One of the main goals of the SciArt Lab is the open exploration of innovative ideas from a maker/hacker perspective, finding innovation through prototyping rather than relying on mere theoretical approaches. In that sense, we try to combine disruptive technologies and scientific knowledge with unconventional developments and real implementations/prototypes of our ideas. If you want to know more about the research of the SciArt Lab check our website.
What is this article about?
This article is an introduction to some of the projects which have been developed by the SciArt Lab around topics related with digital musical creation.
I can summarize the current projects of the SciArt Lab as a set of fun experiments.
Basically, we are hacking music with both sound synthesis, MIDIexperiments, DIY electronics and algorithmic composition, combining experimental music with brand new technologies. Discovering how coding and music can be combined by prototyping domain-specific languages, enabling self-composed songs with genetic algorithms or re-discovering MIDI controllers to create audio art.
A. Genetic algorithms, mathematical compositions and generative music
We are exploring the potential of applying Artificial Intelligence techniques and software development to create programs which are able to write and play their own music.
Take a look of our first experiments, watching our videos of cellular automata with emergent properties for music composition.
Each cellular automaton is able to compose its own music based on simple rules, evolving while it plays synthetic instruments in Ableton Live or external devices through MIDI events.
B. Domain Specific Languages
Alda-tabs is the first Domain Specific Language for Guitar Players in the Java Virtual Machine. This piece of software can help guitar players to “execute” their music notes in the JVM, write songs and get audio feedback with basic tab syntax.
You can read more about this in this article.
Take a look of the potential of Alda-tabs with chords and arpeggios listening this example (code also provided):
A couple of years ago, when I was working as Visiting Researcher at the Critical Making Lab (University of Toronto), I discovered how a humanistic-based approach to DIY electronics, coding and making could change forever my conception on research.
That experience helped me to see the importance of hands-on learning and the role that tangible objects could have for theoretical or intellectual explorations.
Currently I am working on a prototype of a physical MIDI interface to control digital instruments directly from a guitar fret.
This same concept will be explored with different objects and materials (conductive or not) in the following months.
The idea is to go beyond the keyboard as the standard digital music interface and build physical MIDI controllers with wood, cardboard, fabric, etc.
More details about this project will be published soon.
interface. Right now, it basically detects the fundamental frequency of the microphone’s sound signal, allowing the user to transform a continuous signal in a set of discrete notes. It also parses that information and reproduces the played sequence in Sin Oscillator.
It is a very straightforward prototype with troubles with some harmonics, but it has been a good experiment to learn about how these issues work. Let’s see, but maybe SoundBox is the starting point for something more sophisticated.
D. Music Visualization
One of the research interests of the SciArt Lab is information visualization in unusual ways. I always was fascinated about synesthesia and lately I have been testing visual approaches to music. The idea with some of the prototypes I have been working in is to map MIDI inputs both with physical visualizations (i.a. LEDs) and computational ones.
In this second category, I have been testing the possibility of creating my own 2D graphics with Processing and SVG and animate them while controling their movements and shapes directly from external MIDI inputs.
This is one example of one program/animation that I have implemented recently:
In the previous example, an animation is created dynamically in Processing while the behavior of an animated cartoon responds to the inputs received from an external DIY electronics device. Both the graphics and the sound are produced by the orders received through MIDI inputs.
E. Postsynaptic Symphonies
I have always liked music. I started writing songs with a keyboard as a kid and continued with a guitar when I was a teenager. Nowadays, I enjoy playing several kinds of instruments. Besides the keyboard, my acoustic guitar and my wife’s classical guitar, I have two harmonicas, some flutes, an ocarina, an ukulele and a guitalele.
Recently, as part of the open-ended exploration of the SciArt Lab, I have been writing also some digital music. I call them postynaptic symphonies because I found interesting the cognitive experience of listening that sort of unpredictable songs.
I have published some postynaptic symphonies in SoundCloud:
More information about the evolution of my music-related projects will be coming soon :)
This post explains how to easily compose music with alda-tabs, a Domain Specific Language for Guitar Players which runs in the JVM. I have developed alda-tabs as an open source project so you can download it for free in GitHub.
What is alda-tabs?
It is a Domain Specific Language for guitar players.
It is a piece of software to help guitar players to
"execute" their music notes in the JVM, compose songs and get audio feedback.
It is an extensible tool for music programming mainly
oriented to guitar players.
It is built on the top of Alda, a DSL for
music composition in the JVM, so it is compatible with both Alda and Clojure.
Why is so easy to code guitar songs with alda-tabs?
It does not require programming skills.
It does not require traditional music notation.
It is as straightforward as writing simple guitar sketches in a
You only have to copy your tabs from the paper to a text editor and
How can I create complex digital music with alda-tabs?
