ARTS 2020: Computer Music

Arts Department, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Tuesday/Friday, 2:00-3:50pm, West Hall 110

Instructor: Rob Hamilton, West Hall 307

e: hamilr4 [at] rpi [dot] edu


lms: 1509_Computer Music [1509_ARTS_2020_01]



ARTS 1010 (Music and Sound) or permission from instructor.


This course is an introduction to music and "sound-art" created through the use of computers and electronics. This is a studio course, and students will be expected to participate creatively in class by listening, taking an active role in discussions, and making your own work through significant, intelligent uses of technology. Although a component of this class includes learning how to use computers and other technological tools, this is not a "how-to-use technology" course. We will focus primarily on learning enough about technology to realize personal creative projects.


Music composition taught in the context of modern computerized production methods. Technical topics include basic principles of computer sound generation, digital sound sampling, and the use of small computers for musical control of electronic instruments. Musical topics include a study of important musical works and compositional techniques of the 20th century. Student projects involve hands-on work on a variety of computer instruments and software. This course is a prerequisite for further creative work with Rensselaer's computer music facilities.


    Students who successfully complete this course will demonstrate...
  1. an understanding and appreciation of computer music through an awareness of the many disciplines underlying the field including: listening skills, musical theory, musical acoustics, psycho-acoustics, software design and programming, digital audio theory, and digital signal processing.
  2. basic technical facility in the areas of audio recording, editing, sound synthesis, software development and post production.
  3. creativity and resourcefulness through the creation and composition of your own sonic projects


There will be 8 musical projects, most of which are composition assignments. There will also be reading and listening assignments which will be discussed in class. In addition, students are expected to attend three concerts of of electronic or computer music during the semester, and to submit 2 page reviews of each concert. The grading for each assignment is as follows:


Evaluation is based on the following:


You will be required to present all of your musical assignments to the class, to show your work within the software environment you used to create it, and to engage the class in discussion of your work. When you are not presenting your own work, you need to be attentive to whoever is presenting, and to engage them in discussion of their work. Failure to participate in class will lower your grade.


You must attend class to succeed in this course.

  1. Since much of the class is focused on listening to and discussing work in class, attendance is mandatory.
  2. ** More then two unexcused absences will affect your grade, detracting 1/2 grade each additional 2 unexcused absences. **
  3. Absences can only be excused by a letter from a medical doctor or from the Dean of Students' office.
  4. Late arrivals are very disruptive in Studio 110 - continued late arrival will affect your grade.


You are required to attend and document at least three musical concerts or sound-based events during the semester. You may attend concerts from EMPAC, the “iEAR Presents” musical events events, or any other appropriate events you would like to attend on or off campus. They MUST be events in which live performed and technology-rich music or sound is the focus. A soundtrack to a film, for example, does NOT count. If you are unsure as to whether a concert will satisfy this requirement please speak to the instructor.

You will then need to submit via email a 2 page review of each performance which addresses both technical and aesthetic issues. Reviews should include both a description of the program, instrumentation (when appropriate), and a reasoned critique of the sonic materials and the performance.

Examples of Concert Reviews can be found here: How to Write a Concert Review


Throughout this course, you will make use of the resources in the Undergraduate Computer Music Studio (WH110). Students enrolled in the course will have access to the studio 24 hours a day, and should expect to spend several hours working in the studio each week. You will also have access to recording equipment in the equipment room, which you will be checking out from time to time in order to make field recordings.

When appropriate for an assignment, or to explore sound in general, we encourage the use of your own computer, electronic instruments, etc. Often times, smaller components of a large project can be done on your laptop or home studio facilities and then brought into the main studio to be mixed and mastered.


Collaboration between students in this course is strongly encouraged. Likewise, students are encouraged—indeed, to some extent required—to exchange ideas, opinions and information . You are also encouraged to help each other in the lab and with performance, production, and presentation of composition projects.

Plagiarism of any kind is in direct violation of University policy on Academic Dishonesty asdefined in the Rensselaer Handbook, and penalties for plagiarism can be severe. In this class you will be expected to attribute due credit to the originator of any ideas, words, sounds, or music which you incorporate substantially into your own work. This applies particularly to citation of sources for sonic "samples" included in your compositions.

Submission of any assignment that is in violation of this policy may result in a grade of F for the assignment in question. Violation of this policy will be reported, as defined in the Rensselaer Handbook


Students requiring assistance are encouraged to contact Disability Services: to discuss any special accommodations or needs for this course.

EMPAC Recording Sessions

Through the generous support of EMPAC, our ARTS 2020 class this Fall will be given a unique opportunity to conduct two full-day recording sessions at EMPAC. Working with Todd Vos and the team of EMPAC engineers, we'll learn about the recording process through the hands-on recording of a solo performer (Saturday, October 1) and a small ensemble (Saturday, November 12). These sessions are mandatory and cannot be rescheduled. These sessions will take the place of other regularly scheduled class time.


The proposed course topics and schedule will be as follows (take note of project due dates!). Based on class progress and interests, this schedule is subject to change. Special topics, guest lectures, supplemental reading, listening and additional assignments to be announced.

Week 1:
Tuesday, 9/30
Introduction: What is Computer Music? The History of Computers, Sound and Music, Course overview. Studio orientation.
108 Troubles: Studio 1 tour @EMPAC
Week 2:
Tue, 9/6
Representing Sound and Music: Time and Frequency, Analog-to-digital representations
Gyorgy Ligeti's Artikulation
Introduction to Max/MSP: Dataflow programming basics

READING: The Digital Computer as a Musical Instrument by Max Mathews, off-campus link
READING: How Digital Audio Works by Christopher Dobrian
Week 3:
Tuesday, 9/13
Guest Lectures: K. Michael Fox and Cem Cakmak
Week 4:
Tuesday, 9/20
Assignment #1 Due: In-class presentations/performance
electronic improvisation, jam session
Week 5:
Tuesday, 9/27
Pro Tools Introduction: audio import, tracks, editing, plug-ins
Week 6:
Tuesday, 10/4
Visiting Guest Artist Discussion: Chryssie Nanou
Week 7:
Monday, 10/10
Week 8:
Tuesday, 10/18
In-class review: Assignment #2
Week 9:
Tuesday, 10/25
Algorithmic and Generative Composition: tools in Max (matrices, poly~, step-sequencing)
Conway's game of life: youtube
Week 10:
Tuesday, 11/1
NO CLASS: Introduction to Programming in ChucK (video tutorials)
Week 11:
Tuesday, 11/8
Programming in ChucK
Week 12:
Tuesday, 11/15
Programming in ChucK
Week 13:
Tuesday, 11/22
Final Project Proposals
Week 14:
Tuesday, 11/29
Final Project Hack-A-Thon
Week 15:
Tuesday, 12/6
Final Project Proposals - Final Check-ins, Progress Reports