A simple Swarm Music applet. Swarming in two dimensions only, amplitude and pitch. Click on applet for focus, then toggle sound by pressing spacebar.

Swarm Music
Created by live algo-mentalist Tim Blackwell, Swarm Music develops musical improvisations with a swarm of musical events. It does this by exploiting the self-organisational properties of swarms. The musical events organise into a swarm-like shape to produce melodic, harmonic and rhythmic patterns.

Swarm Music is interactive: external musical events from humans (or other swarms) are captured and positioned in Music Parameter Space as attractors. The swarm is drawn towards these attractors, converting spatial patterns into music.

To begin, I was struck by the parallels between self-organising flocks (as demonstrated in the remarkable simulations of Craig Reynolds) and organising principles in music. These principles are evident in the organisation of musical events, and in the flock-like behaviour of musicians in non-conducted groups. The aim was to devise an artificial system that would be capable of producing real-time interaction with improvisers.

Then, observations and practical experience of improvised music (i.e. music that is composed and performed immediately, in real-time and without revision) led me to believe that inter-musician interaction can be analysed with simple rules. These rules govern on how the musicians respond to events, and are directly analogous to the rules used for swarm and flock animations. We would expect therefore to hear self-organisation. This explains why improvisations can have a coherent form even though there is no leader or musical score.

Multi-swarms are colonies of interacting swarms. The swarms interact by local modifications of the environment - biologists call this indirect interaction 'stigmergy'. Swarm Music is a multi-swarm system. The interaction between swarms is mediated by groups of attractors. Each attractor represents a musical event, which may originate externally or from other swarms in the colony. Each swarm represents an individual, and the system as a whole an improvising ensemble. The principles of self-organisation ensure that each individual produces a coherent improvisation, which the colony organises into a large-scale structure.

The multi-swarm can function autonomously, or it can be conducted. In a conducted improvisation(conduction), the conductor uses gestures to influence and direct the improvisations of a group. Experiments with conduction have proven to be very successful. An example is available below.



The following samples (© 2001 Tim Blackwell and Robin Higgins, © 2002 Tim Blackwell) illustrate interactions between humans and swarms and between two swarms. They are taken from the cd "Swarm Music".

These excerpts (© Tim Blackwell 2002) are taken from the cd "Autumn Missed"

Swarm Music duets with jazz pianist Michael Young, September 2006 (© Tim Blackwell and Michael Young 2006)


Swarm Music has been featured in New Scientist, London Radio Service, Canadian national radio (CBC program "As It Happens"), Australian national radio (ABC program "The Buzz"), Deutschland Radio, the German news magazine Stern, Electronic Musician and Public National Radio (US, the Todd Mundt show). Swarm Music was also featured in the Canadian Discovery Channel programme "Daily Planet", 1st October 2002.