Project: Grammar Music

November 9, 2020
Grammar Music code screenshot
Excerpt of code from Grammar Music project.

In my previous post I talked about using Tracery to write grammars which generate text. In this post I'll talk about using Tracery to generate Csound scores instead.


First, let's do a quick overview of Tracery. This handy tutorial can explain Tracery better than I can. The syntax is actually pretty simple in that there are only a few elements to learn, but it does take some practice to get the hang of it. Despite the apparent simplicity, you come to find that Tracery can do powerful things.

Here are the key points for our purposes:

Since the output of Tracery is a string of characters, you can get clever about encoding instructions for other languages in the string. For example, you can use Tracery to output a string of Csound score events, and then you can combine that score with a Csound orchestra to produce music!

But First, a Little Python

So you can use Tracery to output a Csound score, and you can then feed that score into Csound to hear Csound perform it. Is there a way to automate that process? Sure there is. I used a Python script to do this. Here are the components I used.

Ok, now back to score generation with Tracery.

Generating a Score

Given that this whole project revolves around generating a Csound score in Tracery, the first thing I had to do was reacquaint myself with the Csound score syntax and statements. Here are some of the features of the score that I used.

My initial goal was to prove that a Tracery grammar could output a valid Csound score. This took a couple hours of tinkering but it wasn't too hard. At this stage I used simple sine waves (i.e. the oscili opcode) to play the melodies and drum machine samples (i.e. the loscil opcode) to play the drum parts.

At its core, the Tracery grammar generates note events with the following production rule:

"note": ["i #inst# + 1 #dur# $BO[#set_on_off#]#amp# * #note_on_off# / #voices#$BC $BO#inst_register#+#note_options# #note_offset#$BC"]

Let's break down what's going on in this production rule.

There's much more I could say about how all of this works, but I won't go into more detail here. You can check out my code for this project if you want to learn more.

Here's an output of the grammar from an early stage of development. It's a good lesson in the fact that, while it's not too hard to get Tracery to generate a valid Csound score, it's another thing to get Tracery to generate a compelling piece of music. This early output consists of loops of randomly generated melodies and rhythms. The music starts, doesn't go anywhere, and abruptly ends.


I needed to find a way to make the grammar output more interesting, so I spent the next week wrestling with the limitations of Tracery and the constraints of the Csound score system. I had two goals:

  1. Find a way to create an interesting structure from beginning to end.
  2. Add more interesting melody instruments and drum kits.

Structural Improvements

Here's a diagram I drew of the structure of the piece as I was working it out.

Grammar Music diagram
Diagram of Grammar Music structure.


I wanted to avoid getting bogged down in instrument design like I did on the Mark Fell project, so I decided to search online for pre-made Csound instruments. Turns out there are several opcodes that made this very easy. Here are the instruments I made for Grammar Music.

As I mentioned earlier, the drums are samples I got for free from The drum kits I used in this project were the Roland CR-78, Roland TR-808, E-mu Drumulator, LinnDrum, Oberheim DM, and Univox SR-95.

To add some atmosphere I ran all the instruments through the freeverb reverb opcode.


Here are three outputs of the latest version of the Grammar Music system. Note that in "822l1jk" I had accidentally configured the main melody instrument, a Hammond B3, to play a perfect fifth higher than it was supposed to. This resulted in serendipitous melodies and harmonies.



You can check out the code for Grammar Music in my GitHub repository. Note that you won't be able to hear the drum parts if you render the Csound files on your computer because I haven't included the drum samples in the repository. But you can at least see how the Tracery grammar works and how everything is stitched together in Python.

Future Directions

Just because you can make music with Tracery, should you? Probably not. It's been an uphill battle. Given the constraints of Tracery and the Csound score syntax, you have to get really creative and write lots of lines of code. And you can frankly get the same results coding all this in Csound itself. However, this was my midterm project for CS 318, and we had to use a grammar language. So I set this as a technical challenge for myself, and I've shown that it's possible to make music with Tracery.

So here are the future directions I plan to take the Grammar Music project.

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