Timeline of Early Computer Music at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated


Article initially submitted by A. Michael Noll, September 25, 2014. The original article is copyright © 2014 A. Michael Noll.

Innovative contributions to computer music software and hardware were made at Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated (BTL) during the 1960s. The justification for this work was its potential application to the synthesis of human speech for telephone applications. Computer music was a sideline to other research being performed and was not a full-time assignment. A timeline of these innovations and contributions is presented here, with references to documentation.


Date Innovation People Documentation
1956 In a critical assessment of a concert they attended, Pierce challenges Mathews that the computer could do better. John R. Pierce & Max V. Mathews
1957 In response to challenge, “The Silver Scale” is composed on computer. Newman Guttman Max V. Mathews, John R. Pierce, and N. Guttmann. "Musical Sounds from Digital Computers," Gravesaner Blätter, 23/24 (1962), pp. 109-25. Also: http://www.sfsound.org/tape/Guttman.html
1956-57? Music I created. The Music I-V series of programs were similar in concept to a block-diagram compiler (BLODI) by John Kelly, Carol Lochbaum, and V. Vyssotsky. Max V. Mathews Max V. Mathews, “The Digital Computer as a Musical Instrument,” Science, Vol. 142, No. 3592 (November 1963), pp. 553-557. John L. Kelly, Jr., Carol Lochbaum, and V. A. Vyssotsky, “A Block Diagram Compiler,” Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3 (May 1961), pp. 669-678.
1961 IBM 704 computer speech-synthesis (using a vocal tract model) of “Bicycle Built for Two” (with computer-music accompaniment by Max Mathews). Carol Lochbaum & John L. Kelly, Jr.
1961-64 Musician James Tenney hired to work on music equipment. Composes various works. James Tenney James C. Tenney. "Sound Generation by Means of a Digital Computer," Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 7 (1963), pp. 25-70.
1964 Music IV created Max V. Mathews & Joan E. Miller “Music IV Programmer’s Manual” by M. V. Mathews and Joan E. Miller.
1964-1969 Composer Jean-Claude Risset at Bell Labs to work with Mathews; uses Music IV to synthesize brass sounds; creates continuous Shepard scale. Jean-Claude Risset Jean-Claude Risset, "Pitch Control and Pitch Paradoxes Demonstrated with Computer-Synthesized Sounds," Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 49 (1969), 88.

Roger N. Shepard, (December 1964). "Circularity in Judgements of Relative Pitch,” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Vol. 36, No. 12 (December 1964), pp. 2346–53. Jean-Claude Risset and Max V. Mathews. "Analysis of Musical Instrument Tones," Physics Today, 22:2 (1969), 23.

1965 Computer analysis of trumpet sounds. Max V. Mathews & Joan E. Miller Max V. Mathews, Joan E. Miller, and John R. Pierce. "Computer Study of Trumpet Tones," Journal of the Acoustic Society of America, Vol. 38 (1965), pp. 912-13.
1967-68? Music IV program written in FORTRAN. F. Richard Moore, Joan E. Miller, Jean-Claude Risset (visitor) John R. Pierce, Max V. Mathews, and J.-C. Risset. "Further Experiments on the Use of the Computer in Connection with Music," Gravesaner Blätter, 27/28 (November 1965), pp. 85-97.
1968 Music V written in FORTRAN IV.
1968 Graphic 1 terminal used for interactive graphical music. Max Mathews & L. Rosler
1969 GROOVE (Generated Real-time Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment) written for DDP-224 interactive computer system, connected to a bank of voltage-controlled audio oscillators. Max V. Mathews & F. Richard Moore Max V. Mathews & F. Richard Moore, "GROOVE--A Program to Compose, Store, and Edit Functions of Time," Communications of the ACM, Vol. 13, No.12 (December 1970, pp. 715-721.
1970 GROOVE (Generative Real-time Output Operatives on Voltage-controlled Equipment) software for music composition and creation, using the DDP-224 computer and analogue voltage-controlled oscillators. Max V. Mathews & F. Richard Moore
1970-71 GROOVE used to specify synchronized control of lighting and computer music for dance. Emmanuel Ghent (visitor) “Phosphones” was done with James Seawright (lighting) and Mimi Garrard (choreography).
c. 1970 Computer-interfaced electronic violin created Max V. Mathews
1974-76 Computer opera composed with support of N.E.A. grant. Joseph B. Olive Joseph Olive, “Mar-ri-ia-a, An opera for computer voice, music, soprano, and chamber orchestra,” 1976.
1974-76 VAMPIRE (Video And Music Program for Interactive Real-time Exploration/Experimentation) written for DDP-224 computer system. Laurie Spiegel (visitor) Laurie Spiegel, “Graphical Groove: Memorium for a Visual Music System,” Organised Sound, Vol. 3, No. 3 (December 1998), pp. 187-191.
1974-75 Apparatus and software to “conduct” computer. Max V. Mathews Max V. Mathews, "The Radio Baton and Conductor Program, or: Pitch, the Most Important and Least Expressive Part of Music." Computer Music Journal, xv/4 (1991) pp. 37-46.
c. 1974 Perpetual acceleration algorithm for a musical tone used to create computer music. Laurie Spiegel & Kenneth C. Knowlton Kenneth C., Knowlton “A Cyclic Rhythm Perceived as ‘Ever-Accelerating,’” Bell Telephone Laboratories, internal memorandum, March 4, 1976.
1975 Additive digital music synthesizer, utilizing digital oscillators controlled by a computer. Harold G. Alles H. G. Alles, “A Hardware Digital Music Synthesizer,” Eason ’75 Record, September 1975, pp. 217A-217E. U.S. Patent 4201105; applied May 1, 1978; issued May 6, 1980.
1983 Control language for music synthesizers. Max V. Mathews M. V. Mathews, “RTSKED, a real-time scheduled language for controlling a music synthesizer,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am., Vol. 74, No. S60 (1983), Abstract.
1984 Pierce musical scale. John R. Pierce, Max V. Mathews, & L. A. Roberts M. V. Mathews, L. A. Roberts, J. R. Pierce, “Four new scales based on nonsuccessive-integer-ratio chords,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am., Vol. 75, No. S10(A).
Late 1980s Electronic drum and radio baton. Max V. Mathews M. Mathews, “The Radio Drum as a synthesizer controller”, In Proc. Int. Computer Music Conference, 1989, pp. 42-45.

Many of the people who performed this early work went on to do other things at other institutions. John R. Pierce left Bell Labs in 1971 to go to the California Institute of Technology, then to Jet propulsion Laboratory, and ultimately in 1980 to Stanford University. Max V. Mathews retired from Bell Labs and joined Pierce at Stanford as professor of music in 1987. Richard Moore, after earning a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University, became a professor in computer music at the University of California at San Diego in 1979. There were many composers and musicians who visited Bell Labs to learn about the work being done there, including the conductors Hermann Scherchen and Leopold Stokowski. Jean-Claude Risset, Emanuel Ghent, Laurie Spiegel, and Charles Dodge are some of the composers who visited Bell Labs and used the computer facilities there for their compositions.


Max V. Mathews, Joan E. Miller, F. R. Moore, J. R. Pierce and J.-C. Risset, The Technology of Computer Music, MIT Press, 1969.

Max V. Mathews, and F. Richard Moore. "GROOVE, a Program for Real Time Control of a Sound Synthesizer by a Computer," Proceedings of the American Society of University Composers, Vol. 4 (1971), pp. 27-31.