The history of randomness and chance in music

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Illustration: Daniel Zender

The idea of leaving something up to chance might seem a bit odd, but intentional randomness has helped shape some of the most interesting moments in music history.

There’s no doubt that the same piece of classical music can sound different based on the performer’s interpretation, or that jazz leans heavily on the idea of improvisation so that no two performances are the same. However, today we’ll be taking a closer look at what happens when things like randomness and chance take center stage. These concepts have been around for decades and remain useful when it comes to creating truly unique compositions—join us as we take a listen to five examples.

1792: Nikolaus Simrock’s Musikalisches Würfelspiel

One of the first examples of what would much later be referred to as “aleatoric” (meaning “dice” in Latin) music revolved around just that—a game of dice. Mozart’s publisher Nikolaus Simrock released his version of the musical dice game, or Musikalisches Würfelspiel, in 1792. It consists of an assortment of short musical phrases that would be selected and combined together using dice to create one of 45,949,729,863,572,161 potential waltzes. While the way the game combines these phrases does result in a very similar (and aesthetically pleasing) result each time, it’s still a great early example of bringing randomness into music.

1951: John Cage’s “Music of Changes”

While the idea of ‘indeterminacy’ in music can be heard in early 20th-century works from the likes of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell, John Cage brought it to the forefront of avant-garde music as a way to introduce elements of chance into the composition of a piece and / or its performance. His 1951 work “Music of Changes” relies heavily on a Chinese classic text traditionally used for divination known as the I Ching. Cage generated music by essentially “asking” the book specific questions based on his own existing charts of musical elements (like instrumentation, dynamics, or tempo), and then synthesizing the answers into a final composition. Fun fact: he used this system to compose most of his music from this point onward!

1955: Iannis Xenakis’ “Pithoprakta”

Greek composer Iannis Xenakis aptly named this piece “actions through probability” because a lot of it depends on mathematical theories of probability related to the motion of gases. He created a model that mapped random temperatures and pressures to musical elements like pitch and duration. Each of the 46 string instruments in the orchestra is treated as its own “molecule,” and plays something slightly different based on the outcomes of the probability model (if that sounds like an earful, wait until you hear the actual piece).

1968: Terry Riley’s “In C”

The elements of chance in Terry Riley’s famous 1968 piece are specifically aimed at the performers instead of the composer. There are 53 short phrases of different lengths which should be played in order, but aside from that and a few other directions, the rest is completely up to the musicians. There’s no limit to how big or small the ensemble can be, how many times a phrase should be repeated before moving on to the next one, or even how long the whole performance should take—that’s some open-ended minimalism right there.

~1960s – present: Modular synthesis

While many of the conceptual pieces above can be a bit hard to digest for many, randomness as a compositional tool is very much alive and accessible for producers today. One way to think about it is through the resurgence of modular synthesis, in which analog circuits are used to create evolving soundscapes that can keep on playing until you cut the power. There are a ton of hardware modules out there that employ random number or voltage generation as a way to generate fun musical moments that are ripe for further experimentation.

Have you ever tried introducing unique rules or randomness into your own music? Let us know in the comments below.

March 29, 2021

Matteo Malinverno Matteo Malinverno is a New York-based music producer currently working on the Content team at Splice.