Listen to Alan Turing’s computer music

111016 turing music 1
Alan Turing.
Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

A pair of New Zealand researchers restored the first recording of computer generated music – a 1951 BBC recording of a tune made by one of Alan Turing’s computers.

Alan Turing is best known for the role he played breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code in WWII, which was dramatised in the Oscar-winning film The Imitation Game. But Turing also dabbled in computer music, which laid the foundations for synthesisers as well as modern electronic music.

Although Turing was responsible for programming the first notes of the computer, he was not at all interested in programming the computer to play conventional music. Rather, he used the different notes he created to enable the user to ‘listen in’ to the computer functions.

For instance, Turing programmed one note to indicate ‘job finished’ and another for ‘error when transferring data from the magnetic drum’. He left it to a school teacher and pianist Christopher Strachey to create an actual song.

Strachey, using Turing’s computer and programming manual, worked overnight to get the computer to blare out a version of the British national anthem God Save the King. 

The BBC recording was made several months after this event and included not only the national anthem but Baa Baa Black Sheep and the Glenn Miller track In the Mood. The tracks were recorded on a 12-inch acetate disc.

Jack Copeland from the University of Canterbury and composer Jason Long analysed the recording, adjusted its speed, chopped out some of the background sound, and the effects of a wobble in the recording (introduced probably during the disc cutting process).

You can listen to the recording here.

Please login to favourite this article.