18 Randomness and Chance Composition

There is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death.

William Shakespeare

Music composition, and artistic expression in general, often reflects a tension between rational and irrational processes that underlie and motivate creative work. Perhaps more than at any other time in history, the 20th century witnessed the rational and irrational taking explicit shape in the techniques that composers used to create music. It should not be surprising that the same century that gave birth to Quantum Mechanics and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle also found artists consciously incorporating non-deterministic, or random processes into their artistic pallettes. One of the most important expressions of this influence was in the chance procedures adopted by some artists. Whether it is motion added to a dance by Merce Cunningham, an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock or the I Ching music of John Cage, randomness and chance are consciously embraced as generative techniques for making art. An interest in chance procedures also served as an important motivation in the development of the experimental music tradition in the 1950's, from which computer composition stems. The earliest examples of computer composition by Lejaren Hiller are largely based on some chance procedures that will be discussed in the next two chapters. these techniques can have a profound effect on the compositional process yet are very simple to perform with a computer. The computer also enables composers to experiment with many different types of randomness that are more interesting than the simple “coin tossing” model that ever composer is familiar with. It perhaps somewhat ironic then, that the computer programs that composers usually use to create chance compositions are not really generating randomness at all!

Random Number Generators

Computers are designed to function in a totally consistent and reproducible manner. This is a wonderful feature when your plane is landing or your tax returns are prepared but it means that randomness is inherently difficult to achieve with such a deterministic machine. Although some applications use specialized hardware to generate truly random signals, more typical computer programs only simulate randomness with a special type of algorithm called a pseudo-random number generator. Pseudo-random number generators are software programs that calculate a series of numbers with statistically random properties. But, as the name suggests, these numbers are not really random at all. A pseudo-random generator is a completely deterministic algorithm that generates one series of numbers. A common design of many random generators uses past output value as the seed for calculating the next number in the series. This means that each time the generator starts from a particular seed the exact same sequence of numbers in the series will ensue. Many random number generators, including Lisp's random function, allow the user to specify an initial random state seed that positions the algorithm at a certain location in its sequence of numbers. Composers who want to express randomness “philosophically” in a composition will therefore want to use different initial seeds each time a chance program runs to insure the program generates a different outcome each time. On the other hand, composers often want just the opposite: to save seeds in order to “back up” in the event that a random process has produced particularly satisfying results! This latter method is one way to implement the common generate and test compositional style in computer composition. By building random choice into the algorithms that generate music the composer can generate many possible "drafts" of a piece, each with its own random variations. These versions can then compared to determine which one(s) best satisfy the composer's goals. Sometimes a whole piece is generated in this manner, other times the composer collects the best features from different drafts and combines them into a final version. Since the initial seed for each draft was saved the composer can regenerate the best versions at any time, as long as the program code remains exactly the same.

Since the material in this book assumes that the reader is interactively experimenting with examples, we are virtually assured that the book's path through Lisp's random number series will not be repeated by the reader. For this reason none of the examples in this book make use of random number seeds. But by establishing different seeds each time you begin to work, or by saving the current seed before you run a chance program, you can minimize (or maximize) the likelihood that your program will generate the same results. To learn more about the process of seeding in Lisp consult the documentation on the random function in the Language specification.


A random process is a process in which outcomes have only a certain likelihood of happening. Probability is a measurement of the likelihood of these events actually occurring. Probability in our daily lives is often described in terms of a “percentage chance”. For example, the weatherman might say: “There is a 25% chance that it will rain today”. The percentage indicates that probability is distributed over all the events in a random process, where each event, or range of events, has a certain proportion of the total probability. So, although we do not know for certain if it will rain or not, probability allows us to infer several facts from the forecaster's statement:

  1. there is a 25% chance that it will rain today
  2. there is a 75% chance that it will not rain today
  3. there is a 100% chance that it will either rain or not rain today
  4. there is a 0% chance that neither will happen

Weather forecasts notwithstanding, probability factors are typically expressed as values between zero and one rather than as percentages between 0 and 100. The probabilities of all the events in a random process add up to 1.0 (100%) because there must be absolute certainty (1.0) that at least one of the outcomes will happen.

