Generative systems

following along some of the discussion of the definition of what is electronic music, i was wondering where you draw the line at calling something generative? which of course then also implies some sort of personal definition of what it means that something is generative music?

i’m not so curious in a literal definition of the genre as it were, arguing semantics and definitions of words, but rather if you have a personal feeling or experience of how you would define is something is “generative enough” or not to warrant calling it generative music, or a generative system?

there is also already this wonderful thread on here: Emergence and Generative Art - #5 by Pampalini but i was looking for a more personal or perhaps “hands-on” reaction if possible? i loved reading the material in that thread but it was all pretty conceptual in one way? wondering how you mix the idea of generative material into your overall work…


It doesn’t take much to fit my definition of generative. An arpeggio qualifies. Really, anytime there is musical content being generated by some kind of algorithm, causing more sound to be heard than is directly being played in real-time by a person. I guess it’s distinct from a simple playback of a recording because it is generated and rule-based.

I like to use generative techniques for repetitive/rhythmic elements, and I also use generative techniques to reinforce harmonic relationships (staying in tune, chord progressions, etc). There are also times when generative techniques are handy for creating a “non-human” musical effect (creating pieces that aren’t likely to be played manually, whether due to difficulty or just strangeness).

Generative techniques are also handy for multiplying the number of “hands” I have. As a solo player, I need ways of making myself sound like more than one person.


I’ve always been draw to create “generative” music of one form or another. But trying to pin down what that means would be hard. Perhaps it better to just do it by personal recollection:

  1. Early works for modular synthesizer: I would create self-playing patches designed to be played in the lobby for an hour or so before concerts. One might call this generative, or perhaps chaotic and emergent. Over the years, I have re-created this work (style of works? body of works? are they collectively one work? A difficult issue with generative art for those who catalog it!) perhaps a dozen times.
  2. An interpretation of John Cage’s Variations I: This was my horrible misunderstanding of the work as a work of generative music, which the master himself corrected me on. Why this isn’t generative art would be perhaps as fruitful a discussion as what is.
  3. Phobos/Deimos, and Net Work: Two pieces composed for Apple ][ and Serge modular, where the computer generates melodic and rhythmic material based on mathematical systems (interference patterns of orbital motion in the first, neural networks in the second). These were more deliberately generative. Macro structure was composed - but frankly unsatisfying.
  4. Plain Changes: A mere 90 seconds long, I often referred to this as the best piece I ever wrote! Based on change ringing as the generative element, I finally figured out how to compose a macro structure (if brief) that I was proud of. As there was no randomness involved, it is perhaps more algorithmic than generative - if you want to split hairs, though I don’t.
  5. A long break from music, during which I co-authored Context Free Art, an open-source generative art program. The tool has been used by hundreds of artists over the years, the on-line gallery has thousands of submissions, and I edited a printed book at one point.
  6. Plain Changes 2: I returned to the same mechanism as the original, and found a way to make a three movement, 9min. work. It premiered in Wellington, NZ, performed by giant, water cooled Tesla coil, and a robotic electric bass. studio performance - concert video - github repo

In short, I’m drawn to make sonic the beauty I find in systems of all finds. But I has taken me years to figure out how to build musical compositions larger than “oh, that’s what the Lorenz attractor sounds like…”


while a drum machine or arpeggiator “generates” i wouldn’t call them “generative”-- perhaps “assistive” is more accurate.

generative to me means a simple set of rules or parameters that “generate” much more complex results. for example, kria is an arpeggiator, but given the ability to poly-phase all parameters it becomes “generative” due to the massive variety of results.

never the best of worst place to start:

flocking is a favorite generative technique.


I maintain that an arpeggiator is a simple ordered generative system. Of course complex systems have more interesting creative potential, especially due to emergence, which a simple ordered system cannot provide.

EDIT: I like Rudy Rucker’s definition of class 4 complex systems, AKA “gnarly computation”. for understanding where interesting emergence comes from. You can read a sample of his excellent book, The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, The Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy here:


His aim, in employing randomness, was not to employ a controlled chaos in service to his composition. But to get away from it ​being his composition​. To remove his ego from his composition as much as possible [his direct phrasing].

He did not want a different set of random notes on each repetition. He wanted exactly the set of notes the randomness determined when the performer prepared the work. He wanted the audience to listen to ​that​ exact musical line. To hear it, for what ​it​ is, not for what ​he​ composed.

fantastic insight here
thanks for being willing to make this personal experience public


this is a very interesting (old) talk about the subject:


Bloom by Opal Limited

is life on earth a generative system?

this is fun, thx :slight_smile:



I’ve been rolling this idea around in my head for months and I’m glad you brought it up first


Rudy Rucker would likely say that the entire universe is one big computation. He’s buddies with Stephan Wolfram whose “New Kind of Science” is a heavy tome on that very subject. I like Rudy’s more psychedelic take personally.


I like thinking in terms of process. I would include electronic, mechanical, and electro-mechanical processes, but I also like thinking of natural processes as being a form of generative music – eg the processes behind field recordings, sonifications of environmental sensor data, etc… and “human processes” even – like a performer following a game piece score like Stockhausen’s “+/-” where the process is actually carried out by a person…

Edit: I should have finished reading the thread, I see I’m not the only one. :slight_smile:

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bloom is great entertainment

used the app for the dominant melody on this track a couple years ago


@glia cool sounds, thank you
and thanks @mzero
it’s great to have a first hand account about what john cage was up to…

For ​his​ aim, in employing randomness, was not to employ a controlled chaos in service to his composition. But to get away from it ​being his composition​. To remove his ego from his composition as much as possible [his direct phrasing].

and what you were up to…

"Of course, I was brimming to tell him, and play him, my automatic ​Variations I​ program. I explained how it worked, what it did… and how I loved that “by listening to variation after variation, as the randomness played out across the space, eventually the listener would come to hear the ​essence​ of the piece, the ​composition would show through​ the randomness.”

this is how it felt to run the track through the dfxtransverb nine times for this weeks junto
even hitting 'random every time, the plugin’s 'composition would show through the randomness.
also this…
dna sequence determines the shape of a protein, determines the function
life on earth



I frequently time events (entry, exit, duration) in my music by respiration cycles and had not considered that to be significant because the music is not strictly constrained by breath (like with wind instruments) . I guess that quirk counts as a generative rule governing most of what I do musically


I am going with this:

Self-stimulated system, capable of generating a mutaded version of itself.

This definition makes it possible for me to think of ideas that are not tied to any specific medium, materials or syntax.




Central pattern generators

Makes so much sense to me to base timing events on breathing.


“+/-” is Ryoji Ikeda, isn’t it? Or is there a Stockhausen piece by the same name?

Definitely stockhausen’s

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Yeah, both!

Here’s the Stockhausen:

Interesting to compare to Variations I since their intents are completely out of phase – Cage being interested in erasing himself via the system and Stockhausen being interested in crystalizing his own compositional methods into a rigourous system that can self-produce his music without intervenion.

Despite the maybe arrogrant motivations, Stockhausen’s +/- is actually really neat. The score is a great puzzle to put together – we did realizations in my improv class when I was in college and I have to admit now I’m tempted to track the score down and try again…

A page from the score: