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The 12 Rows of Schoenberg

Tim Conrardy reviews an algorithmic application which recently has picked up some interest


Here's a story: One time Derek Johnson (who writes the Atari Notes column for Sound On Sound Magazine published in the UK, told me about an algorithmic program called Schoenberg Composer by programmer/musician Gareth Jones. He said he would dig up his PD versions for me and send them. After a long time (and my diplomatic pesterings!) he finally found them and sent the disks to me. He also sent PD versions of the programmer's other software. Needless to say, I was very thankful, and posted them on the Atari-MIDI file section for members to try out.

Right after this, during my web searches for Atari MIDI programs, I actually came across Gareth Jones' web site (link below) with an excellent section describing his Atari applications. With the advent of Steem, the Atari ST emulator for PC now working with MIDI programs, he decided to release his applications as freeware. This is wonderful for those using an Atari as well as Steem. These programs are easy to use for musicians and non-musicians alike. I have done some work with it myself, contributing to the CN-Fractal CD project, Key Scapes. Have a listen at the CN-Fractal Music web page at MP3.Com ( and look for, "Fairhaven".

Screen shot of Schoenberg in action

What is Schoenberg Composer?
According to Gareth Jones, "Schoenberg is an algorithmic serial music composition emulator for the Atari ST and related computers. This program emulates the serial (twelve-tone) music composition techniques developed by the Second Viennese School of composers, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. These techniques are still widely used by many of today's "serious" composers."

It is not a sequencer, although there is a type of sequencer built into it. It is not a "real time" application in the same fashion as other algorithmic programs such as Jim Johnson's Tunesmith, although there are some real time functions represented. It is a music generator, that is, it composes music for you from parameters that you specify. A session with Schoenberg Composer (or SB5 for short) entails not even touching your MIDI keyboard at all, but typing in different parameters, selecting the COMPOSE and PLAY buttons and hearing the results. During a single session you can generate many MIDI files or SB5 files, then choose which ones best represent your ideas, or even using the ideas generated from the program as a framework for a larger piece after importing the MIDI file into your sequencer of choice.

At first hearing you might think that the only kind of output it produces are "serious" type compositions in the 12 tone style. After some experimentation, I have found that this is not the case and many different styles can be explored. You can generate some very tonal pieces that are not at all dissonant sounding as what much of the 12 tone serialism represents. What follows now is a tutorial I wrote for the Atari MIDI mailing list when we were exploring SB5 together as a group.

A session with SB5: How to create "tonal" compositions
By Tim Conrardy

  1. Double-click on the SB5 application. If this is the first time you have run the program it will ask what "mode" of SB5 you want. Read the Installation notes in the SB5.TXT file that came with the program.
  2. The two opening screens finally load and you are presented with the main SB5 screen.
  3. Now to get some initial output from the program, select the COMPOSE Button. It becomes highlighted. When finished it un-highlights itself. Now click on PLAY. You will hear an interesting flurry of notes in the 12 tone style. If you are using a GM module you will hear some interesting percussion added to the sound as well. While this may be interesting, there are ways to get some "tonal" output from the program. Hit the space bar. SB5 stops playing (WHEW!).
  4. First thing to change is the MIDI Channel row for number 10. Change it to 11, or another suitable MIDI channel. This way we get rid of the percussion sounds (unless you want that, but for now let's change it).
  5. Notice there are three rows or sections. PITCH, NOTE LENGTH, and VELOCITY.
  6. Go to the PITCH row and click into the box above the [1]. All the notes in that row are erased waiting to be filled in with your own note (pitch) selections.
  7. I have found that using only three or four notes, you can get tonal output from SB5. This is accomplished by clicking on the notes right below the empty row and they are filled in by your selections. For this example, select C, E, and G. Repeat that sequence all the way through the 12 slots for pitch. Notice this is a C major triad chord.

    Note: I have also found that by just selecting the "black keys", that is the sharp notes, you can get excellent pentatonic compositions.
  8. Now we will be selecting parameters for NOTE LENGTH. The selection is the same as above. Click in the box above the [1] and the previous note lengths are erased. Click on [12] (for our example) through all the 12 positions in the row.
  9. For VELOCITY, we can leave this alone for now. We can come back to it at any time.
  10. Click on COMPOSE. Then PLAY. You will hear an interesting progression created from the C-Major triad. Press the space bar to stop it at any time. It will stop by itself as well after it has finished generating.

