The 1956 composition "Illiac Suite for String Quartet" is a pleasant enough sounding piece of music – for the first three movements, that is. It's when you get to the fourth and final movement, that things get...weird. The notes sound random and dissonant. It doesn't sound much like music at all. But the peculiarity of "Illiac Suite" makes a little more sense when you realize how it was composed. This was the computer's first algorithmically generated song.
Programmed in binary by Lejaren A. Hiller, assistant professor of music at the University of Illinois, and Leonard M. Isaacson, a former research associate on the school's Illiac computer, "Illiac Suite" was nevertheless a revelation. That a computer might one day compose music indistinguishable from that of a human artist became an irresistible pop culture trope – for better and for ill. In his New York Times obituary, Hiller is said to have joked that "he would have computers compose all possible rock songs, then copyright them and refuse to let anyone perform them."
Luckily for us, computers are nowhere close to realizing that humorous albeit dystopian vision. And yet "Illiac Suite" remains an impressive feat, even today.
We can actually trace the beginnings of "Illiac Suite" back to none other than the British mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing. In 1951, Turing published a book on programming for an early computer known then as the Ferranti Mark I*. The machine had a loudspeaker, sometimes called a "hooter," that was used primarily to issue warnings or during debugging. But Turing found that the loudspeaker could also be used to produce solid tones – notes, if you prefer.
It didn't take long before programmers began to exploit this functionality to playback simply melodies and songs. But two programmers by the name of David Caplin and Dietrich Prinz decided to take things a step further.