Some random processes are characterized by an equal distribution of probability over all of the events in the process. This is called a uniform probability distribution. For example, when a fair die is rolled there is an equal likelihood that any one of the six sides will land face up. Since the total probability must add up to 1 and there is an equal chance for any side to land on top, each of the six sides has a probability factor of 1/6. For a given event x, its probability, P(x), is the ratio of the number of ways the outcome can happen to the total number of possible outcomes. For example, if x is a randomly chosen key number on a piano then P(x)= 1/88. If x is a randomly chosen black key on the piano, then there are 36 possible ways to do this and so P(x)=36/88=9/22. Similarly, the complementary probability of an event (all the events that are not x) is 1-P(x). So the probability of selecting a white key x on the piano can be calculated by complementing the probability of black keys, or P(x)= 1-9/22=13/22. In a continuous distribution, probability is defined over an area under a distribution curve. This means that the probability of any single event, or “point” is zero since it has no area. This sounds odd but since probability is the ratio of the number of ways an event can happen to the total number of events then if there are an infinite number of events the probability of any single event is zero.

Lisp's random function generates numbers in both discrete and continuous distributions. By specifying an integer range to random only integers will be returned. If the range is expressed as a real, or floating point value, then continuous values within the limits of floating point precision are returned. The random function always returns a value between zero less than the bounds specified to the function. To generate any other range of values, or to randomly generate non-numeric values, requires that the output from random be scaled and offset, or used as indices into lists of non-numeric data. These kinds of manipulations are such a common occurrence in composition that Common Music provides a number of different functions to facilitate chance operations in musical contexts. These functions are listed together here and then discussed at appropriate places later in this chapter.

(between low high [skip])
(odds prob [then] [else])
(pick ...)
(pickl list [:start i] [:end i] [:skip x])
(ran [:type k] [:a n] [:b n])
(shuffle list [:start i] [:end i])
(tendency n env1 env2 [:offset n] [:scale n])
(vary n pct [where])

Probability Distributions

The probability of events in a random process is determined by a probability distribution — a mathematical function that describes the likelihood of all possible outcomes. Distributions can be characterized by a mean or average, value that they produce and by a characteristic “shape” that the probability expresses over the events in the random process. One of the great advantages to using a computer to work with random processes is that it is possible for a composer to employ complex distributions without needing to understand the underlying mathematics of their implementation (which can be quite complex for some types of randomness). Composers who are interested in a formal presentation of random number generation should read Knuth's Seminumerical Algorithms, volume 2 of The Art of Computer Programming (Knuth) , which contains the definitions of many random number generators with different probability characteristics. Computer Music (Dodge) by Charles Dodge and Thomas Jerse also contains an excellent discussion of probability theory and random number distributions.

In the next few sections we define the characteristics of some common distributions. Each example includes a graphical plot of sampled events together with a histogram that depicts a characteristic density of events that each probability distribution generates. The histograms were generated by analyzing the output from a musical process that maps random values onto a range of integer MIDI key numbers. The musical processes that generated the results are shown in each example. Such a process can be listened to in “discrete” mode — quantized to the closest MIDI key number — or in “continuous” mode, by using the channel tuning methods discussed in Chapter 14 to output microtonal frequency values. Example 18-1 contains the basic process definition we will use to sonify the distributions. The sound example provided for each distribution plays the distribution in continuous mode.

Example 18-1. Mapping distributions onto frequency space.

(define (play-ran type len rate key1 key2)
  (process repeat len
           for r = (ran :type type)
           for k = (rescale r 0.0 1.0 key1 key2)
           output (new midi :time (now)
                       :keynum k
                       :duration (* rate 1.5)
                       :amplitude .5 )
           wait rate))

;;; channel tuning on first 9 channels

(define ct9 (list true 0 8)) 

(define (mean-ran type n a b)
  (/ (loop repeat n
           sum (ran :type type :a a :b b))

The play-ran function in Example 18-1maps values from Common Music's ran function onto a range of key numbers specified to the process. The ran function generates random numbers in a distribution specified using its :type keyword argument. The following distribution types are supported:

:uniform :low :high :triangular :beta :exponential :cauchy :poisson :gamma :gaussian

If the :type argument is not specified then the uniform distribution is generated. See the documentation on ran in the Common Music Dictionary for more information about this function.

The mean-ran function calculates the mean, or average, value of n outcomes of ran. This gives us some measure of how well the pseudo-random number generator approximates the theoretical mean value of each distribution type.

Uniform distribution

In a uniform distribution all events have an equal likelihood of being selected. This means that in a discrete selection over n events, each event has 1/n probability of being selected. In a continuous distribution the events under two equal portions of the total probability range will have an equal likelihood of selection with a mean value of .5. Lisp's random function return numbers in a uniform distribution. These values can then be filtered or processed in different ways to produce non-uniform behavior.

Figure 18-1. Two plots depicting values (points) and histogram (bars) of uniform distribution. The Y axis plots continuous random values normalized 0-1. The x axis plots the histogram range defined over 127 key numbers.


Interaction 18-1. Playing continuous uniform distribution.

cm> (events (play-ran :uniform 100 .1 20 100) "uniform.mid"
            :channel-tuning ct9)

Linear "Low-pass" Distribution

In a linear “low-pass” distribution the probability of larger numbers decreases linearly over the range of values returned by the process. The low-pass behavior is implemented by filtering a uniform process such that the minimum of two uniformly chosen numbers is returned:

(min (random 1.0) (random 1.0))

The expected mean value of the low-pass distribution is .2929.

Figure 18-2. Low pass values (points) and histogram (bars).


Interaction 18-2. Playing the low pass distribution.

cm> (events (play-ran :low 50 .1 20 100) "low.mid"
            :channel-tuning ct9)

Linear "High-pass" Distribution

In a linear “high-pass” distribution the probability of larger numbers increases linearly over the range of values. The distribution can be implemented by returning the maximum of two uniform random numbers:

(max (random 1.0) (random 1.0))

The expected mean value of the high distribution is .2929.

Figure 18-3. High pass values (points) and histogram (bars).


Interaction 18-3. Playing the high pass distribution.

cm> (events (play-ran :high 50 .1 20 100) "high.mid"
            :channel-tuning ct9)

Mean Distribution

In a mean distribution the probability of numbers in the middle of the distribution increases linearly. A mean distribution can be implemented by averaging two uniform random numbers:

(/ (+ (random 1.0) (random 1.0)) 2))

The expected mean value of the distribution is .5.

Figure 18-4. Triangular distribution values (points) and histogram (red bars).


Interaction 18-4. Playing the triangular distribution.

cm> (events (play-ran :triangular 50 .1 20 100) 
            "tri.mid" :channel-tuning ct9)

Exponential Distribution

The exponential distribution returns the natural logarithm of a uniformly chosen number.

(/ (- (log (- 1 (random 1.0)))) a))

The a parameter provides a “stretching factor” that scales values closer or further from 0; the larger the value of a the more the values are pushed toward zero. If random returns 0 then loge1 is 0, the minimum value in the distribution. As random values exceed 1/e (0.367) the values returned in the distribution exceed 1.0. There is no upper limit to values produced in the exponential distribution, but 99% of the time its value is less than 6.908.

Figure 18-5. Exponential distribution values (points) and histogram (red bars) for a=1 and a=2.


The expected mean value of the exponential distribution for a=1 is .693.

Example 18-2. An exponential distribution.

(define (play-exp len rate key1 key2 a)
  (process repeat len
           for r = (ran :type :exponential :a a)
           for k = (rescale r 0.0 6.908 key1 key2)
           when (< k 128)
           output (new midi :time (now)
                       :keynum k
                       :duration (* rate 1.5)
                       :amplitude .5 )
           and wait rate))

The play-exp process passes the a stretching factor to the ran function. Since the distribution is unbounded the conditional clause insures that only valid MIDI key numbers will be output.

Interaction 18-5. Playing the exponential distribution for a=1.

cm> (events (play-exp 50 .1 20 100 1) "exp.mid"
            :channel-tuning ct9)

Gaussian Distribution

The Gaussian, or normal, distribution returns values that fall under the normal curve. The spread, or standard deviation is 1.0 centered at 0, so 68.26% of the results are between -1 and 1, and 99.74% of the results are between -3 and 3.

Figure 18-6. Gaussian distribution values (points) and histogram (bars).


Example 18-3. A Gaussian distribution.

(define (play-gauss len rate key1 key2)
  (process repeat len
           for r = (ran :type :gaussian)
           for k = (rescale r 0.0 3 key1 key2)
           when (<= 0 k 127)
           output (new midi :time (now)
                       :keynum k
                       :duration (* rate 1.5)
                       :amplitude .5 )
           and wait rate))

Interaction 18-6. Playing Gaussian distribution.

cm> (events (play-gauss 50 .1 20 100) "gauss.mid"
            :channel-tuning ct9)

Beta Distribution

The Beta distribution is one of the most musically interesting distributions to work with because it really describes a whole family of distribution shapes. The beta distribution is controlled by two parameters a and b. When a=b=1 then a uniform distribution results. When a=b, the distribution is symmetric around .5. When a<1 and b<1 the density of large and small numbers increases. When a>1 and b>1 density is similar to the Gaussian distribution.

Example 18-4. The beta distribution.

(define (play-beta len rate a b key1 key2)
  (process repeat len
           for r = (ran :type :beta :a a :b b)
           for k = (rescale r 0.0 1.0 key1 key2)
           output (new midi :time (now)
                       :keynum k
                       :duration (* rate 1.5)
                       :amplitude .5 )
           wait rate))

Figure 18-7. Beta distribution values (points) and histogram (bars).


Interaction 18-7. Playing the beta distribution for a=b=.4.

cm> (events (play-beta 50 20 90 .1 .4 .4 ) "beta.mid"
            :channel-tuning ct9)

Random Processes in Music Composition

Both continuous and discrete random processes are used in computer composition to control the evolution of parameterized data. But — as may be noticed in the preceding examples — simply mapping random distributions directly onto sound parameters does not really translate into interesting musical results. The lack of correlation between events in a random process causes our interest to diminish rapidly as we listen. There are really only two ways to deal with this issue. One method is to reserve the use of randomness for aspects in a composition that do not affect its structural integrity. The other method is to control randomness in some manner such that the listener either perceives an underlying structure unfolding or at least has some expectation of regularity, or correlation in the pattern. The remaining sections of the chapter present different approaches to controlling random processes such that they generate more interesting musical results than the basic distributions on which they are based.

Sampling Without Replacement

Generating discrete random values using an expression like (random 88) is called sampling. Sampling can be performed two different ways. Sampling with replacement means that once a value has been sampled it is still available to be sampled again. For example, if key number 60 is generated by (random 88) then 60 can be still be selected as a possible next value. Sampling without replacement describes a process in which generated values are not returned to the population once they have been selected. This is similar to how cards are dealt from a shuffled deck. By using sampling without replacement, a composer randomly reorders a set of specific values whose relationships are otherwise fixed. This reordering can be perceived as a kind of “freshness” in the data. The function shuffle can be used to implement sampling without replacement. Shuffle randomly permutes a list of values, which can then be sampled one at a time to produce a random ordering without repetition. Since shuffle operates on list positions rather than values, the list can hold any type of data.

Example 18-5. Sampling without replacement.

(define (sampling reps rate notes )
  (let ((len (length notes)))
    (process for i below reps
             for j = (mod i len)
             when (= j 0) ; need to reshuffle?
             set notes = (shuffle notes)
             output (new midi :time (now)
                         :keynum (list-ref notes j)
                         :duration (* rate 1.5)
                         :amplitude (interp j 0 .4 (- len 1) .8))
             wait rate)))

Our sampling process also produces a crescendo that starts over again each time the values are shuffled so that each “period” in the population can be easily heard. Note that while shuffling avoids direct repetition within the period, there may still be a direct repetition between the last note of a period and the first note of the next.

Interaction 18-8. Calling shuffle.

cm> (events (sampling 80 .1 '(c d ef f g a bf c5))

Direct reselection can be an issue anytime discrete random selection is used. When the range of random values is sufficiently large direct repetition may be so infrequent that it does not have a noticeable effect on the results. But as the number of events in a discrete process diminishes the likelihood of direct reselection increases. At some point this may cause an unwanted regularity in musical results. One way to deal with this is to use the optional omit argument to the between function to avoid direct reselection. An omit value will not be returned by between. By specifying the last output value as the omit value for the next random number, direct reselection will not occur. The following process can be used experiment with the effects of allowing or inhibiting direct reselection.

Example 18-6. Avoiding direct repetition in discrete distributions.

(define (reps len lb ub skip?)
  (process repeat len
           for l = (if skip? k false)
           for k = (between lb ub l)
           output (new midi time (now)
                       :keynum k
                       :duration .2)
           wait .125))

If skip? is true then the variable l is set to k, the last value returned by between. In this case l is not false, so when it passed as the omit value to between direct repetition of l cannot occur. If skip? is false then l will be false no matter what the value of kis and direct selection is then possible.

Interaction 18-9. Random selection with and without direct repetition.

cm> (events (reps 30 60 63 false) "reps.mid")
cm> (events (reps 30 60 63 true) "reps.mid")


Continuous selection is commonly used to provide variance in scaling and offsetting procedures. For example, by scaling a regular tempo or pulse value by a small random percentage the actual rate of events will fluctuate in time and produce a more natural effect than a fixed rate would. If the percentage variance is small enough the fluctuations will not affect the perception of an underlying structural pulse. The process definition in Example 18-7 can be used to experiment with random percentage variance applied to the pulse, amplitude and duration of events.

Example 18-7. The tapping process.

(define (tapping reps pct rate key amp)
  (let ((half (/ reps 2)))
    (process for i below reps
             for v = (if (< i half) 0 pct)
             output (new midi :time (now)
                         :duration (vary .1 v )
                         :keynum key
                         :amplitude (vary amp v :below))
             wait (vary rate v))))

The tapping process plays a single key number reps times at a specified rate and amplitude. The events in the first half of the process are played with fixed values and in the second half the values are allowed to vary by up to pct amount of their values. By default the function vary distributes variance equally on either side of the fixed value. To produce variance less than the value specify :below as the third argument to vary. Similarly, the keyword :above will offset the variance above the value.

Interaction 18-10. Comparing 10% variance with 50% variance.

cm> (events (tapping 50 .1 .2 72 .6) "tap.mid")
cm> (events (tapping 50 .5 .2 72 .6) "tap.mid")

Even something as simple as random variation of a beat can be made musically interesting if it is controlled in some manner. In the next example the amount of variation applied to the beat is controlled by an envelope. When the envelope is at 0 then no variation occurs, when the envelope is at 1 then full variance is expressed. By using an envelope to control random variance the process can interpolate over the full continuum between completely random time increments and a strictly measured pulse. The same envelope that controls the beat will also be used to provide a value for the a and b beta distribution parameters that generates amplitude values for the process. When the control envelope is at zero (no random variance) then the beta distribution will be a=b=.4 and produce a large percentage of loud and soft values (Figure 18-7). When the envelope is at 1 then the beta distribution will be a=b=1 and produce values in the uniform distribution. When the control envelope is at zero (no random variance) then the beta distribution will be at (beta a=b=1) and produce values in the uniform distribution. When the envelope is at 1 (full random variance) then a=b=.4) and a large percentage of loud and soft values are produced. The shape of the envelope defined in Example 18-8 causes the process to begin and end with random time values and express the strict pulse in the middle.

Example 18-8. The rain process.

(define (rain len rate env key1 key2 amp)
  (process for i below len
           for e = (interpl (/ i len) env)
           for v = (vary rate e :above)
           ;; rescale e to control shape of beta distribution
           ;; when e=0 z=.4, and when e=1 z=1.
           for z = (rescale e 0 1 1 .4)
           for b = (ran :type :beta :a z :b z)
           output (new midi :time (+ (now) v)
                       :duration v
                       :keynum (between key1 key2)
                       :amplitude (rescale b 0 1 .1 amp))
           wait rate))
(define rain-env '(0 1 .4 0 .6 0 1 1))

We listen to three simultaneous versions of the rain process, each with different length beats.

Interaction 18-11. Listening to rain.

cm> (events (list (rain 80 .5 rain-env 70 90 .8)
                  (rain 40 1 rain-env 40 60 .8)
                  (rain 20 2 rain-env 20 40 .9))

Shape-based composition

By applying a random variance to envelope values we can generate random variations on the basic shape of the envelope:

Example 18-9. Adding a random variance to envelope values.

(define (shaper len rate env key1 key2)
  (process for i below len
           for e = (interpl (/ i len) env )
           for k = (rescale e 0 1 key1 key2)
           for r = (between -5 5) 
           output (new midi :time (now)
                       :keynum (+ k r)
                       :duration rate)
           wait (* rate (pick .5 .25 1))))

(define shape-env
  '(0 0 .2 1 .4 .25 .6 .5 .8 0 1 .5))

The process in Example 18-9 scales and offsets values from an envelope to generate a range of key numbers specified to the process. A random amount is then added to the the key number to shift it upwards or downwards.

