Syllabus for Mus 88 - Introduction to Computer Music

Harvey Mudd College, Fall 2014

Instructor: Prof. Bill Alves

Tuesday / Thursday 1:15 - 2:30 Shanahan B450


Computer Music: Synthesis, Composition, and Performance by Charles Dodge and Thomas A. Jerse (second edition) -- available at Huntley Bookstore
A collection of computer music for listening and supplemental articles for presentations will be available on Sakai.

Computer music in the broad sense is everywhere in our culture, and it is possibly the most artistically empowering technology in the history of music. You may be interested in this course as a way to learn to use synthesizers, to help you realize your own compositions, or just for a deeper understanding of the basics of how music like this is made. This course will address all of these issues, and I hope you will bring to my attention topics of particular interest to you.

This course will concentrate on the basics of using a general purpose computer to generate and manipulate digital sounds. We will primarily use the software Csound. It is installed on the studio Macintosh and Macs in the HMC Labs, though free versions of Csound are also available for Windows, Linux, Unix, and other platforms. I encourage you to download a copy for yourself. (To do so, go to the Csound SourceForge page and download the appropriate version for your system. See also the "tutorials" link. An introductory manual and a reference manual are available.

Because there are no prerequisites for this course, I expect that students will come from very disparate backgrounds. A background in computer coding is helpful, but not required. The artistic applications of computer music technologies will also be an important part of this course though a background in music is also not required.

Office hours

At this time my office hours are MTWF 10:30-11:30. It is possible that some of these times may change as my semester schedule develops, so you may want to check the schedule on my door or contact me to confirm. If you cannot make it at those times, I would be happy to arrange an appointment at another time. I also welcome your email (alves


Digital audio fundamentals quiz10%
Music Assignments5 x 8% = 40%
Short Assignments3 x 5% = 15%
Group presentation and composition15%
Final project15%


Most of the work of the semester will be in the form of assignments which involve the generation of music (though a background in music will not be necessary to complete them). Some of these assignments will require the use of the studio. Such assignments generally have a one week lead-time, so it is vital that you do not wait until the last minute, as studio time may not always be available. Also, if there are any problems, you may need to consult with me in order to complete your assignment.

In addition to the music assignments, there will be a few brief assignments having to do with class readings and listening to the collections of computer music on Sakai.

Group Presentations

In the second half of the semester, groups of approximately four students each will prepare a presentation on a particular computer music process, method, or technology. The presentation will include theoretical background, aesthetic discussion, and practical coding of examples to hand out in the form of a short original piece. Meetings with me a week before the presentation will be required to discuss the presentation content and progress. Presentations will be evaluated, in part, by your peers in the class, and your conscientious participation in the evaluation process for other groups will be considered in your class participation grade. Your final project will also demonstrate application of at least some of the concepts presented by groups other than your own.

Final Project

The final project will be an original musical composition realized using, at least for the major part, Csound. Group final projects are not normally allowed. Don't be intimidated by this requirement, as a musical background is not necessary for you to express your creativity with these tools. I will not be grading your technical knowledge of music or application of traditional music theory.

You will write a proposal for a final project, which may be approved immediately, or only after negotiated revisions if the proposal is not quite appropriate, sufficient, or practical. A recording and code listing of your work-in-progress will be required before the final due date. A concert of all the class projects will take place during the last week of classes. There will be no other final exam.

Late Assignments

Late assignments will normally be penalized one letter grade per class meeting late. There have been rare instances in the past when technical problems have necessitated an extension for the whole class. However, not being able to get into the studio because you have neglected to sign up for time until the last minute is not a valid justification for an extension. Because studio time is limited, it is crucial that you plan your schedule in advance.


It is not permissible to have laptops open during class, unless I explicitly give permission for group work, for example. If you use your laptop to take notes, then you will need to find an alternative, like taking paper notes. Flat pads, such as iPads, are acceptable, as long as they are only used for taking notes.

Class Participation

Regular attendance and contributions to class discussions is necessary for getting the most out of this course and is therefore reflected in your course evaluation (above). Class participation includes careful attention to and evaluation of student presentations.

