Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-7ccbd9845f-wr4x4 Total loading time: 0.223 Render date: 2023-01-28T16:23:50.211Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 December 2018


This article examines the techno-philosophical aspects of how we create and understand musical systems in twenty-first century computational media. Arguing that processor-based media have exploded the compositional language of new music, the article proposes a set of concepts that might help us navigate this new space of instrumental possibilities. The term ‘ergodynamics’ – and related concepts – is proposed as a useful concept when describing the phenomenological, historical and aesthetic aspects of musical instruments, as well as a lens for looking at new compositional practices that can be defined as being either ‘idiomatic’ or ‘supra-instrumental’. The article explores the difference in composing for acoustic, electronic and digital instruments, and suggests that new musical practice can be characterised by a move from composing work to inventing systems.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


The author was supported by the AHRC-funded Sonic Writing project (AH/N00194X/1) in this research. Further information can be found here:


1 See Ermi, Laura and Mayra, Frans, ‘Fundamental Concepts in the Gameplay Experience: Analysing Immersion’ in Worlds in Play: International Perspectives on Digital Games Research, ed. de Castell, Suzanne and Jenson, Jennifer (New York: Peter Lang, 2007)Google Scholar. Also, see Drachen, Anders and Canossa, Alessandro, ‘Towards Gameplay Analysis Via Gameplay Metrics’, in Proceedings of the 13th International MindTrek Conference: Everyday Life in the Ubiquitous Era (New York: ACM, 2009), pp. 202–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 See, for example, Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings, translated by Wolter, Allan B., OFM, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987)Google Scholar.

3 I have written about affordances and constraints in musical instruments elsewhere, see Thor Magnusson, ‘Designing Constraints: Composing and Performing with Digital Musical Systems’, in Computer Music Journal 34/4 (2010), pp. 62–73.

4 Hendrix was clearly not the first guitarist to explore and use feedback, but he can be said to have popularised the technique.

5 Magnusson, Thor, ‘Ergomimesis: Towards a Language Describing Instrumental Transductions’, in Proceedings of Live Interfaces Conference (Porto: University of Porto, 2019)Google Scholar.

6 Magnusson, Thor, Sonic Writing: Technologies of Material, Symbolic and Signal Inscriptions (New York: Bloomsbury Publishers, forthcoming 2019)Google Scholar.

7 Horwood, Wally, Adolphe Sax 1814–1894: His Life and Legacy (Baldock: Egon Publishers, 1983)Google Scholar.

8 Pinch, Trevor and Trocco, Frank, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

9 Wang, Ge, ‘Ocarina: Designing the iPhone's Magic Flute’, in Computer Music Journal, 38/2 (2014), pp. 821CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Musical organics, or the critical analytics of musical instruments, are explored in Magnusson, Sonic Writing, and also in Magnusson, Thor, ‘Musical Organics: A Heterarchical Approach to Digital Organology’, in Journal of New Music Research 46/3 (2017), pp. 286303CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Peirce, Charles S., ‘On a New List of Categories’, Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 7 (1868), pp. 287–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Rebecca Fiebrink has explored how machine learning can be applied in mapping of new musical interfaces. See, for example, Fiebrink, Rebecca, ‘Machine Learning as Meta-Instrument: Human–Machine Partnerships Shaping Expressive Instrumental Creation’, Musical Instruments in the 21st Century, ed. Bovermann, Till, et al. (Singapore: Springer, 2017), pp. 137–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Nyman, Michael, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974)Google Scholar.

14 On epistemes in history and music technologies of Europe, see Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1970)Google Scholar and Attali, Jacques, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

15 Vasquez, Juan Carlos, Tahiroğlu, Koray and Kildal, Johan, ‘Idiomatic Composition Practices for New Musical Instruments: Context, Background and Current Applications’, in Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (Copenhagen: Aarlborg University, 2017), pp. 174–9Google Scholar.

16 Cadoz, Claude, ‘Supra-Instrumental Interactions and Gestures’, in Journal of New Music Research, 38/3 (2009), pp. 215–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Schulenberg, David, Music of the Baroque (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

18 Goehr, Lydia, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

19 Auslander, Philip, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London: Routledge, 1999)Google Scholar.

20 Stiegler, Bernard and Hughes, Robert, ‘Programs of the Improbable, Short Circuits of the Unheard-of’, Diacritics, 2/1 (2014), pp. 70108CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 I explore this further in Magnusson, Thor, ‘Sound and Music in Networked Media’, in The Routledge Companion for Sound Studies (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2019)Google Scholar.

22 I deliberately prefer the word ‘musician’ to terms such as composers, producers, designers, performers or instrumentalists.

23 MacDonald, Michael J., The Oxford Handbook of Rhetorical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)Google Scholar.

24 Plato, Cratylus 406a.

25 Plett, Heinrich F., Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), p. 141CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Impett, Jonathan, ‘Situating the Invention in Interactive Music’, Organised Sound, 5/1 (2000), pp. 2734CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Goodman, Nelson, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968)Google Scholar.

28 Creating a sensor glove in the 1980s required access to well-equipped research labs like STEIM, but today a £25 microchip computer can be ordered online and tutorial videos followed in how to program and solder it into a unique musical system.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *