What the “Illiac Suite” Taught Us About Music

Like a pictures in a photo album, music is more than one nice “shot” following another.

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Hiller & Isaacson - The Illiac SuiteBack in 1956, two professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign made history by being the first to program a computer to compose a piece of music. Just the fact that  Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson tried it is worth thinking hard about. Why do it in the first place? We assume that composers write music because it brings them pleasure on some level. What is to be gained by handing that activity over to a computer?

Psychologists would possibly tell us that computers, at least the way they were viewed in the 1950s, were the alien race that humanity had been searching for ever since telescopes let us learn more about the nature of the universe. What better way to indicate that they come in peace but to write a piece of music. Conquering armies don’t stop to compose an opera. (They do that afterward.)

Hiller and Isaacson’s project wasn’t a reverse “Garage Band” exercise, where you create loops of riffs and the computer decides which ones to use. It was as true to composition as programmers in those days were able to achieve. Using computer-generated random numbers as a starting point, and then applying precise instructions, the computer churned out four movements (called “experiments”) of music, every note of which was determined by a computer process.

To compose the music, which was eventually called the “Illiac Suite,” named for the computer (the ILLIAC-I) that was used, Hiller attempted to describe, in as exact a way as possible, how music works. He used the rules of counterpoint as devised and reinforced by the compositions of J. S. Bach. It meant creating rules such as, “If a composer writes the note C, the percentage chance that it will be followed by a D is___… The percentage chance the next note will be an E is___”, and so on. Isaacson then created mathematical formulas and routines, and the computer’s output was transcribed into musical notation for string quartet.

The end result was fascinating on many levels. First, that a computer could create music at all gave it a very human characteristic. Second, it was notable that the reaction of the music world was somewhere between cold and hostile. “Reducing” composition to a set of instructions coupled with a few random decisions was offensive to composers who rightly believed it is a lot more than that.

But perhaps the most important result of the experiment is that it didn’t really work. When you listen to the Illiac Suite, you notice that the computer got some things quite right, things that successful songwriters have always known, such as: repetition is an important component of good music.

The computer was instructed to create harmonies that always worked with and supported the melody. In tonal music (i.e., music in a key), the harmonies created by interacting instruments should use the tonic chord, and the computer got this right as well.

But when you listen to the work, you notice that something is missing, something that is very difficult for a computer in any era to do: create a sense of forward motion such that it sounds as though the music is on a journey that has a beginning, middle and end.

You notice that the “Illiac Suite” is comprised of many beautiful sounds, some loud, some soft, some rhythmically active, some not. But you also notice that the important feature of predictability — what we call the “musical voyage” — is not present beyond what we sense when we hear short fragments repeat. You don’t ever feel that one idea is creating a musical energy that helps to create the following ideas. It’s beautiful, but it is unsettling. We would get the same unsettled feeling if we were looking through a photo album of a recent trip, but all the pictures were in a random order. We could get a “sense” of the trip, and the individual photos may be beautiful, but the logic of the journey is missing.

The Illiac Suite teaches us that perhaps the most important quality of music of music that we control is the actual musical journey itself. There is a loose kind of musical logic that makes it happen. For every composer, the concept of what makes a musical journey work is a little different.

And if you want to hear what music sounds like when it sounds beautiful, but seems to have no purpose, no real shape, no climactic moment and no sense of journey, listen to the “Illiac Suite.”


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. I can’t speak for other musicians and songwriters who are relatively more competent performing instrumentation of covered material than in crafting effective, well written songs. But, I for one, likely struggle with some of the same…compositional hurdles that the computer program did. Although it likely frustrates me a bit more than it did the computer and its software. To create snippets of ambient, musically lush harmonious yet short and unfocused orchestration comes quite frequently. But to create a more cohesive piece of music with structure, contour, direction and cohesiveness is a much larger and much more challenging task for me. Sounds like ole Illiac and I had much in common. haha

  2. I’m really wondering what people would think of the piece WITHOUT knowing the background information of it being composed by a machine. Would they still refer to it as being “cold”? What about serialism? Xenakis and such…Also thinking about Zappa’s Synclavier pieces “missing” the human element…As ever, a very interesting, thought provoking article. Thanks, Gary!



    • Very good question, Mike. I listened to the entire suite today,as objectively as I could. It really isn’t that bad… Sounds like Aaron Copland, but missing a sense of climactic moment. So for a first piece by computer, not really all that bad.

      Thanks very much for the comment, Mike.


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