Fractal music

Fractals fascinate me – the mesmerising beauty of their evolving, expanding symmetry never fails to draw me in and remind me how beautiful maths can be.  Mandelbrot, of course – such mathematical cleverness, but also the numerous examples that can be found in the natural world. Romanesco broccoli, pine cones, snowflakes – even trees. Surely Deleuze would not have been tired of trees had be noticed this facet of their nature.


So as I was googling this week I was delighted to find that fractal music is an existing genre. I read about the musical motif called an ostinato (which I think is a fancy name for a riff, actually), and wondered if we could use this to create some CLMooc fractal music.

For me it’s the act of zooming in and finding macro patterns copied in micro that fascinates me, so I wondered how to emulate that in musical form. A simple way of doing this, at least in my mind, would be to find a passage of music (the ostinato), and then mimic this zooming in and zooming out that visual representations do. Here’s my initial thoughts:

  1. Play the phrase at normal volume. Play it again very quietly and keep playing it over and over, louder each time, till it gets back to the original volume. Repeat.
  2. Play the phrase right down at the left hand end of the keyboard. Play it again a few notes up, then up again, right to the top of the keyboard. Repeat.
  3. El (a musical friend) suggested starting with breves (long notes) and repeating with shorter and shorter notes.
  4. Niall and I thought about layering the phrases in (3), so for each time we played it through as breves we’d play it through twice as semi-breves etc. (Hard to explain this one without doing it, but maybe this makes sense?) I think this would also work for (1) and (2), and we could possibly combine 1-3 and make one fractally magical noise.
  5. El suggested changing the note order to represent the branching.
  6. Other things that Wendy and I discussed were using different instruments, and using rounds (like “row your boat”).

And, just as I dash off to have my Saturday night pizza, I realise that we could use Fibonnaci numbers, and that seems so beautifully easy. At least on paper. 🙂

Mandelbrot Monday” flickr photo by kevin dooley  shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

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5 Responses to Fractal music

  1. dogtrax says:

    Thank you for sharing all of these ideas. I realize that the piece started in Soundtrap is less and less fractal-like, perhaps. More of a round with triangular edges (!). But how to build and riff off a fractal phrase so that it becomes something new and not just cacaphony ..

    • NomadWarMachine says:

      Yes, exactly. I am not sure the music I am describing would be pleasant to listen to! I like your interpretation, and Karon’s – my thoughts are just meant as a starting point. I think jazz will be the answer.

  2. wendy says:

    I really like the jazz and changing the order of the notes. I think the music will only represent the zooming in and out that is experienced by viewing fractals.
    I love the versions we are working on in Soundtrap but recognise that too many voices/ideas in this delicate balance could cause decay!

  3. I have the feeling that the book “Godel, Escher, Bach” suggested that there is a strong tie-in.

    Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos suggest the repeating theme you mention.

    Wendy Carlos’ original “Switched on Bach” is one of my favorite recordings, built note by note into the magnificent harmonies.

    • NomadWarMachine says:

      I have not looked at that book in a long time … good thought. Thank you for reminding me of Brandenburg and
      introducing me to Wendy Carlos

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