Generative Music; where music writes itself.
Posted by James Cullen on
I've seen a lot of people using generative concepts to create music over the last year. The idea of creating an environment where your music isn't always predictable is something I've found myself drawn to in recent months. Especially because I spent a lot of time in my younger years listening to Steve Reich and Brian Eno, it's fitting that things have come full circle. Both Eno and Reich are pioneers of the genre, doing a lot of work in the early days of creating generative music.
The reason I think I've been seeing it have something of a resurgence, is due in no small part to the fact that in the modern world of music production, we have so much control over so many individual parameters within our musical toolboxes, that it can quickly become overwhelming. There are few surprises anymore, because when you get into the habit of trying to create music you're already imagining, you can be blind to things that lay outside of that.
I can see how some people, including yours truly, can become extremely overwhelmed with all of the controls, knobs, parameters and adjustments that can sometimes be required within music production.
And it's in this space of confusion and chaos that I believe generative music sits. Being able to create music which can surprise you, and feels like it has a life of its own, separate from your input, is a great tool.
So in this guide, we're going to take a bit of a deep dive into what generative music is, and more importantly, how you can apply some of the techniques in your own music to let go of some of the control and see what results you can get.
So let's jump right in.
What is generative music?
Generative Music is a term popularised by Brian Eno, to describe music that is ever-different and changing, and which is created by a system.
So, in lamen's terms, you're creating a system which creates the music for you, and you define the rules of that system.
These rules can run the gamut from simple probability rules, to much more complex rules based on chords and scales and other similar elements.
What is interesting about certain types of generative music is that they can be infinitely different as they evolve. This quote below from Brian Eno talks about how he used a selection of tape machines playing back loops at different speeds to ensure they never synced up again, meaning the music was constantly evolving.
"The thing about pieces like this is that they are actually of almost infinite length. They simply don't reconfigure the same way again. This is music for free in a sense. The considerations that are important, then, become questions of how the system works and most important of all, what you feed into the system."
Brian Eno, Generative Music, 1996.
In order to understand this concept a bit better, let's explore a little bit of the background for Brian Eno's seminal work Ambient 1: Music for Airports.
The idea Eno had for creating this music was to use several different loops of magnetic tape played simulataneously. Each of these contained a recording of a single note, and these would repeat at time intervals which were dictated by the length of each loop.
In essence, this is a really simple technique, and you could do this in Ableton Live fairly easily.
You just need a series of loops of different length.
However, in Music for Airports, there's some more complex maths going on. Eno calculated a way for the loops to be of varying lengths so that they never sync up perfectly twice. This essentially means that you're getting new variations each time.
This is really well visualised in the animation below by Alex Bainter, who has created a beautifully in depth analysis and explanation of generative music here.
See the Pen Incommensurable Dots by Alex Bainter (@metalex9) on CodePen.
In the animation, each ball is repeating its circle at an interval dictated by those used in Music for Airports. You can see how each ball travelling in a circle is doing so at a different rate, and as such, the three never reach the top at the same time.
Now, if you read Bainter's article you'll see that they would eventually sync up again, but not for almost 27 days, which in the context of a piece of music might as well be forever. You aren't going to listen to a continuous piece of music for 27 days are you?
Anyway, if we translate the concept from the animation into musical ideas, we have a system in which three different ideas are repeating, but they will almost never fall back into perfect sync because of the lengths of the loops.
The musical implications of this should be obvious; while the balls rotating above create nice visual patterns, music is an audible phenomenon. The interaction between notes looping at different rates, especially when the notes are selected by the composer, can have wildly varied results.
You can use beautifully harmonic notes, or discordant ones. So let's explore this further.
We've gathered so far that the idea of generative music is to create music that is 'ever-changing', and Eno goes on to say he wants it to be able to 'produce original music forever'.
Now, Eno was working in a time of hardware, using tape loops on physical tape machines and other physical techniques to create his music.
Thankfully, we now live in the digital age, and so we can take some of these techniques and apply them to our DAWs.
Making ever-changing music.
Brian Eno's definitions of generative music - which we will be using, since he essentially coined the term and the genre - are twofold;
- First, it must change continuously and never repeat itself exactly.
- Secondly, it must last forever.
But these are rather extreme terms, and can be more effectively explained as follows;
- It must change continuously with no discernible repetition.
- It must last as long as anyone is willing to listen.
I won't go into the complex mathematics that's required to come to the above modifications, but if you'd like to read all about it, head over to the link to Alex Bainter article above. Seriously, it's an incredibly valuable resource and proved crucial in my research for this article.
Making generative music with software is much more exciting and accessible than it was in previous decades.
And that's down to one important factor; randomness.
Randomness is an incredibly powerful tool when making generative music, as I'm sure you can imagine. By its very definition, randomness takes some of the cretive decision making away from you as the producer and puts it elsewhere.
We've discussed the relationship between maths and music in the past, and taking the randomness concept and realising exactly how many possibilities of given systems can exist when using software gives you a great appreciation for just how simple it can be to create generative ideas.
Randomness is good because it allows us to create music by using randomly selected values, parameters and choices over what would normally be choices made consciously by the composer of the music.
John Cage was a pioneer of using randomness in music. His method has been to 'ask questions rather than make choices' when creating music.
By asking a question, you create a possibility space in which exists all possible answers to that question. So if the question is 'what duration should a specific note have?' and you let a random process determine the result, this is using randomness to generate a musical idea.
