Common Lisp and Music Composition

1 Introduction

Once upon a time, there were many music composition software packages, mostly written in Common LISP. To name a few I know, Common Music, Symbolic Composer (not related to the Symbolics Lisp Machine). Common Music is still available in source code but I doubt if anyone is still able to setup that. Symbolic Composer just vaporized decades ago, which some archived programs scattered over the Internet. The package is also a 32bit Intel program so newer macOS versions would not support it and it is license protected anyway. Yet another is Patchwork, a more graphic oriented composing program, and I'd be surprise if it is able to survive from bit rot.

The one I actually uses is Opusmodus, similar in the spirit of Symbolic Composer. Unfortunately I need to remind you if you are tempted that this is still an Intel Mac only program, since Clozure CL is still not able to support the new ARM Mac, and Rosetta is not able to translate the program.


Opusmodus is about to release 3.0 based on LispWorks on Oct 2022 which has Windows/Apple M1 support so you can wait a couple days if you does not have Intel Mac.

2 Modulate Modulation

Before introducing all the fancy terms about algorithm composition, let's first see a brief example that generates melody from modulation of sin wave.

  |(setq pitch
  |      (filter-repeat 1 (quarter-tone-closest
  |                        (vector-to-pitch
  |                         '(g3 g5)
5 |                         (add-sine-waves
  |                            12 120 9 4.2 :phase 7
  |                            :modulation (gen-sine 120 1 0.4 :phase 60))
  |                         :quantize 1/2))))
Plot of the generated sine wave
Figure 2.1 Visualized waveform.

Then add some classic euclidean rhythm. Since this is a randomized process, a :seed argument is provided to produce consistent result.

  |(setq rythm
  |      (euclidean-rhythm (gen-repeat 18 8) 1/2 8 1/16 :seed 9941))
The music score of generated snippet.
Figure 2.2 The generated piece.

3 Polyphony? No problem

Sometimes it is just desirable to have some polyphonic1 part playing. This time, we could add some variation by changing velocity a bit. The basic idea is still sine wave modulation.

   |(setq rythm
   |      (quantize
   |       (add-sine-waves 17 120 9 0.3
   |                       :phase 44
 5 |                       :modulation (gen-sine 120 3 0.4 :phase 60))
   |       '(1 2 3 4) :type :ratio))
   |(setq pitch
   |      (chord-inner-remove
   |       '(5 1)
10 |       (harmonic-progression
   |      (filter-repeat 2 (mapcar #'floor
   |              (add-sine-waves 12 120 9 1
   |                              :phase 9
   |                              :modulation
15 |                              (gen-sine 120 1 0.3 :phase 3))))
   |      '(c major))
   |       :seed 564))
   |(setq score (make-omn :pitch pitch :length rythm
20 |                      :velocity '(f mf p mp)))
Indication of the chords.
Figure 3.1 Generated polyphony chords.

4 General composition structure

4.1 Multi-track length alignment

To start composing music it is important to first decide how many sections one would like to have. Which that settled one can use get-span to acquire the length information, then use length-span to fill other materials like percussion generated by gen-euclidean-omn into the desirable length.


Instead of specify a very long count number to gen-euclidean-omn, which would cause a long time to compute, length-span takes much less time to since it just repeats materials.

5 Quick music theory

5.1 Major keys

Major keys are of the '(0 2 4 5 7 9 11 12) interval2. The key signatures are hard to remember, but one trick is for sharp keys the name is one half step higher than last sharp; for flat keys the name is the second to last flat. The reason why it works is demonstrated below. The name is just from the first note in each scale.

From C major to B major

This is produced by OMN generated by this lisp loop:

  |(loop for i from 0 to 11
  |  collect (append '(q)
  |                  (integer-to-pitch (x+b '(0 2 4 5 7 9 11 12) i))))