Max Mathews was a pioneering, central figure in computer music. After studying engineering at California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1954 Mathews went on to develop ‘Music 1’ at Bell Labs; the first of the ‘Music’ family of computer audio programmes and the first widely used program for audio synthesis and composition. Mathews spent the rest of his career developing the ‘Music N’ series of programs and became a key figure in digital audio, synthesis, interaction and performance. ‘Music N’ was the first time a computer had been used to investigate audio synthesis ( Computers had been used to generate sound and music with the CSIR M1 and Ferranti Mk1 as early as 1951, but more as a by-product of machine testing rather than for specific musical objectives) and set the blueprint for computer audio synthesis that remains in use to this day in programmes like CSound, MaxMSP and SuperCollider and graphical modular programmes like Reaktor.1http://www.computer-history.info/Page4.dir/pages/IBM.704.dir
“Computer performance of music was born in 1957 when an IBM 704 in NYC played a 17 second composition on the Music I program which I wrote. The timbres and notes were not inspiring, but the technical breakthrough is still reverberating. Music I led me to Music II through V. A host of others wrote Music 10, Music 360, Music 15, Csound and Cmix. Many exciting pieces are now performed digitally. The IBM 704 and its siblings were strictly studio machines – they were far too slow to synthesize music in real-time. Chowning’s FM algorithms and the advent of fast, inexpensive, digital chips made real-time possible, and equally important, made it affordable.” 2Max Mathews, (1997), Horizons in Computer Music, March 8–9, Indiana University.
MUSIC I 1957
Music 1 was written in Assembler/machine code to make the most of the technical limitations of the IBM704 computer. The audio output was a simple monophonic triangle wave tone with no attack or decay control. It was only possible to set the parameters of amplitude, frequency and duration of each sound. The output was stored on magnetic tape and then converted by a DAC to make it audible (Bell Laboratories, in those years, were the only ones in the United States, to have a DAC; a 12-Bit valve technology converter, developed by EPSCO), Mathews says;
“In fact, we are the only ones in the world at the time who had the right kind of a digital-to-analog converter hooked up to a digital tape transport that would play a computer tape. So we had a monopoly, if you will, on this process“.3An Interview with Max Mathews. Tae Hong Park. Music Department, Tulane University. https://tinyurl.com/ypfdw2xb
In 1957 Mathews and his colleague Newman Guttman created a synthesised 17 second piece using Music I, titled ‘The Silver Scale’ ( often credited as being the first proper piece of computer generated music) and a one minute piece later in the same year called ‘Pitch Variations’ both of which were released on an anthology called ‘Music From Mathematics’ edited by Bell Labs in 1962.4image: ‘An Interview with Max Mathews’. Tae Hong Park. Music Department, Tulane University. https://tinyurl.com/ypfdw2xb
MUSIC II 1958
Was an updated more versatile and functional version of Music I . Music II still used assembler but for the transistor (rather than valve) based, much faster IBM 7094 series. Music II had four-voice polyphony and a was capable of generating sixteen wave shapes via the introduction of a wavetable oscillator.
MUSIC III 1960
“MUSIC 3 was my big breakthrough, because it was what was called a block diagram compiler, so that we could have little blocks of code that could do various things. One was a generalized oscillator … other blocks were filters, and mixers, and noise generators.”
5Max Mathews, (2011), ‘Max Mathews (1926–2011)’, Interview with Geeta Dayal, Frieze Magazine.09 MAY 2011. https://www.frieze.com/article/max-mathews-1926-E2-80-932011
The introduction of Unit Generators (UG) in MUSIC III was an evolutionary leap in music computing proved by the fact that almost all current programmes use the UG concept in some form or other. A Unit generator is essentially a pre-built discreet function within the program; oscillators, filters, envelope shapers and so-on, allowing the composer to flexibly connect multiple UGs together to generate a specific sound. A separate ‘score’ stage was added where sounds could be arranged in a musical chronological fashion. Each event was assigned to an instrument, and consisted of a series of values for the unit generators’ various parameters (frequency, amplitude, duration, cutoff frequency, etc). Each unit generator and each note event was entered onto a separate punch-card, which while still complex and archaic by today’s standards, was the first time a computer program used a paradigm familiar to composers.
7image: ‘An Interview with Max Mathews’. Tae Hong Park. Music Department, Tulane University. https://tinyurl.com/ypfdw2xb
“The crucial thing here is that I didn’t try to define the timbre and the instrument. I just gave the musician a tool bag of what I call unit generators, and he could connect them together to make instruments, that would make beautiful music timbres. I also had a way of writing a musical score in a computer file, so that you could, say, play a note at a given pitch at a given moment of time, and make it last for two and a half seconds, and you could make another note and generate rhythm patterns. This sort of caught on, and a whole bunch of the programmes in the United States were developed from that. Princeton had a programme called Music 4B, that was developed from my MUSIC 4 programme. And (theMIT professor) Barry Vercoe came to Princeton. At that time, IBM changed computers from the old 1794 to the IBM 360 computers, so Barry rewrote the MUSIC programme for the 360, which was no small job in those days. You had to write it in machine language.”
6Max Mathews, (2011), ‘Max Mathews (1926–2011)’, Interview with Geeta Dayal, Frieze Magazine.09 MAY 2011. https://www.frieze.com/article/max-mathews-1926-E2-80-932011
MUSIC IV was the result of the collaboration between Max Mathews and Joan Miller completed in 1963 and was a more complete version of the MUSIC III system using a modified macro enabled version of the assembler language. These programming changes meant that MUSIC IV would only run on the Bell Labs IBM 7094.