With alda-tabs you can execute any .alda file, so you can write
your songs/programs in both Clojure, Alda and alda-tabs in the same
block of text.
It talks to the JVM, so any experimented programmer can do impossible
It is just a layer on the top of Alda, so if you know music theory,
then you can write complex songs using music notation.
How is the alda-tabs syntax?
Remember that with alda-tabs you can always use the standard
Alda syntax and Clojure code. You can learn more about both languages
later to explore the whole potential of alda-tabs. But don’t worry,
you don’t need to know more yet. Just follow this tutorial and enjoy :)
What I am gonna show you here is the easy and super simple alda-tabs
The tab notation
The chord notation
In 10 minutes you will be able to write songs in a text editor and
listen the result in your speakers.
Imagine that you want to play all the strings of the guitar, one after
This example is a regular guitar tab in which all the strings are played sequentially with one hand and in which there are not fingers of the other hand pressing the fret.
So the fret number would be 0 in the six positions of the sequence.
How would we write this in Alda syntax?
Don’t worry, I will explain how to do it in alda-tabs syntax bellow (see How to do it in alda-tabs?) but it is important to read this before to compare alda-tabs withAlda.
In Alda syntax we would need to know the note equivalents of each position. And in addition:
We would write the octave and the note, one after another:
guitar: o4 e o3 b o3 g o3 d o2 a o2 e
Another way would be to write the initial octave increasing/decreasing it
guitar: o4 e/>b/g/d/<<a/e
How to do it in alda-tabs?
Remember that alda-tabs is based in the simple concept of a tab.
Basically, the notes of a guitar can be defined by numeric combinations,
a number to identify the string (from the first at the bottom to the
sixth at the top) and a fret.
To write a note in alda-tabs you only have to write ta followed by
the string number and the fret number.
With alda-tabs we can write the same sequence that we have previously
expressed in Alda. But this time we don’t need to know which note we are
playing, we only need to write the tab, the position of our finger
considering the string and the fret:
guitar: ta10 ta20 ta30 ta40 ta50 ta60
In this example, we are asking the JMV to play a guitar with the open strings 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, one after another. That is, ta10 equals string 1 and fret 0 and so on.
Take a look now of the fretboard:
If you want to play the first note C, according to the graphic displayed above, you don’t need to know the octave, you just will pick the string 2 in the fret 1: ta + 2 + 1.
You can also modify the duration of a note adding a character at the
end. For example:
guitar: ta21 ta21W ta21Q ta21D ta21H
What does it mean? If you don’t specify a duration, this will be whole
beat (W). You can also play the note during half beat (H), double (D)
and quarter (Q). Those note durations will be proportional to the tempo
of the score. For example, the following two sentences are not the same:
guitar: ta21 ta21W ta21Q ta21D ta21H
guitar: ta21 ta21W ta21Q ta21D ta21H
Play with these combinations to see the difference. For more complex
timing, check the advanced tips bellow.
Imagine that rather than a sequence of notes you want to play a chord. A
basic example would be playing all the open strings at the same time:
You can do this in three ways:
In Alda syntax, using the character / to play the notes at the same
guitar: o4 e/>b/g/d/<<a/e
In alta-tabs syntax, using the tab notation with different voices:
In alta-tabs syntax, but using the chord notation:
guitar: (c 0 0 0 0 0 0 W)
As you can see, the chord notation is just a Clojure function c with
seven parameters, the fret of each one of the six strings and the
duration of the chord.
For example, the D chord would be
(c 2 3 2 0 x x W)
You can also use the chord notation to play single notes. For example,
the two following sequences are exactly the same:
# alta-tab syntax
ta10 ta20 ta30 ta40 ta50 ta60
# alda-tab chord syntax
(c 0 x x x x x W)
(c x 0 x x x x W)
(c x x 0 x x x W)
(c x x x 0 x x W)
(c x x x x 0 x W)
(c x x x x x 0 W)
You can play tabs with specific durations, in seconds or milliseconds by
using the function t. In this case you should write the number of
the string, followed by a dot and the fret. Add the end, you should
express in String format ("") the duration you want.
Clone this repo and open the folder alda-tabs in your terminal.
Run the Alda server with alda up.
Create a simple text file, write your song using the alda-tabs
syntax and save it.
Execute ./alda-tabs.sh followed by the path of the file you want
Listen the result.
If you want to stop a song you can stop the alda server with
You can also play some scores (provided in the /examples
folder) and modify their content to explore different sounds.
In this document you can both read the code and listen the output of its execution in alda-tabs. However, the provided audio file is non-stereo. The original output of alda-tabs, however, includes panning. So explore the real result executing the code/song in your own instance of alda-tabs.
Example 1: Chords and arpeggios
You can start exploring the potential of alda-tabs with chords and arpeggios
with the example #01: