Ode to a node: Sampling technology’s musical side

Rather than simply being a tool for recording and playback, technology has also inspired and generated original music over the years

Close up a guitar string being strummed using an SD memory card

Music and technology have had a long relationship. Primarily, it’s revolved around technology providing ways for people to record and playback music. In more recent years, though, as technology has played a more integral role in everyone’s life, it’s become a muse for some musicians, providing a creative inspiration for their work. Also, as technology and artificial intelligence have advanced, artists and engineers are devising ways for tech to generate original sounds and music, sometimes without human direction.

Use the arrows above to read about music that was inspired or generated by some well-known technologies over the years.

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Audio of Windows 95 startup sound slowed by 4000%
Credit: Just Game
Windows dream-like startup sounds

Whether you loved it or hated it, it’s hard to deny the impact that Windows 95 had on the world of computing. For those who used it, one of the less obvious, yet still significant, impacts was in their ears. Namely, the short sound that Win95 PCs made on startup.

The Windows 95 startup sound was created by musician and composer Brian Eno, who was hired to create something inspirational as well as something “optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional.” Most importantly, it had to be less than four seconds long.

In honor of the recent 20th anniversary of the release of Windows 95, artist and engineer Daniel John Jones took Eno’s original startup sound, as well as those for subsequent Windows versions 98, 2000, Vista, NT, and XP, and slowed them down by 4,000%, as he put it, “transforming each into an ambient piece of several minutes' duration, and amplifying the internal structures of these iconic, dream-like sounds.”

Now, if he could only also turn Clippy into high art.

A programmer with headphones on at his desk working
Music to code by

Music to Code By is an album of music, not generated by technology, but, rather, specifically created to be listened to while creating technology. Professional musician and software developer Carl Franklin composed the album for programmers who like to listen to music when coding; it consists of three tracks, each 25 minutes long so they fit in with the Pomodoro Technique that some developers use to manage their time.

To Franklin, programming and making music have more in common than most people might suspect. “I can see how certain aspects of music - notation, practicing, expression, etc. - are all means of manipulating abstractions, much like language and very much like software development,” he told me.

Of course, writing music meant to be listened while programming is a bit different from creating music meant to be listened to just for fun. “The biggest challenge was dialing back my instinct to make real music,” Franklin said. “This had to fade into the background. It couldn't distract the listener, but it couldn't be boring either. That was a particular challenge that I think most musicians would have found maddening.”

You can download a digital version of Music to Code By, which was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, for $18, or buy a CD of it, which includes the downloadable version for $20. You can also buy and download 5 individual additional tracks that Franklin has composed and recorded since the album was first released. Hard core programmers, of course, will want to write a script to do the downloading.

A video of the sound of tweets mentioning “osama” shortly after Osama bin Laden’s assassination
The sonification of Twitter

To many people, the vast majority of the 500 million tweets sent per day are nothing but a lot of noise. To some people, however, they represent the basis for music. Scott Lindroth, a professor music at Duke University, “sonified” tweets that mentioned “osama” shortly after Osama bin Laden’s assassination in 2011. The rhythms and pitches were generated by algorithms, and accompanying marimba sounds were composed to complement the auto-generated music.

Composer Peter Gregson and developer Daniel Jones created The Listening Machine which generated a continuous stream of music from May 2012 to January 2013 based on the tweets of 500 different people in the U.K. Their algorithms translated the topics, emotions, and tones of the tweets into music.

In 2012, Kingsley Ash created a sonification of Twitter music trend data, called Affected States. Reviews and news about musicians trending on Twitter were gathered and analyzed for emotion, energy and quality. Trending artists of higher quality and energy generate sounds with higher pitches and longer durations.

Sam Harmon’s Twinthesism, a Twitter-powered synthesizer for Macs, is “an attempt to sonify the human randomness being generated on the service.” Every 30 seconds a tweet is fetched and its individual letters are converted to numbers which the synthesizer uses to generate sound. Users can make their own original music by using faders to mix the sounds. If you’re happy with what you produce, you should, of course, tweet it out to the world.

Video of Listen to Wikipedia
Listen to Wikipedia

Everyone’s favorite source for answering questions, Wikipedia (the English version), has almost 26 million users who have created over 4.7 million articles than have been edited 790 million times (give or take). Listen to Wikipedia, open source software created by Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi, uses all of those edits to create a soothing, pleasant stream of sounds.

Additions are indicated with bells, while subtractions are represented with string plucks; the pitch of the sound indicates the size of the edit (the lower the pitch, the larger the edit). The only thing lacking is a sound indicating every time Wikipedia settles an argument.

Music video for IBM 1401, a User's Manual Part I
Songs of the IBM

Since its founding in 1911, IBM has had numerous incarnations and produced a wide variety of iconic tech products, from typewriters to mainframe computers to PCs. It’s not surprising, then, that a such an impactful company would be the inspiration for music.

First there was, Songs of The IBM, a corporate songbook commissioned by IBM founder Thomas Watson, Sr. and first published in 1927, featuring such classic tunes as “To I.B.M. Engineers,” “To Our I.B.M. Systems Service Girls,” and “To International Electric Writing Machine Division."

Then, in 2006, there was IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, an album by Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson, inspired by the recording of an IBM 1401 computer his father had made. As far as we know, though, none of IBM’s hardware ever included (or led to) a Grammy.

Video of the robotic string quintet Sound Machines 2.0 performing
Credit: Festo Bionic
A band of drones

Of all the jobs that robots that could eventually steal from humans, you’d have to think that musician and/or songwriter is pretty low on the list. However, people have been building robots that can play music - or pretend to play music - for years. Lately, though, robot musicians are getting a lot better, such as Z-Machines, a robotic quintet from from Japan and KMel Robotics’ music playing drones.

However, robots are not just playing music now, but they’re also learning how to create their own original music. Earlier this year, Georgia Tech student Mason Bretan created a robot which generates original music on a marimba using it knowledge of jazz theory, while a German engineering company has developed Sound Machines 2.0, a robotic string quintet which creates original music in a several different styles.

As good as robot musicians get, it’s doubtful they’ll ever be able to party like their human counterparts.

Video of the Video Game Orchestra performing the song Snake Eater
Credit: VGOOnline
Video game orchestras

Music has always been an integral component of video games, starting with the simple sounds and tones for early systems, through the highly produced, professional soundtracks that today’s games often use. Many artists over the years have incorporated video game sounds and music into their own work, such as the Yellow Magic Orchestra, which sampled sounds from games like Space Invaders and Circus in the late 1970s.

Today, groups like the Video Game Orchestra and the University of Maryland’s Gamer Symphony Orchestra regularly perform their own arrangements of video game music, though, if you go to see them play, don’t expect to hear anything from Frogger.

Audio recording of Listen to Bitcoin
Credit: Criptonauta
BitListen

Bitcoin is the most well-known form of digital currency, with more than 14 million Bitcoins currently in circulation (and more constantly being mined), valued at more than $3 billion. BitListen, created by Maximillian Laumeister and formerly known as Listen to Bitcoin, translates the roughly 100,000 Bitcoin transactions per day into a variety of soothing sounds (the user can choose from several options), with larger transactions (optionally) represented with deeper sounds. There’s nothing special to indicate, however, when Linus Torvalds earns a Bitcoin tip.

Video of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra performing
Credit: roses2rocks
Rhythmic typewriter manipulation

Computers long ago replaced typewriters as the tool for creating documents. While typewriters mainly exist now as historical artifacts, a few people make use of them and their iconic sounds to create music. The Boston Typewriter Orchestra regularly “engages in rhythmic typewriter manipulation” to entertain audiences and to preserve a sound that was once ubiquitous in most offices. Typewriters also make the occasional appearance during other musical performances. Sadly, no one has yet figured out to make music from Wite-Out.