The first computer music

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

(updated from the archive)

Robot with horn
Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

The first recorded music by a computer program was the result of a flamboyant flourish added on the end of a program that played draughts in the early 1950s. It played God Save the King.

The first computers were developed towards the end of the second world war to do the number crunching needed to break the German codes. After the War several groups set about manufacturing computers around the world: including three in the UK. This was still a time when computers filled whole rooms and it was widely believed that a whole country would only need a few. The uses envisioned tended to be to do lots of number crunching.

A small group of people could see that they could be much more fun than that, with one being school teacher Christopher Strachey. When he was introduced to the Pilot ACE computer on a visit to the National Physical Laboratories, in his spare time he set about writing a program that could play against humans at draughts. Unfortunately, the computer didn’t have enough memory for his program.

He knew Alan Turing, one of those war time pioneers, when they were both at university before the War. He luckily heard that Turing, now working at the University of Manchester, was working on the new Feranti Mark I computer which would have more memory, so wrote to him to see if he could get to play with it. Turing invited him to visit and on the second visit, having had a chance to write a version of the program for the new machine, he was given the chance to try to get his draughts program to work on the Mark I. He was left to get on with it that evening.

He astonished everyone the next morning by having the program working and ready to demonstrate. He had worked through the night to debug it. Not only that, as it finished running, to everyone’s surprise, the computer played the National Anthem, God Save the King. As Frank Cooper, one of those there at the time said: “We were all agog to know how this had been done.” Strachey’s reputation as one of the first wizard programmers was sealed.

The reason it was possible to play sounds on the computer at all, was nothing to do with music. A special command called ‘Hoot’ had been included in the set of instructions programmers could use (called the ‘order’ code at the time) when programming the Mark I computer. The computer was connected to a loud speaker and Hoot was used to signal things like the end of the program – alerting the operators. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to anyone there but Strachey that it was everything you needed to create the first computer music.

He also programmed it to play Baa Baa Black Sheep and went on to write a more general program that would allow any tune to be played. When a BBC Live Broadcast Unit visited the University in 1951 to see the computer for Children’s Hour the Mark I gave the first ever broadcast performance of computer music, playing Strachey’s music: the UK National Anthem, Baa Baa Black Sheep and also In the Mood.

While this was the first recorded computer music it is likely that Strachey was beaten to creating the first actual programmed computer music by a team in Australia who had similar ideas and did a similar thing probably slightly earlier. They used the equivalent hoot on the CSIRAC computer developed there by Trevor Pearcey and programmed by Geoff Hill. Both teams were years ahead of anyone else and it was a long time before anyone took the idea of computer music seriously.

Strachey went on to be a leading figure in the design of programming languages, responsible for many of the key advances that have led to programmers being able to write the vast and complex programs of today.

The recording made of the performance has recently been rediscovered and restored so you can now listen to the performance yourself:

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This blog is funded by UKRI, through grant EP/W033615/1.

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