Screen shot of Schoenberg in action

  1. Let's change some things. Click on STYLE. You are brought to the STYLE screen. Lots of things here to experiment with. If you noticed when you play the piece, the timing was fluctuating a lot. To get rid of this and make it more constant, right-click on LENGTH ROW (so it is unhighlighted) on the INVERSIONS column. Click on COMPOSE, then PLAY. You will hear the output a little more constant. Hit the space bar to stop it. Let's go on.
  2. Suppose I did not want to hear so much transposition in the piece. Right-click (so it is not highlighted) on TRANSPOSE ROWS under TRANSPOSER at the bottom-left corner of the screen. Now COMPOSE and PLAY to hear the results. It does not transpose anymore but stays in one key (more or less!). Stop it with the space bar when you are ready.
  3. Let's try some more variation. Left-click on ECHOES in the PLAYBACK column. COMPOSE and PLAY. You will hear some arpeggio-sounding output. STOP, now try clicking on MULTIPLIER. COMPOSE and PLAY.
  4. Sounds rather nice now. Let's slow it down a bit. Click on the tempo. For some reason, a higher number means slowing the tempo down. Right and Left clicks make it go up or down. For our purposes, change it to 70. Now just select PLAY (no need to COMPOSE). Much Nicer!
  5. Now let's save your piece. First click into MIDI FILE at the top menu bar. You have several selections there on how you want your MIDI file saved. I would select FORMAT 1. 192 PPQN, and GM DATA as well as GM NAME if you are using a GM module or plan to post on the internet. Now go to SAVE. Select .MID. The file selector appears. You may want to save the .MID file to the MID folder in the SB5 directory. Select that folder. Then name your piece and put in the .MID extension otherwise it will not save.
  6. You can also save your parameter settings by saving as a SB5 file from the save menu. Remember to put the .SB5 extension when saving your file!

Screen shot of Schoenberg in action

  1. There is also a screen for assigning patch changes in GM format (GM EDIT). You can even save your patch change references as a GMF file. The same applies above when saving this file type as well.
  2. The thing to do now is explore by putting in different settings for pitch, note length and velocity as well as transposition, and any of the style parameters. The key is to put in some new values, COMPOSE, then PLAY to hear the results. SAVE if you like it and keep on going. You can generate many fine little pieces this way that you can export into your favorite sequencer for embellishments, or keep as-is. It is up to you.

SB5 users speak up
Gavin Stevens (of the Atari MIDI and CN-Fractal mailing lists) has composed some excellent piano pieces using Schoenberg Composer. He does not use a real Atari, but the Steem STE emulator on his PC. He has given me permission to include examples of his work, see the file section below. This is what he has to say about his piece,

"I am pleased with this piece - it is not dissimilar from some of my freely composed work. It is based on a pentatonic note row but with "transpose" turned on. The result is a piece in Eb major, but with frequent A naturals and Db's, which I think colours the harmony quite nicely. However, if my memory serves, I think I used only values of 3, 6, 9 and 12 in the rhythm row and then went through the usual time stretching in Cakewalk to make it readable."

David Woolls, another SB5 user via Steem has composed some remarkable tonal pieces. You can hear his examples below. In discussing serialism, he came up with some excellent pointers on how to apply it to SB5.

"If you check out the site below it explains the way a serial matrix is constructed.

This may be helpful for participants in your investigation.

In real serial composition, the composer would look through the matrix and decide which of the possible rows produce interesting musical lines or chord patterns and use and re-use them in different transpositions. This decision making process is next to impossible for a computer, unlike harmonic progression rules in a tonal setting, so SB5 does the next best thing by producing random selections. It is unfortunate in some respects, because serial music is anything but random. The initial tone row is normally carefully constructed with a view to producing sensible intervals or chord patterns more often than not, and there is nothing to stop the same row being used many times. The only rule here is that the whole row must be played before the next row starts. SB5 follows that but there is obviously no required connection between the different rows, so the sound world is an accident rather than a deliberate creation.

The site above illustrates another difference between orthodox serial inversion and that possible with SB5 palettes. The palette offers a custom scale order different from the natural chromatic progression explained on the site. It can be used as described on the site by entering the chromatic scale starting on the first note of the row, but it can also be used to create a secondary order, so it allows a real muddling up of the pitches and rhythms with inversion switched on."

Is this composition?
Now comes the questions prevalent in using any generative software: Is it your composition? Or simply the computer spitting out random numbers? There is a fair balance between the two worlds. It is the composer who decides which parameters will be used and it is these choices which will decide the outcome. Choosing one or another parameter to use will drastically change the nature of the generated piece after selecting the "Compose" button. Many composers see generative software as stepping stones or skeletons of a larger composition which is pieced together meticulously into a final creation. Some use it as a background to play acoustic instruments against, thus bringing in the "human" element. Another factor to generative software is it lets people who have no or little musical background still get involved with the music-making process, thus getting a certain satisfaction that they have created something meaningful, despite the methods used. Others, such as myself, see generative software as a futuristic music which is now starting to open on the horizons of human consciousness.



    Schoenberg Composer 5 software (Gareth Jones)
  • CANYON.MID (Tim Conrardy)
    Main parts created with SB5 with sax solo and light percussusion added by hand. Tonal experiments with SB5. The output of SB5 here resembles very much the output of M.
  • NEWJAZZ.MID (Tim Conrardy)
    Schoenberg style. All tracks created with SB5. Warning: use extreme caution when playing this file. This is a new jazz!
  • HAPPYVM3.MID (David Woolls)
  • ALL8S.MID (David Woolls)
    Using SB5.
  • JUMPING1.MID (David Woolls)
  • SB5FOLK.MID (Gavin Stevens)
    SB5 goes sort of Celtic/Ambient. Main part for harp, with panned dulcimer tracks quantised differently to give an echo.
  • WALTZ.MID (Gavin Stevens)
    Waltz style piece with some heavy cross-rhythms. In this version the cadence after bar 216 was added to give a musically satisfying ending.
  • STUDY03.MID (Gavin Stevens)
    A study using a pentatonic row and rhythm row using only one value.


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MyAtari magazine - Feature #3, September 2001 

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Copyright 2001 MyAtari magazine