Bytebeat is an intensely digital-native approach to coding music that yields rich results from only basic math performed on 8-bit integers in just a single line (Heikkilä, 2011), simply twisting an ever-rising ramp t into audible waveforms and musical structures. My experiences learning and teaching bytebeat have led to several useful perspectives on the nature of software, computational creativity, and human–machine collaboration.
Bytebeat is an anachronism unto itself: although it was not introduced until 2011, it was feasible the 1950s, and in retrospect, it would seem like an attractive avenue compared to Markov chains (Hiller & Isaacson, 1956) and physical modeling (Mathews, 1957). However, it seems to have required a twenty-first-century perspective in order to fully see the value of exploring it as a creative practice. Bytebeat coding would have been possible in 1951, after Alan Turing and Geoff Hill (working separately), made melodies by controlling the speed of the computer’s alert buzzer. Instead, the first programming languages for music, created by Max Mathews at Bell Labs in 1957, imposed the centuries-old orchestra–score paradigm of acoustic music upon the digital platform, dominating digital audio ever since.
Steven Holtzman, G. M. Koenig, and Paul Berg did desire to escape artificial metaphors in the 1960s and 1970s, and while their work is like bytebeat in its use of restricted instruction sets, they still used more traditional, controlling mindsets. Koenig had the vision to pursue “a new field of sound, not speech sounds, not instrumental sound” (interviewed in Roads, 1978, p. 12), free from “the classical descriptions of sound” (p. 13), and Roads acknowledges their “idiomatic use of computer instructions, with no acoustic model” (Roads, 1996, p. 328). However, their work involved longer programs than bytebeat’s single line, they rely heavily on random number generators (RNGs), whereas even creating one in bytebeat is a significant task in itself, and their work betrays more of a mind to dictate musical structure over time rather than letting it unfold generatively and natively.