turenas: the realization of a dream. Proc. of the 17es Journées d’Informatique Musicale, Saint-Etienne, France, 2011.
  • Bilbao, Stefan. Numerical Sound Synthesis. Wiley Online Library, 2009. ISBN 9780470749012. doi:10.1002/9780470749012.
  • Ananya Misra and Perry R Cook. Toward Synthesized Environments: A Survey of Analysis and Synthesis Methods for Sound Designers and Composers. In Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC 2009). 2009.
  • Tae Hong Park. An interview with max mathews. Computer Music Journal, 33(3):9–22, 2009.
  • Julius O. Smith. Viewpoints on the History of Digital Synthesis. In Proceedings of the International Computer Music Conference, 1–10. 1991.
  • Curtis Roads and Max Mathews. Interview with max mathews. Computer Music Journal, 4(4):15–22, 1980.
  • Max V Mathews. The Digital Computer as a Musical Instrument. Science, 142(3592):553–557, 1963.

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