Want to Hear the First Ever Recording of Computer Generated Music?

  • Save

Turns out electronic music pre-dates Kraftwerk.  In fact, the earliest recording of computer generated music dates back to 1951.

Turns out legendary code-cracker Alan Turing did more than just decrypt Axis messages and win world wars.  Considered one of the founding fathers of modern computer science and artificial intelligence, Turing was also a pioneer in computer-generated music.

Now, a duo consisting of a computer scientist and a composer have restored a Turig recording that dates back to 1951.  Actually, the existence of an acetate disc of the effort has been known for years, though questions over its pitch accuracy remained unresolved.  The restoration pair, Jack Copeland and Jason Long, described their successful restoration in a blog post for the British Library.

“Today, all that remains of the recording session is a 12-inch single-sided acetate disc, cut by the BBC’s technician while the computer played. The computer itself was scrapped long ago, so the archived recording is our only window on that historic soundscape. What a disappointment it was, therefore, to discover that the pitches were not accurate: the recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded. But with some electronic detective work it proved possible to restore the recording—with the result that the true sound of this ancestral computer can be heard once again, for the first time in more than half a century.”

Here’s what the re-pitched recording sounds like, with three melodies that include ‘God Save the Queen.’



Turing was tinkering with concepts of computer-generated music using his ‘Mark II’ prototype machine.  The computer was connected to a loudspeaker called ‘the hooter,’ which played repeated bursts of sound to form a melody.  That was a mere experiment for Turing, who really didn’t pursue the idea any further but did record some of his findings in a log.

Soon thereafter, aspiring programmer Christopher Strachey, who was also an amateur pianist, took the project over.  Strachey quickly gained access to the Mark II, a computer which has long since been scrapped.  Luckily, the presence of the vinyl recording preserved the early work forever.


Copeland and Long describe what occurred next:

“‘I sat in front of this enormous machine’, Strachey said, ‘with four or five rows of twenty switches and things, in a room that felt like the control room of a battle-ship.’ It was the first of a lifetime of all-night programming sessions. In the morning, to onlookers’ astonishment the computer raucously hooted out the National Anthem. Turing, his usual monosyllabic self, said enthusiastically ‘Good show’. Strachey could hardly have thought of a better way to get attention: a few weeks later he received a letter offering him a job at the computing lab.

The BBC recording, made some time later the same year, included not only the National Anthem but also an endearing, if rather brash, rendition of the nursery rhyme ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as well as a reedy and wooden performance of Glenn Miller’s famous hit ‘In the Mood’. There are unsettled questions about the authorship of the three routines that played these recorded melodies. In the wake of Strachey’s tour de force a number of people in the lab started writing music programs: even the routine that played the National Anthem in the recording may have been a retouched version of Strachey’s original.”


One Response

  1. Nicky Knight's whimsical thoughts..

    wow it’s a quirky and most interesting find.. sort of sounds like a bow on a string like a viola or something..

    Now with a Mac Book Pro with Logic Pro X or Cubase Pro 8.5 and some Arturia soft synths you can do it all “In The Box” (good name for a band..), throw in a Vocaloid
    virtual singer and it’s Go Go Go!