Making Music With Dice

Making Music With Dice


hey, welcome to 12tone! writing music is hard:
you have to carefully pick every note and chord, and you have to arrange it all to make
sure that everything connects smoothly and all the sounds are properly balanced. it’s a lot of work. wouldn’t it be nice if we could just do it
all randomly? what if we could roll dice and music would
just… happen? well, as is so often the case with these hypothetical
questions, we totally can. it’s called chance composition, and it’s awesome. quick side note: there’s a lot of disagreement
about terminology here. depending on who you ask this could also be
called aleatoric music or indeterminate music, and some theorists argue that all three terms
are valid but mean different things. it’s not really a big deal, but we theorists
can get pretty defensive about our terminology, so be careful. anyway, how does it work? we could start by
literally rolling dice. we could generate some random notes for our melody (bang) then
add rhythms and chords to it ourselves to make it sound pretty. (bang) this works well enough in short bursts
where you’re likely to get something coherent just by chance, but the longer it gets, the
harder it is to pick out any real structure from the chaos. in order to write a whole song like this,
we need to plan ahead a bit more. we could limit ourselves to notes from a single
scale, or we could generate a vague melodic shape randomly and then fill in the details
ourselves. or we could do something else entirely. a common approach to chance composition is
to base your work on a predetermined source you have no control over. perhaps the most famous version of this is
Birds On The Wire. This version is by Jarbas Agnelli, but other
composers have done similar things. the trick here is that, if you have five telephone
lines, you can pretend they’re the five lines of the treble clef, and if there are birds
on those wires you can pretend that they’re notes and read the music their positioning
creates. this will always give you a nice melody, because
the spaces the birds can occupy spell out a fairly consonant chord, but what exactly
that melody will be completely depends on where the birds happened to land. you can do the same thing with any external
source you want as long as you have a good way of converting it into musical instructions.
and we don’t have to stop at melodies, either: you can randomly generate rhythms, chords,
tempos, dynamics, or anything else you can think of. even instrumentation can be random if you
want. there’s no limits. but, well, there has been one limit, hasn’t
there? in all these examples, we’ve only covered randomness in the composition phase. by the time these pieces actually get performed,
it’s finished. it’s always going to sound the same. but what if it didn’t? what if we infused randomness into the performance
itself? how would that even work? this idea goes back to at least the late 1700s,
where composers would make musical dice games, short compositions divided into sections randomly
selected from a set of pre-written parts. players would roll a set of dice, find the
bar of music corresponding to each result, then play them in order to make a brand new
song. these were a popular toy at the time, and,
in fact, Mozart himself may have written one, although the historical record on that is
somewhat unclear. despite being random, these dice games were
carefully designed so that, no matter what you rolled, you’d get something pretty normal. in the mid 20th century, though, composers,
especially the minimalists, began to experiment further. like, a lot further. in many cases, instead of true randomness,
these composers just left important decisions to the performer, so that each rendition would
be something new. of course, the performer always has some influence over the music they
play, but this is something altogether different. for instance, “25 Pages”, a piece by Earle
Brown, is literally 25 unnumbered pages of music that you can arrange in any order you
like. it’s even written so that you can play it
upside down if you want to, which gives you over five hundred quadrillion quadrillion
possible results. another example is Terry Riley’s “In C”, where
instead of a score, he writes 53 small snippets of music in a specific order. when the piece begins, everyone starts playing
the first one over and over until they decide to move on. each player can move independently, so the
whole orchestra drifts in and out of sync with each other. you’re not supposed to let people get too
far ahead of you, but beyond that there’s not really much structure. each performance follows the same basic arc,
but in the details there’s an infinite amount of variety. and again, we’re not limited to just randomizing
notes, as seen in a John Cage composition with both the title and tempo marking “As
Slow As Possible”. here, the only limit is how long the performer
is willing to drag it out. this could be as little as 30 minutes or so,
but there are documented cases of performances lasting hours or even a whole day. and, in
one cathedral in Halberstadt, Germany, a single performance has been playing on a specially
made organ for the last 15 years, and it’s supposed to last 624 more. anyway, thanks for watching! if you want to
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