EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

Do We Still Need "Computer Music"?

Eric Lyon

Music - School of Arts, Histories and Cultures
The University of Manchester


The earliest music produced on computer was shaped by severe limitations of the medium, which restricted the practice to a relatively small number of institutions and required constant attention to arduous hardware and software maintenance. In the 1980s standardized hardware and software solutions emerged, and by the early 1990s it had become possible to create music on computer primarily as a tool user, rather than developer/maintainer. This trend accelerated sharply with the advent of laptop performance, and sophisticated music-making is now often done by musicians who have and need little knowledge of the low-level design of these tools.

In the fixed-medium audio art world, there has been an increasing focus on aesthetics of the medium, with hardware and software design relegated to the role of enabler. In some circles "computer music" has acquired the pejorative connotation of being overly focused on technical problems with insufficient concern for the sound quality of the result, in contradistinction to "acousmatic music". This paper considers whether the practice of computer music has served its purpose, to be superseded by a more traditional division of labor between musical tool users and tool builders, or whether it can still make a unique and vital contribution.