Internet Resources

One important web site for this class is Included here are links to download various versions, tutorials, auxiliary software, example instruments, and other resources. (Please note that the use of example instruments in any of your assignments must be credited to the original author. The use of someone else's instrument without attribution is plagiarism and subject to Honor Code sanctions.)

Discussions, questions, and updates on assignments between classes will be made through the class electronic mailing list: mus-88-l. This is an especially efficient method of alerting the members of the class to software and hardware problems between classes. All registered students should be automatically subscribed to this list. To distribute your message to this list, send mail to mus-88-l@ Keep in mind that your message will be distributed to the entire class, not just me. Please use this resource freely, though, as there may be others in the class who are wondering the same thing as you or who would benefit from your tips.

There is also a mailing list for Csound that I encourage you to join.

Course Outline

Dates may be revised depending on class progress.
DateTopicAssignment due
Sep. 2Introduction to the studio; audio basics
Sep. 4-9MIDI and sequencingRead Dodge & Jerse chapter 1
Sep. 11Introduction to acousticsRead Dodge & Jerse chapter 2
Sep. 16Introduction to digital audioAssignment 1 due -- MIDI sequence
Sep. 18Digital audio (continued)Read Dodge & Jerse chapter 3
Digital audio / acoustics / MIDI quiz
Sep. 23Digital recording
Sep. 25SamplingBrief assignment 1 due
Sep. 30Introduction to CsoundAssignment 2 due -- Digital multitracking
Oct. 2Digital oscillators & wavetable synthesisRead Dodge & Jerse chapter 4
Oct. 7Introduction to digital filters
Oct. 9Using samples in CsoundAssignment 3 due -- Csound program
Oct. 14ModulationRead Dodge & Jerse chapter 5.1
Oct. 16FM synthesisBrief assignment 2 due
Oct. 21Fall break
Oct. 23FM synthesizers
Oct. 28Effects ProcessingAssignment 4 due -- digital concrète
Oct. 30 More Csound instruments
Nov. 4 Presentation 1: Algorithmic composition
Nov. 6 Presentation 2: Digital reverberation and sound spatialization Assignment 5 due -- Csound modulation
Nov. 11Presentation 3: Waveshaping synthesis
Nov. 13No class -- HSA AdvisingBrief assignment 3 due
Nov. 18Presentation 4: Analysis/resynthesis
Nov. 20Presentation 5: Granular synthesis
Nov. 25Presentation 6: Physical modelingFinal project proposal due (by email)
Nov. 27Thanksgiving break
Dec. 2Interactive and realtime processing
Dec. 4The future of synthesis
Dec. 9-11Analysis of interim projectsInterim version of final project due
Sunday Dec. 14
7:00 pm
Shanahan Recital Hall
Concert of final projects.

Rules for using the Computer Music Studio

  1. There is no smoking at any time in the studio. Food and drinks are not allowed in the vicinity of equipment or on the same tables as equipment.
  2. Do not touch any equipment not directly related to this course without permission.
  3. It is all right to have a friend in the studio with you, but no one not enrolled in the course is allowed to use the studio without supervision.
  4. Under no circumstances are you to remove, even temporarily, anything from the studio without permission, including borrowing documentation to xerox.
  5. NEVER modify, disable, or delete any applications, system files, or other related files on the studio computer, even if you know what you're doing. Do not install any applications or system files on the studio computer without permission.
  6. Do not delete, move, or modify anyone else's files. There should be plenty of disk space, but contact me if there are any problems.
  7. Never touch any of the cables in the back of the patch bay or other equipment, even if you know what you're doing.
  8. The Claremont Colleges' Policy on Appropriate Use of Computing and Network Resources applies to the studio computer. This policy includes the prohibition against copying copyrighted applications. (Csound itself is free to copy for educational purposes such as this class. See the manual for more information.)
  9. All students enrolled in this course are bound by the Harvey Mudd College Honor Code in regards to activities related to this class, even non-HMC students.
Breaking any of these rules will be regarded as very serious and may result in the revocation of studio access privileges. Whenever you are using the studio, you are responsible for the studio and the equipment in it.

If there are any problems with the computer or any other equipment, please contact me AS SOON AS POSSIBLE by phone (x74170) or email, even if the problem does not affect you personally. My prompt attention to any technical problems will help your fellow students.

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Updated on August 18, 2014, by Bill Alves.