ARTS 2020: Computer Music

Arts Department, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Monday/Thursday, 2:00-3:50pm, West Hall 118

Instructor: Rob Hamilton, West Hall 307

e: hamilr4 [at] rpi [dot] edu


lms: 1509_Computer Music [1509_ARTS_2020_01]





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 and 21st centuries. 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


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 - continued late arrival will affect your grade.
  5. It should go without saying but no use of mobile devices or personal computers during class time (except for as required by the coursework itself) is acceptable. Continued violations will be treated as an unexcused absence.


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.

Reviews should be completed within three weeks of the event being reviewed.

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 (WH118). 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.


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:
Thursday, 8/31
Introduction: What is Computer Music? The History of Computers, Sound and Music
"Voices" of Computer Music: from The Voder, to HAL to I Am T-Pain Course overview, Studio orientation.

Reading: The Digital Computer as a Musical Instrument by Max Mathews, off-campus link

Listening: Any Resemblance is Purely Coincidental on Naxos Music Library

(NOTE: you need to be either on campus networks or logged in via VPN. Lo-fi backup available @
Week 2:
Thursday, 9/7
Listening (class): Pre-Composition by Mark Applebaum
Recording Sound: History and Practice of Recorded Media
Introduction to Audacity
Representing Sound and Music: Time and Frequency, Analog-to-digital representations
Listening (class): Etude aux chemins de fer by Pierre Schaeffer

READING (Assigned): How Microphones Work
Week 3:
Monday, 9/11
Student Profile: Michael "mykroh" Savini

*** Field Recording session ***

Listening: Presque rien No. 1, "Le lever du jour au bord de la mer, I., II., II. by Luc Ferrari
Week 4:
Monday, 9/18
Student Profile: Alex Giles - Prog/Death Metal track

Paul Lanksy Night Traffic, Mild und Leise
Idioteque, Lansky sample

Dynamic range, loudness wars

Pro Tools In-class Group Exercise #1: Sharing Spaces
    - In groups of three, combine your recordings of virtual spaces in Pro Tools and make a short 2-3 min composition.
Week 5:
Monday, 9/25
Homework #1 Due: Class Presentations
Week 6:
Monday, 10/2
Student Profile: Yawen Shen

Introduction to Max/MSP (continued)
Download Max tutorial patches:
Week 7:
Week 8:
Monday, 10/16
Guest Lecture (TBD)
Week 9:
Monday, 10/23
Assignment #2: Hack-day in class
Student Profile: Nate Wheeler
Week 10:
Monday, 10/30
Student Profile: Mallory Peskens
Week 11:
Monday, 11/6
Student Profile: Daniel Southwick
ChucK Examples:
Assignment #3: Chuck Composition Assigned, Due 11/20
Week 12:
Monday, 11/13
Student Profile: Jacob Doskocil, Brendan Courson
Chuck (continued)
Week 13:
Monday, 11/20
Student Profile: Ivy Wang, Chenyu Xu
Assignment #3: Chuck Composition Due
Week 14:
Monday, 11/27
Final Project Proposals - First Check-ins, Progress Reports
Week 15:
Monday, 12/4
Final Project Proposals - First Check-ins, Progress Reports
Week 16:
Monday, 12/11
FINAL CLASS: Final Project Presentations