Music app

Meet Max Mathews, inventor of the first music app

When we jam to fast beats like Lady Gaga or Daft Punk, it’s hard to believe that 50 years ago it took hours for a computer to record seconds of music.

Max Mathews would know. The former Bell Labs researcher wrote the first computer sound generation program, called MUSIC, in 1957. He claims that digital music was born that year, when an IBM 704 played a 17-second track. that he composed with his software.

Recording music hasn’t been an easy task, Mathews told in an interview. The IBM 704 was too slow to record music in real time – it would take an hour just to record 18 seconds of music. Mathews therefore helped develop a cassette player that sped up recordings to play them at their appropriate speed.

Computers today are 100,000 times faster than the IBM 704, and any inexpensive laptop could create an entire digital orchestra. However, modern musicians hardly take advantage of the immense power of computer music, Mathews said.

“A violin always sounds like a violin, but a computer is limitless in terms of the timbre it can produce, so it can enrich music,” he said. “Computers are so powerful and inexpensive. But no one knows how to take advantage of it in music. “

Mathews explained that he didn’t want computer sounds to completely replace bands or orchestras, but for the laptop to become a serious instrument – something he thinks hasn’t happened yet.

Mathews believes that once we use computer programs to focus on what makes music great, we could see widespread adoption of the computer as an instrument.

“What we need to learn is what the human brain and ear thinks is beautiful,” said Mathews. “What do we love about music? What about the acoustic sounds, rhythms and harmony that we love? When we find out, it will be easy to make music with a computer . “

Now 84, Mathews continues to cultivate his love for music in the analog world. Every morning he drives from San Francisco to Stanford University in Palo Alto to play music with his friend Bill. Mathews’ instrument of choice is the violin and Bill plays the piano. Together they play Mozart at 8 o’clock every morning.

“I once asked Bill, ‘When are we going to overtake Mozart? ”, Said Mathews. “And Bill said, ‘Max, you don’t understand. There’s nothing beyond Mozart.'”

Photo: Jim Merithew /

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