Course Meeting Times

Lectures: Two sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session.

Course meetings are divided into two categories. Most sessions are topic meetings, which combine lecture, demonstration, listening, and discussion to explore particular areas of focus. Every 5th session is a workshop meeting, which enriches and extends topics through presentation of student work, criticism, and collaborative hands-on experimentation.


  • None but curiosity, willingness to experiment
  • Programming in Python or other languages useful, but not required
  • Experience with digital audio and DAW software desirable, but not required


This course examines the history, techniques, and aesthetics of mechanical and computer-aided approaches to algorithmic music composition and generative music systems. Through creative hands-on projects, readings, listening assignments, and lectures, students will explore a variety of historical and contemporary approaches. Diverse tools and systems will be employed, including applications in Python, MIDI, Csound, SuperCollider, and Pure Data.


  1. To gain a critical understanding of the history, techniques, and designs of algorithmic and generative music systems.
  2. To develop musical creativity and expression in the use and design of algorithmic and generative music systems.
  3. To critically evaluate claims of aesthetic and technological advancement, quality, and promise.

Required Texts

Readings for this class are comprised of various papers, articles, and book chapters. See the Readings and Listening page for a detailed list.

Required Digital Materials

All students are expected to have regular access to a computer (Windows, Macintosh, or GNU/Linux) with an internet connection, be able to listen to sounds on this computer (with or without headphones), and regularly check their MIT email account and the course Web site. Course announcements and comments on submitted work will always be distributed via email.

Lecture notes will be provided online, but these notes do not contain all necessary course information and are not a substitute for attending class and taking notes. Online lecture notes may be made unavailable at any time.

This course will use several free, cross-platform, stand-alone, or web-based applications and resources, including

  • Audacity
  • athenaCL
  • The Freesound Project
  • Martingale
  • PureData
  • SuperCollider

Assignments, projects, and demonstrations may be facilitated by the use and installation of these software tools.

Reference Materials

These reference works may be useful for terms, people, and concepts presented in this course.

  1. Oxford Music Online/Grove Music Online [subscription service]
  2. Buy at MIT Press Roads, C. The Computer Music Tutorial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. ISBN: 9780262680820.


Reading Assignments

All reading assignments, unless marked optional, are required. Reading assignments should be completed prior to the scheduled course meeting. Note the specified page numbers, as complete chapters are not always assigned. Taking notes while reading is strongly recommended.

Listening Assignments

All listening assignments, unless marked optional, are required. Listening assignments should be completed prior to the scheduled course meeting. Focused and critical listening is required, giving attention to duration, instrumentation, method of production, recording or performance context, notable sonic events, form, temporal design and proportions, aesthetic or historical contexts, and/or critical and subjective responses. Taking notes while listening is strongly recommended. The sonic materials engaged in this class require broad-bandwidth speakers or headphones; small computer or laptop speakers may mask critical sonic details.

Reading and Listening Discussion Leaders

For each class, students will be assigned to deliver in-class summaries and commentary on assigned readings and/or listening assignments. For reading assignments, discussion leaders are required to post notes, outlines, key terms, concepts, and/or critical responses. For listening assignments, discussion leaders are required to post commentary on duration, instrumentation, method of production, recording or performance context, notable sonic events, form, temporal design and proportions, aesthetic or historical contexts, and/or critical and subjective responses. Posts should be around 300 words, or about 1 double-spaced page in a 12 point serif font with one inch margins; and must be completed before the start of class.

Musical Design Report

This report is an original sonic sketch or musical work, lasting from two to five minutes, realized in notation, MIDI, digital audio, or code, and based on approaches, techniques, and/or models presented for each assignment. The sonic submission must be accompanied by written commentary (around 300 words, or about 1 double-spaced page in a 12 point serif font with one inch margins) consisting of at least the following components.

  1. A discussion of personal, musical, and/or aesthetic motivations.
  2. Commentary on how the techniques and/or tools shape and/or control the music versus how intuitive and/or aesthetic choices shape and/or control the music.
  3. An evaluation of the aesthetic quality of the results and a description of how the work might be improved and/or expanded.

For each assignment, a group of students will be selected to present and discuss their results.

Sonic System Project and Presentation

This project includes the creation of an original sonic system that functions as either a generative instrument with or without a performance interface or as a static or dynamic musical work employing techniques and/or tools of algorithmic composition. This project can be created with mechanical and/or acoustic tools, electrical circuits, creative extensions of conventional musical instruments and processors, or original software designs in any language or system. Students will present and demonstrate their system to the class and provide a written report describing their approach.

Two weeks prior to the project’s final due date, students must bring to class and submit a working prototype or minimal implementation of their sonic system, and be prepared to demonstrate and discuss their goals and plans as they approach completion.

Assignment Submission and Late Work

All written assignments, unless otherwise indicated, must be submitted digitally via email attachment. Upon receipt by the instructor students will receive an email confirmation within twelve hours. If a student does not receive an email confirmation, it is the student's responsibility to contact the instructor and/or re-send the assignment.

Digital media assignments, when required, must be submitted (if smaller than 5 MB) via email attachment or (if larger than 5 MB) via a digital delivery service like Pando (free Basic Version) or YouSendIt (free Lite account). Upon receipt by the instructor students will receive an email confirmation within twelve hours. If a student does not receive email confirmation, it is the student's responsibility to contact the instructor and/or re-send the assignment. All digital media assignments must be submitted as MIDI (.mid), AIFF (.aif), or WAVE (.wav) files.

Late assignments will receive a grade reduction. Students are encouraged to submit all assignments, even if late. Assignments turned in within seven days after the due date will be deducted 20 percent of the total points possible. Assignments will not be accepted one week after the due date or after the last scheduled course meeting.

Attendance and Participation

Attendance and participation, as integral parts of this course, are required. Excused absences include illness or emergencies communicated to the instructor before the absence. Students are permitted one unexcused absence without penalty. Beginning with the second unexcused absence, the final course grade will be reduced 3% with each additional absence. If a class is missed, it is the student's responsibility to make-up any missed work. As all assignments are digitally-submitted, assignment deadlines remain regardless of attendance.

Always arrive to class on time. Early departures are not permitted. Frequent tardiness may negatively affect final course grade.

Quizzes and Exams

Throughout the semester there will be occasional in-class quizzes. These quizzes will require short, written responses. These quizzes will ask questions about material presented in lecture, readings, and listening assignments.

If a quiz is missed, it is the student's responsibility to take the quiz at the beginning of the next (and only the next) class meeting. Quizzes cannot be taken more than one class meeting after the quiz was originally given. There will not be a final exam for this subject.


The final course grade will be determined from the following components:

Reading and listening discussion leaders 20%
Musical design reports (3) 30%
Sonic system project and presentation 20%
Sonic system project draft 5%
Quizzes 15%
Participation 10%

Grading policies, the use of grade modifiers, and additional grades will be given in accordance with policies set forth in the MIT Course Bulletin, Academic Procedures and Institute Regulations.

Grades are given on written assignments based on the following criteria. An F is given for incorrect, incomplete, and unsatisfactory work that demonstrates neither effort nor critical thought. A D is given for incomplete and unsatisfactory work that demonstrates some effort and minimal critical thought. A C is given for complete and satisfactory work with little or no creative or critical thought. A B is given for thorough, well-written, and well-presented work with some creative and critical thought. An A is given for substantial and creative original work and critical insight, executed without flaw.

Grades will be reduced for poor writing and/or an unreasonable number of grammatical errors. Grades are given for class participation based on the quality, relevance, creativity, and insight of aural questions, answers, and discussion points based on assignments, lectures, in-class demonstrations, or other student's work. As much as possible, participation grades follow the standards for written assignments as presented above.

Academic Integrity, Intellectual Property, and Plagiarism

Students are encouraged to discuss course content with other students taking the course. Each student must, however, produce their own original work. Students are expected to observe the highest levels of academic integrity. All cases of academic dishonesty will be taken very seriously. For more information on academic integrity, citing sources, and plagiarism see Academic Integrity at MIT.

Assignments may involve using digital media or intellectual property produced by others. Materials used in such situations, and provided by the instructor or obtained from the internet, must be either in the public domain or licensed specifically for shared use. Students are expected to follow all relevant copyright and intellectual property laws.

Plagiarism includes using the words, ideas, or creative works of another writer or commentator without acknowledgment. It does not matter where these words or ideas are found or if they are signed or anonymous. When using or referencing ideas that are not your own, a citation must be provided. It is the student's responsibility to understand what is plagiarism and how to cite sources. Parenthetical in-text MLA-style citations are acceptable. Footnotes are optional.

In the case of unattributed and/or suspicious student work, software may be used to search the internet, literature archives, and current and past assignments for possibly-plagiarized material.

Suspected cases of academic misconduct will be handled according to section 10.2 of MIT Policies and Procedures.


1 Foundations: Algorithmic and generative music systems  
2 Foundations: Musical parameters, mappings, and tools  
3 Approaches: Distributions and stochastics  
4 Foundations: Historical and categorical perspectives  
5 History: Serialism, loops, tiling, and phasing  
6 Workshop Musical design
report 1 due
7 History: Michele Gottfried Koenig Quiz 1
8 Approaches: Permutations, generators, and chaos  
9 History: Lejaren Hiller  
10 Approaches: Probability and Markov chains  
11 Workshop

Musical design
report 2 due

Quiz 2

12 History: Iannis Xenakis  
13 Approaches: Non-standard synthesis  
14 Approaches: Granular and concatenative synthesis  
15 Approaches: Mapping, sonification, and data bending Quiz 3
16 Workshop Musical design
report 3 due
17 Approaches: Cellular automata  
18 Approaches: Genetic algorithms  
19 Approaches: Grammars and L-Systems Quiz 4
20 History: Mechanical musical automata  
21 Workshop Sonic system
project draft due
22 Approaches: Agents and ecological models  
23 Approaches: Expert systems and style emulation Quiz 5
24 Discussion: Aesthetics and evaluations  
25 Sonic system project presentations

Sonic system

project report


26 Sonic system project presentations (cont.)