Computer Music

First Electronic Instruments

1865: Rudolph Koenig's sound synthetizer

1876: Elisha Gray's musical telegraph

1897: Thaddeus Cahill's Teleharmonium

1919: Lev Sergeyevich Termen's Theremin

1939: Laurence Hammond's Novachord

1951: Raymond Scott's sampler


Computer Music


1950: The CSIRAC was the first computer to play music. In November 1951 a demonstration was made at the Australia's first computer conference.
1951: The Ferranti Mark I plays "God Save the King", "Baa Baa Black Sheep", and a bit of "In the Mood" in a BBC recording.
1955: University of Illinois first experiences with computer music with the ILLIAC 1 computer.
1957: The first software and language for musical sound synthesis was MUSIC created by Bell Labs (versions: Music I through Music V) for the IBM 704.

1965: The DEC PDP-1 (1959) to VAX 11/780 (1976) were often used to play music.
Link to a PDP-8 playing music.

1976: The KIM-1 was the first micro-computer used to play music.
1979: The casio fx-501P was able to play music trough the cassette interface.
1980's: Almost every home computer is equipped with frequency generators or sound chips.

Electronic Synthetizers overview

1957 RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer
1962 Synket: the first portable synthetizer
1963 Buchla Electric Music Box 100
1967 Moog Modular synthesizer I
1969 EMS VCS 3
1970 ARP 2500
1972 ElectroComp 100
1973 Roland SH-1000: the first model from Roland
1975 Oberheim Electronics Four Voice
1976 New England Digital Corp. Synclavier: the first numeric synthetizer
1978 Sequential Circuits Prophet 5: the first synthetizer controlled by microprocessor
1979 Fairlight CMI: an early music workstation wich democratized the sampling
1980 AlphaSyntauri: the first synthetizer based on a micro-computer (Apple II)
1981 Casio VL-1: the first model from Casio
1982 Sequential Circuits Prophet-600: the first synth with MIDI interface
1983 Yamaha DX-7: the first commercially successful FM digital synthesizer
1988 Korg M-1: the first music workstation



MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)

Standardised in 1983. MIDI was invented so that musical instruments could
communicate with each other and so that one instrument can control another.

One of the first synthetiser to incorporate a MIDI interface was the Prophet-600
and the Roland JX-3P and Roland Jupiter-6 in 1983.

The Atari ST was favored for its MIDI ports that were built directly into the computer.

Sound chips

(source : Encyclopedia Gamia)

In the early 1970's, there were no sound chips, so the sound usually consisted
of either simple digital bleeps generated from the discrete circuitry or explosion sounds
generated through electro-mechanical methods.

In the late 1970's, sound boards and sound chips began to be used, leading to
the introduction of chiptune music.

In 1975, the Taito 597-907 Logic Board equipped early Taito arcade games.

Designed in 1979, the General Instrument AY-3-8910 was a popular sound chip used in many
game consoles and microcomputers.

In the 1980's, sound chips capable of FM synthesis and PCM sampling were introduced,
along with audio playback from the Laserdisc and CD formats.

During the late 1980's to 1990's, sound chips became more sophisticated, with more advanced
FM synthesis, dozens of PCM channels, MIDI support, and playback of compressed audio files.

Here a list of sound chips used in microcomputers.

Audio formats (selection)


Aka MPEG-2 Audio Layer III introduced in 1993.

MP3 is an audio coding format for digital audio which uses a form of lossy data compression.
Compared to CD quality digital audio, MP3 compression commonly
achieves 75 to 95% reduction in size

MP3 was designed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) formed by several teams of engineers
at Fraunhofer IIS, University of Hanover, AT&T-Bell Labs, Thomson-Brandt, CCETT, and other.

More informations about the mp3 format on wikipedia


A midi file (MID) is the numerical transcription of a musical partition. It contains enter others,
of the data called events which specify for each note to play information
necessary (note, instrument, swiftness, time).


Generaly created by a tracker (Amiga, 1987), a MOD file contains a set of "instruments"
under the form of samples represented by a list of "patterns" who indicate how
those samples sould be played. Successors were the XM, S3M and IT.

Sound extract from an Alphaville's song

More informations about the MOD format on wikipedia.
Look at the story of trackers in Ahoy's video Trackers: The Sound of 16-bits.
The Mod Archive is one of the most largest collection of music modules.


KAR is a file extension for a text and midi file format used in Karaoke.
KAR was designed by Tune 1000 Corp. in the late 90's as a MIDI format variation.
The KAR file format is now one of the main formats for karaoke in the freeware market.
KAR files contain added text for lyrics, synchronized with the Midi music.


Sound Card for PC

(source: my "Internet Story page")

Computer's integrated speaker

A one voice beeper equiped the firsts PCs.

Sound extract from 1984 "Alley cat" game.

AdLib The first Audio boards came out in 1987 (Adlib).


SoundBlaster relased his first board in 1989.

Technical caracteristics :
11-voice FM synthesizer,
8-bit ISA, 23 kHz sampling frequency (approx. FM radio quality)

Sound extract from the game Commanche 3

Related page: Sound on the PC



1957: MUSIC

MUSIC was written by Max Mathews in 1957 at Bell Labs.
MUSIC was the first computer program for generating digital audio
waveforms through direct synthesis.

More informations about MUSIC on wikipedia

1970: GROOVE

GROOVE (Generated Real-time Output Operations on Voltage-controlled Equipment) was a
system which used a computer to help the composer to specify musical
instructions by displaying a visual representation of the instructions on a monitor.
The sound was generated in real-time by an analogue synthesiser.
It was known as a 'hybrid' system because it used both analogue and digital technology.

1970: MUSYS

MUSYS was a a group of software or as a system for the composition and the
execution of electronic music developped by the Electronic Music Studios (EMS)in London
and using a PDP-8 computer.

1972: EMS

EMS 1, a music and synthesis specification language running on a PDP-15,
is completed at the Stockholm EMS.

1986: Music Mouse

Music Mouse was an algorithmic musical composition software for Macintosh, Amiga
and Atari computers.

1987: Ultimate Soundtracker

The very first tracker music software. Based on C64's SoundMonitor for Amiga computers.
Very popular in the Demo scene since mid 90s when CD-ROM appears with 16-bit digital technology. Successor where NoiseTracker, Protracker, MED,... for Amiga followed by Scream Tracker
and FastTracker for PC.

1989: Cubase

The first popular sequencer. The first version (on Atari ST) introduced the concept of the 'arrange page' with its vertical list of tracks and horizontal timeline – a design that quickly became the
standard interface for all commercially developed sequencers.

2000: Reason

Reason was a very successful digital audio workstation for creating and editing music and audio.

Micro computer music hardware timeline

Music oriented programming languages

From MUSIC written in 1957 to Panoramic in 2007 through 102 different
languages referenced in my Programming Languages Database



Links selection

Computer music on Wikipedia

Computer Music history

Brief history of computer music

120 Years of Electronic Music

History of Electronic and Computer Music

Programming Languages Used for Music

Synth Museum

Vintage Synth Explorer


Books (from my bookshelf)

Analog Synthetisers - From the legacy of Moog to Software Synthesis (2020)
The Development and Practice of Electronic Music (1975)
The Evolution of Electronic Music (1977)
Electronic and Experimental Music (1985)
Keyboard and Computer Music (1985)
Mars by 1980 - The Story of Electronic Music (2018)
Musiques Electroniques (1989)
120 Years of Electronic Music (1990)
Electronic and Computer Music (2004)
The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music (2009)
Electronic Music (2013)

(c) epocalc 2017