Heard about the latest computer music genre sweeping the internet? It’s called “bytebeat” and if this comes as news to you, don’t despair, the thing’s only about five months old, so you’re still ahead of the curve. Bytebeat is algorithmic music created from one line of code and was discovered/invented while Finnish low-tech artist and programmer Ville-Matias Heikkila (aka Viznut) and his friends were experimenting with the computer programming language C code and creating one line formulas that could produce an audio output (see below).
It’s like stripped back minimalist one-line chiptune music and is the latest development in the long history of computer-made music, which has been bleeping along since the 1950s—check out this great Brain Pickings post about a PBS documentary from 1986 for a more in-depth look at the computer music’s background.
But this particular subgenre seems to have come about by chance, born from experimentation and a hacker’s eye for detail. Viznut discusses bytebeat’s emergence in a seminal blog post called “Algorithmic symphonies from one line of code — how and why?”, where he talks about the discovery that these short pieces of code could produce music when looped, “I came up with a 16-byte VIC-20 program whose musical output totally blew my mind”.
After this he began to “experiment with short C programs that dump raw PCM [pulse-code modulation] audio data” and from these experiments went on to release his first video (above). Then someone figured out that by changing parameters in the formula you can create percussion patterns and harmonies, which gave birth to the second video below.
These videos sparked a rush of online activity as people started experimenting with this discovery and the movement burst into life, instantly becoming a very collaborative affair as people shared their discoveries and excitement grew, with Viznut saying:
If the experimentation continues at this pace, it won’t take many weeks until we have found the grail: a very short program, maybe even shorter than a Spotify link, that synthesizes all the elements commonly associated with a pop song: rhythm, melody, bassline, harmonic progression, macrostructure. Perhaps even something that sounds a little bit like vocals? We’ll see.
So what’s the point of reducing a musical score to a single line of code that’s looped to generate a composition? Is it out of sheer laziness on the part of the musicians? Does it stem (like many things online do) from some kind of desire to flex some tech muscle and show the world what you’re capable of? Or is this a genuinely interesting new form of musical expression where human and machine become just a couple of mates, jamming out in their parent’s garage, smoking a spliff and rocking out to some sweet, sweet chiptunes? You be the judge.
And if you’re looking for more info, as well as Viznut’s blog posts, another great resource is canonical.org’s page on bytebeats where they define it as “a piece of rhythmic and somewhat melodic music with no score, no instruments, and no real oscillators. It’s simply a formula that defines a waveform as a function of time…”.