Musical Sorting Algorithms

Computers & Mobile Music
Musical Sorting Algorithms

Ever wonder how your computer can sort lists of data that you give it? No? Well, there is a whole field of research dedicated to what are appropriately called sorting algorithms. They can be a pretty dry (but important!) subject to study, but it turns out that they have a better use: making cool music!

Ryan Compton, a graduate student at UCLA, created some nifty videos to explore the acoustic properties of a few common sorting algorithms. The one featured above is the insertion sort.

If you are interested in how the algorithms work, Aldo Cortesi has created some pretty visualizations to show how the process works. In his drawings, lines varying shades of gray are sorted from lightest to darkest, starting in a random order at the left of the drawing and ending up sorted on the right hand side of the graph. Each time the lines switch places represents an individual step that the algorithm takes to achieve it’s goal. For example, here is a graph the list insertion sort featured in the above video:


Ok, I fully expect to see a new synthesizer based on this technique. Perhaps it could use a digital camera to capture a pattern, then play back the steps needed to sort the colors into a recognizable pattern?

4 thoughts on “Musical Sorting Algorithms

  1. Collin Cunningham says:

    I do believe this could work quite awesomely – I’ve spent some time toying with my algorithms for music, but didn’t quite know what to aim for pattern-wise. The sorting process sure seems a good way to go …

  2. says:

    If this sort of thing interests you, read this:
    It’s the first thing I thought of looking at the diagram: an old method of playing algorithmic music on church* or other heavy-duty bells that lack the ability to ring with arbitrary timing (as is the case with most manually-rung bells) by ringing successive permutations of a predefined bell sequence. There’s got to be a steampunk build in there somewhere…


    *Don’t be afraid to seek out a performance. The churches that still do it are pretty well guaranteed to be the sort *without* crazy high pressure proselytes stationed at every door.

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