Interaction 18-12. Listening to two variations of the same envelope.

cm> (events (list (shaper 40 1 shape-env 70 90)
                  (shaper 40 1 shape-env 60 80)
                  (shaper 20 2 shape-env 60 48))
cm> (events (list (shaper 40 1 shape-env 70 90)
                  (shaper 40 1 shape-env 60 80)
                  (shaper 20 2 shape-env 60 48))

Tendency Masks

A tendency mask is a technique related to the shape-based approach first described by the composer Gottfried Michael Koenig. A tendency mask is created using two envelopes to specify the lower and upper boundaries for a random selection. By describing each boundary as an envelope the range of the random variable can vary as a function of some dynamic process. Common Music's tendency function returns a random value given an x lookup value, and a lower and upper envelope that define the boundaries.

Example 18-10. Tendency masking.

(define low-mask '(0 .4 .75 .4 1 0))
(define top-mask '(0  1 .25 .6 1 .6))

(define (masker len rate lower upper key1 key2) 
  (let ((last (- len 1)))
    (process for i to last
             for e = (tendency (/ i last) lower upper)
             for k = (rescale e 0 1 key1 key2)
             output (new midi :time (now)
                         :duration rate
                         :keynum k)
             wait rate)))

In this example two envelopes lower and upper control the range of random selection. The variable e is set to a random value between an interpolated lower and upper bounds in the two envelopes specified to tendency This random value, which lies between zero and one, is then rescaled to lie between the key numbers key1 and key2 passed as arguments to the process.

Interaction 18-13. Listening to masker.

cm> (events (masker 80 .1 low-mask top-mask 20 110)

Weighted Random Selection

In weighted random selection individual probability weights are assigned to each event in a discrete random process. This affords more precise control over the overall mix of outcomes than would otherwise be possible using one of the distributions already discussed in this chapter. Common Music's odds function implements a simple binary form of weighted random selection that is identical to the chance? function from Chapter 7 (except that values other than true and false can be returned by odds). More complex forms of weighted selection are presented in Chapter 19 and Chapter 20, but these discussions assume an understanding of probability tables, which we present here.

Probability Tables

A probability table associates each outcome in a discrete random process with a specific portion, or segment, of the total probability range. The size of each segment reflects the proportional likelihood of that value being generated from the random process. To generate the next value from a table, a uniformly distributed random value is generated and the table is searched to find the probability segment that contains the random lookup value. The datum associated with that segment is then returned from the table as the random value. The implementation defined in Example 18-11 allows us to specify probabilities in terms of relative weights that are associated with each possible outcome in the random process. The function that creates the probability table will convert these relative weights into absolute portions of the total probability interval 0 to 1. To see how this works, consider a weighted random process that generates four rhythmic symbols: S, E, Q and H where S should be three times as likely Q, E should be twice as likely as Q and H should 1/4 as likely as Q (Table 1).

Table 18-1. Example probability table for four rhythmic outcomes.

index 0 1 2 3
outcome s e q h
weight 3 2 1 1/4
segment 0.0-0.48 0.048-0.8 0.8-0.96 0.96-1.0

Our implementation of probability tables (ptables) in Example 18-11 uses two functions. The first function make-ptable creates a ptable from a list of outcomes and weights. The pran function then generates a random outcome from a ptable created by make-ptable.

Example 18-11. Implementing probability tables.

(define (make-ptable data)
  (let ((total (loop for d in data sum (second d)))
        (sum 0))
    ;; total holds sum of weights in data
    (loop for d in data 
          for v = (first d)      ; outcome to return
          for w = (second d)     ; relative weight
          do (set! sum (+ sum w))
          ;; collect outcome and normalized probability
          collect (list v (/ sum total)))))

(define (pran table)
  ;; return outcome in table according
  ;; to its weighted probability
  (let ((x (random 1.0)))
    ;; x is uniform number < 1.
    (loop for d in table
          for p = (second d)
          when (< x p )   ; x in this segment.
          return (first d))))

A probability table is represented as a list of lists, the first element of each sub-list is an outcome and the second value is its weight relative to the other outcomes defined in the list. For example, the probability table described in Table 1 would be specified as the list:

((s 3) (e 2) (q 1) (h 1/4))

The make-ptable function creates a probability table from data, a list of values and weights as shown in the example above. The table returned by make-ptable is identical to data except that the relative probability weights in the data description are converted to equivalent absolute segments in along the probability interval 0-1. The variable total is set to the sum of the relative weights in data. The loop then iterates over each sublist d in data and sets the variable v to the outcome of d and sets w to its weight. The loop then collects lists containing the same value v but with a weight normalized to lie between 0-1 by calculating the current ratio of sum to the total weight. The table returned by the function contains the same outcomes as data but with relative weights converted to monotonically increasing values that represents the upper bounds of each segment along the probability range 0-1.

The function pran implements weighted random selection given a probability table. It generates a uniform random number x between 0 and 1. The larger segments in the table will contain proportionally more chances of containing values of x than the smaller segments. The loop iterates over each element in the table and compares x to the probability segment value p of each segment. Since segment values are stored in increasing order, the first occurrence of x less than p is the probability segment that contains the value to return.

Given our implementation of probability tables we can now define a process to generate values using weighted random selection:

Example 18-12. Weighted random selection of notes and rhythms.

(define note-tabl
  (make-ptable '((c 3) (d 1) (ef 2) (f 1) (g 3) 
                 (af 1) (bf 1) (c5 3) )))

(define rhy-tabl
  (make-ptable '((s 3) (e 2) (q 1)  (h 1/4))))

(define (play-pran reps notes rhys tempo)
  (process repeat reps for k = (keynum (pran notes))
           for r = (rhythm (pran rhys) tempo)
           output (new
                    midi :time (now) :keynum k 
                    :duration (* r 1.5))
           wait r))

The probability table defined in notes “prefers” notes of a C-minor triad in the C-minor scale. The table stored in rhys contains the example shown in Table 1.

Interaction 18-14. Listening to Pran

cm> (events (play-pran 50 note-tabl rhy-tabl 100) "ptab.mid")

Random Walks

The term random walk describes a random process in which a value is incremented by a random amount. The motion produced by a random walk is reminiscent of how a drunk staggers around when walking: with each stagger the location of the drunk changes randomly within the radius of one step. The random walk is also characteristic of how molecules and very small particles move (Brownian motion) and for that reason it is sometimes referred to as brown noise.

Because the next value in a random walk must lie within a certain interval from the current value, the current value has a very strong influence on the next outcome. The influence of past values on successive values is called correlation. The correlation in a random walk is characterized by a 1/f2 spectrum, which means that small rates of change are much more present than larger ones. This is a very different behavior than the uniform distribution, or white noise, which exhibits large changes just as frequently as small ones because there is no correlation between successive values.

A random walk is easy to implement in a musical algorithm. A walking value x is initialized to some appropriate starting value and then incremented by a random amount (positive or negative) on each iteration of the process. A moment's reflection will tell us that at some point an unbounded walk will likely exceed the limits of whatever sound parameter it is controlling. For this reason the random walks that control parameterized data are typically bounded, or constrained, in some manner so that they always lie within minimum and maximum boundary values. There are no hard and fast rules on how to adjust values that wander past boundaries: common adjustments include resetting value to the boundary value, reflecting the value back into bounds, randomly repositioning the value somewhere within the range, or stopping the process altogether.

Common Music's drunk function implements bounded or unbounded random walks and its optional keyword arguments constrain values to lie within specified :low and :high boundaries. A value that exceeds either bounds is adjusted according to the :mode argument. Possible modes are:

:reflect :limit :reset :jump :stop

The default mode is :reflect, which “wraps” a value back into bounds by its current excess amount. Example 18-13 defines a process that uses drunk to generate a random melody.

Example 18-13. Random walks applied to keynum and amplitude.

(define (stagger len low high step)
  (let ((k (/ (- high low) 2))
        (a (between .1 .9)))
    (process repeat len
             for r = (pick 1/8 1/4) 
             set k = (drunk k step :high .9 :mode :jump)
             output (new midi :time (now)
                         :duration (* r 1.5)
                         :keynum k :amplitude a)
             wait r)))

K is a key number controlled by a random walk between key1 key2. On each iteration of the process the key number can deviate by up to step steps from its current position. The variable a is the amplitude of each event, which is allowed to wander between .1 and .9. The :mode keyword argument controls the boundary rule of the walk. The value :jump causes a value that is out of bounds to be reset to a randomly chosen position within bounds.

Interaction 18-15. Listening to the stagger process.

cm> (events (stagger 50 40 80 3) "drunk.mid")
cm> (events (stagger 50 20 90 7) "drunk.mid")


The final example in this chapter was provided by Michael Klingbeil from some studies he made for an orchestra piece. The example generates a series of exponential gestures, each of which consists of an upward “arc” of microtonal notes. This short example uses many of the functions presented in this chapter as well as the exponential scaling functions from Chapter 16 and the harmonic series from Chapter 15.

Example 18-14. Using randomness in scaling and tuning.

(define (arpeggiate-exprhy keynums time rate midpoint-frac
                           amplow amphi legato bass-legato
                           bass-cutoff last-legato)
  (let* ((segs (length keynums))
         (last (1- segs))
         (midpoint (floor (* segs midpoint-frac)))
         ;; deltas below midpoint follow one curve, above another.
         (deltas (append (explsegs midpoint (* midpoint-frac time) 
                         (explsegs (- segs midpoint)
                                   (* (- 1 midpoint-frac) time)
                                   (/ 1 rate)))))
    (process for i from 0
             for k in keynums
             for d in deltas
             for r = (if (< k bass-cutoff)
                       (if (= i last)
                         (* last-legato d)
                         (* legato d)))
             for a = (between 0.45 0.5)
             then (drunk a 0.1 :low amplow :high amphi )
             output (new midi :time (now)
                         :keynum k 
                         :amplitude a
                         :duration r)
             wait d)))

The argeggiate-exprhy process creates both upward and downward “arcs” of MIDI events from a specified set of key numbers. The rhythms of each arc are determined by dividing a total time duration into two segments of exponentially related rhythms. The midpoint-frac is a proportion that determines the duration of each are relative to the total time specified to the process. This duration is then “chopped up” into exponentially related time values that sum to the duration of the arc. The amplitude a for the each event is determined by a random walk. The amplow and amphi parameters control the overall range of the random walk. Bass-legato sets the duration of notes with keynum less than bass-cutoff. This allows the bass notes to ring even when the synthesizer does voice stealing for the middle notes of the arpeggio. Last-legato extends the duration of the final note of an arpeggio for similar reasons.

The definition of argeggiate-exprhy produces a single upward and downward arpeggiation. We now define another process that schedules a series of overlapping arpeggiations whose key numbers are determined by distorting the harmonic series:

Example 18-15. Arpeggiated harmonic distortions.

(define (distort-harmonics fund distort)
  (loop for h from 1 below (floor (/ 25.0 distort)) 
        if (odds (* 0.9 distort))
        collect (keynum (* fund (expt h distort))

(define (arpa-harmonic note dur gap)
  (process with fund = (hertz note)
           for distort from 0.7 below 1.05 by 0.05
           for notes = (distort-harmonics fund distort)
           sprout (arpeggiate-exprhy notes
                                     (* (vary dur 0.1) distort)
                                     (between 4.0 0.25)
                                     (between 0.3 0.6)
                                     0.3  ; amplow
                                     0.8  ; amphi
                                     (* dur distort 0.7) ; bass-legato 
                                     2.0   ; legato 
                                     59    ; bass cutoff
                                     1.0)  ; last-legato 
           wait (vary gap 0.4)))

Arpa-harmonic spawns overlapping arpeggios with maximum mean duration of dur and a mean gap between arpeggio starts of gap seconds. Each arpeggio is composed of frequencies of a distorted harmonic series. The distortion factor varies from 0.7 (compressed spectrum) to 1.0 (harmonic spectrum) by increments of 0.05. The greater the compression, the lesser the odds of selecting an element of the spectrum. When the distortion reaches 1.0 the spectrum is harmonic and on average 90% of the elements will be selected.

Interaction 18-16. Arpeggiated harmonic distortions.

cm> (events (arpa-harmonic 'g1 7.0 5.0) "arp.mid" 
            :channel-tuning ct9)
cm> (events (arpa-harmonic 'g1 6.0 5.0) "arp.mid"
            :channel-tuning ct9)

Chapter Source Code

The source code to all of the examples and interactions in this chapter can be found in the file chance.cm located in the same directory as the HTML file for this chapter. The source file can be edited in a text editor or evaluated inside the Common Music application.


Knuth, D.E. (1981). The Art of Computer Programming. Reading: Addison-Wesley.

Dodge, C. & Jerse, T. (1985). Computer Music. New York: Schirmer Books.