“Music IV was simply a response to a change in the language and the computer. It Had some technical advantages from a computer programming standpoint. It made heavy use of a macro assembly program Which Existed at the time.”
Max Mathews 1980. 8Curtis Roads, ‘Interview with Max Mathews’, Computer Music Journal, Vol. 4, 1980.
MUSIC IVB, IVBF and IVF
Due to the lack of portability of the MUSIC IV system other versions were created independently of Mathews and the Bell labs team, namely MUSIC IVB at Princeton and MUSIC IVBF at the Argonne Labs. These versions were built using FORTRAN rather than assembler language.
MUSIC V was probably the most popular of the MUSIC N series from Bell Labs. Similar to MUSIC IVB/F versions, Mathews abandoned assembler and built MUSIC V in the FORTRAN language specifically for the IBM 360 series computers. This meant that the programme was faster, more stable and could run on any IBM 360 machines outside of Bell Laboratories. The data entry procedure was simplified, both in Orchestra and in Score section. One of the most interesting news features was the definition of new modules that allow you to import analogue sounds into Music V. Mathews persuaded Bell Labs not to copyright the software meaning that MUSIC V was probably one of the first open-source programmes, ensuring it’s adoption and longevity leading directly to today’s CSound.
“… The last programme I wrote, MUSIC 5, came out in 1967. That was my last programme, because I wrote it in FORTRAN. FORTRAN is still alive today, it’s still in very good health, so you can recompile it for the new generation of computers. Vercoe wrote it for the 360, and then when the 360 computers died, he rewrote another programme called MUSIC 11 for the PDP-11, and when that died he got smart, and he wrote a programme in the C language called CSound. That again is a compiler language and it’s still a living language; in fact, it’s the dominant language today. So he didn’t have to write any more programmes.”
9Max Mathews, (2011), ‘Max Mathews (1926–2011)’, Interview with Geeta Dayal, Frieze Magazine.09 MAY 2011. https://www.frieze.com/article/max-mathews-1926-E2-80-932011
MUSIC V marked the end of Mathews involvement in MUSIC N series but established it as the parent for all future music programmes. Because of his experience with the real-time limitations of computer music, Mathews became interested in developing ideas for performance based computer music such as the GROOVE system (with Richard Moore in 1970) system in and The ‘Radio Baton’ (with Tom Oberheim in 1985 ).
|1957||Music I||Bell Labs (New York)||Max Mathews|
|1958||Music II||Bell Labs (New York)||Max Mathews|
|1960||Music III||Bell Labs (New York)||Max Mathews|
|1963||Music IV||Bell Labs (New York)||Max Mathews, Joan Miller|
|1963||Music IVB||Princeton University||Hubert Howe, Godfrey Winham|
|1965||Music IVF||Argonne Laboratories (Chicago)||Arthur Roberts|
|1966||Music IVBF||Princeton University||Hubert Howe, Godfrey Winham|
|1966||Music 6||Stanford University||Dave Poole|
|1968||Music V||Bell Labs (New York)||Max Mathews|
|1969||Music 360||Princeton University||Barry Vercoe|
|1969||Music 10||Stanford University||John Chowning, James Moorer|
|1970||Music 7||Queen’s College (New York)||Hubert Howe, Godfrey Winham|
|1973||Music 11||M.I.T.||Barry Vercoe|
|1977||Mus10||Stanford University||Leland Smith, John Tovar|
|1980||Cmusic||University of California||Richard Moore|
|1984||Cmix||Princeton University||Paul Lansky|
|1985||Music 4C||University of Illinois||James Beauchamp, Scott Aurenz|
- 2Max Mathews, (1997), Horizons in Computer Music, March 8–9, Indiana University.
- 3An Interview with Max Mathews. Tae Hong Park. Music Department, Tulane University. https://tinyurl.com/ypfdw2xb
- 4image: ‘An Interview with Max Mathews’. Tae Hong Park. Music Department, Tulane University. https://tinyurl.com/ypfdw2xb
- 5Max Mathews, (2011), ‘Max Mathews (1926–2011)’, Interview with Geeta Dayal, Frieze Magazine.09 MAY 2011. https://www.frieze.com/article/max-mathews-1926-E2-80-932011
- 6Max Mathews, (2011), ‘Max Mathews (1926–2011)’, Interview with Geeta Dayal, Frieze Magazine.09 MAY 2011. https://www.frieze.com/article/max-mathews-1926-E2-80-932011
- 7image: ‘An Interview with Max Mathews’. Tae Hong Park. Music Department, Tulane University. https://tinyurl.com/ypfdw2xb
- 8Curtis Roads, ‘Interview with Max Mathews’, Computer Music Journal, Vol. 4, 1980.
- 9Max Mathews, (2011), ‘Max Mathews (1926–2011)’, Interview with Geeta Dayal, Frieze Magazine.09 MAY 2011. https://www.frieze.com/article/max-mathews-1926-E2-80-932011
3 thoughts on “‘MUSIC N’, Max Vernon Mathews, USA, 1957”
Hello, I absolutely loved this article and I’m trying to use it as cited research for my end of university dissertation, I was wondering if you could provide me with any author/article information I’d need to reference in the harvard system.
Your time is very much appreciated and I hope you have a great day!
The author is me, Simon Crab.