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Max Mathews, Father of Computer Music

Max Mathews, Father of Computer Music, Dies at 84 @ NYTimes.com

Max Mathews, often called the father of computer music, died on Thursday in San Francisco.

Mr. Mathews wrote the first program to make it possible for a computer to synthesize sound and play it back. He also developed several generations of computer-music software and electronic instruments and devices.

He was an engineer at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., in 1957 when he wrote the first version of Music, a program that allowed an IBM 704 mainframe computer to play a 17-second composition of his own devising.

Because computers at the time were so slow, it would have taken an hour to synthesize the piece, so it had to be transferred to tape and then speeded up to the proper tempo. But the experiment proved that sound could be digitized, stored and retrieved.

“The timbres and notes were not inspiring,” Mr. Mathews told a conference on computer music at Indiana University in 1997, “but the technical breakthrough is still reverberating.”

The implications of Mr. Mathews’s early research reached popular audiences through the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” in which the HAL 9000 computer sings “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)” as its cognitive functions are dismantled.

The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke had visited Bell Laboratories in the early 1960s and listened as a vocoder, or voice recorder synthesizer, developed by John L. Kelly, sang “Daisy Bell” to a musical accompaniment programmed by Mr. Mathews. He incorporated the innovation into the novel on which the film was based.


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1 Comment

  1. Huh. I had no idea that the choice of music in 2001 was based on a bit of computer history.

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