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What is Computer Music?

Computer Music has several varieties. The most familiar variety is MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). MIDI computer music setups work like a player piano. A computer sends note information to external MIDI modules which create sound. A combination of several modules can recreate an entire orchestra. The other, less well known variety is Software Synthesis.

Software Synthesis does not use MIDI, or external modules. Instead, it performs all functions on one computer. Computer programs write their sound in the form of 1s and 0s to the hard disk, and then that sound is played back through a digital to analog converter. The benefit of such a system is total control over every aspect of the sound. You can control timing and rhythm down to .0000227th of a second. Also, you can conceivably program any possible synthesis algorithm to recreate any type of sound or timbre.

How do students write music in the lab?

The technique taught at the center hails from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, started in the 1950s. We have adapted this technique to the computer, in our Music 264 course.

Students use a variety of computer programs to generate, filter, process (for example, reverberate the sound), and mix sounds together. Each program writes a separate file to the disk, and the student uses a mixing program to put them together, somewhat like the process of creating a mosaic out of individual tiles.

Return to the Harvard Computer Music Center