Here's a great quote from John Cage to illustrate this concept.
"Then the answers, instead of coming from my likes and dislikes, come from chance operations, and that has the effect of opening me to possibilities that I hadn't considered.
Chance-determined answers will open my mind to the world around."
Now, there's another advantage that software has which is its ability to use algorithms. This is defined as 'a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.'
You can use algorithms to create randomness, which in turn can create generative music. You should be able to see by the very definition, that an algorithm is a set of rules, how useful it can be in generative music. We've already discussed how generative music is music conforming to a set of rules to then 'wrtie itself'. So algorithms can be especially helpful.
So, by this point you should have a pretty solid grasp of what generative music is. We've covered it in a fair amount of detail, and I've linked some external resources if you really want to sink your teeth into it.
So let's now explore some techniques for applying these concepts to your music, using Ableton Live.
Generative Music in Ableton Live
There are a number of different techniques within Ableton Live you can use to add some generative inspired ideas into your music.
Whether you're wanting to create entirely generative, ever changing soundscapes, or you just want to inject some randomness into your music, there are tools to suit your needs.
So, let's break these down and discuss how you can use some of them.
Will it or Won't it?
You probably didn't even realise that there's a really simple way to incorporate some generative aspects into your music, built right into Live itself. This is something I only discovered in my research for this guide, and I've been using Ableton for years! It's a great example of how many things which can have a profound impact on your process can just be hiding in plain sight!
In order to explore this, I want you to first create a MIDI clip with some notes playing. You can see mine below.
So it's a pretty basic melody, nothing special, except for what you can see in the lane below the piano roll.
This space is usually occupied by the velocity values for each note, but if you click the yellow button highlighted in the image above, you open the MIDI Probability Editor.
This is a really neat feature within Ableton Live, so let's explore what it does.
You can see a close up view here of the MIDI Probability Editor. Each note in the piano roll is represented here with its own marker.
The numbers up the side correspond to the probability that the note will play. So, it follows that the higher probability you set, the more likely the note is to play.
This can create some really interesting phrases if you set a MIDI clip to loop playing a melody, with different probability markers assigned.
Setting the probability of all notes to 50% gives each note a 50/50 chance of being played or not, which for our purposes is sufficient to demonstrate the system. However, you can choose certain notes that you might want to assign higher or lower probabilities to as well.
You can hear how this level of randomness effects the music; with each new pass there are certain notes that may or may not play. It's exciting, and can generate an ever changing phrase built from the same set of notes.
Another cool trick you can do with this is to duplicate your loops, and make subtle changes to the duplicate.
These could be timing related, such as doubling or halfing the speed, or you could shift them up or down an octave.
Once you've done this, and played the loops side by side, you should be able to hear a really interesting interrelatability between the loops. Since they're essentially the same loop just in a different form. I had my main loop playing, with different probabilities assigned to certain notes, and then I duplicated the loop, shifted it down an octave and slowed it down by half. This created a really nice underpinning for the melody.
Using this technique can create some really beautiful results, so experiment to see what you can come up with.
The above example isn't the only way you can use probability in Ableton to create some novel and interesting musical ideas.
The previous example of using probability is based on a triggering mechanism, meaning the probability is deciding whether or not a note will play.
But you can also use probaility to determine which notes will play, out of a preselected bunch of notes you've chosen. Now, the way we are going to demonstrate this will be by using a Drum Rack, but you can apply the concept to whatever you want.
Set up a Drum Rack with a bunch of different samples on it. Using foley samples is a good idea, but you can use whatever you like.
Next, you'll wnt to drag an instance of the Ableton MIDI Device Random onto your track.
Now, as you can see in the image, I have a selection of samples loaded onto my Drum Rack, and the Random MIDI Device loaded with settings applied.
In order to understand what's happening, we will go over exactly what the controls on Random do.
Random adds an element of the unknown to your pitch parameter. So, it takes the pitch of an incoming note, and based on the parameters you set, changes that pitch.
Using this concept, we can have it randomly triggering samples on a Drum Rack, to add a really nice touch of unpredictable foley background noise.
So, there are three main controls on Random.
-Chance - this control defines the likelihood that an incoming note's pitch will be changed by a random value. A good way to imagine this one is as a Dry/Wet control for randomness. The random value that determines the pitch change is created by two variables.
- Choices - this control defines the number of different random notes possible. So this is our example of allowing the software to make the choice for you! The range of this control is 1 - 24.
- Scale - this control value is multiplied by the Choices control value, and the results dictates the pitches that random notes are allowed to have, relative to that of the incoming note.
So, that all sounds a bit convoluted, so let's give you some examples.
The values I have above are Chance - 50%, Choices 12 and Scale 1. So what does this mean in practice?
With these values, and my incoming note being the first note on the Drum Rack, it means that half of the notes played will be that note, while the other half will play at any of the semitone values between that and an octave above it.
Since I only have 7 samples loaded, I have a nice mixture of random samples and silence.
So far in this guide, we've covered a basic overview of what generative music is, and how you can apply some of the techniques in Ableton Live.
You've got a couple of tools to use in your own music and hopefully by using these, you can inject some randomness into your musical ideas.
We will do another guide on more technique for randomness and generative ideas, but for now we will leave it here. I think you've got enough to be getting on with!
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