A computer that composes music? Even in our era of advanced technology, the possibility that a machine might be able to create original works of art is one that’s stretching the world’s brightest scientists, artists and programmers. Yet it’s arguably an idea as old as computing itself.


Ever since the first incarnation of the computer, back in the 19th century, its power beyond the realm of numbers has been recognised.

Who was Ada Lovelace?

The person who first identified its potential was Ada Lovelace, a pioneer of computer programming, and today an important role model for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Lovelace’s programming credentials are unique and remarkable but the extent of her accomplishment is even more exciting and significant. While she studied maths and understood computation with perceptions well ahead of her time, she grasped that computers could do more than process numbers. She saw that they could also reach into our social and creative lives – and might even one day generate music. But how did she come to draw this groundbreaking conclusion?

When was Ada Lovelace born and who were her parents?

Perhaps it was in part down to her two very different parents, one artistic, the other scientific in inclination. Augusta Ada was born in December 1815, the only child of an unhappy and short-lived marriage between the infamous Romantic poet Byron and the strictly moral and mathematically educated Anne Isabella Milbanke.

Ada never knew her father and was brought up by her mother, following her educational path which focused on music, French and mathematics. Ada’s impressive array of teachers and mentors included the renowned polymath and writer Mary Somerville, who was the first person to be described in print as a ‘scientist’ – because ‘man of science’ was thought inappropriate – and along with astronomer Caroline Herschel was one of the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. Another famous tutor, Augustus De Morgan, is a name familiar today to any student of logic.

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Lovelace’s intellect was formidable. ‘That Enchantress who has thrown her magic spell around the most abstract of Sciences has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects (in our country at least) could have exerted,’ reported the mathematician Charles Babbage, one of a circle of intellectuals with whom she was friends.

Ada Lovelace – as she became when her husband William King, whom she married at the age of 20, became the first Earl of Lovelace – knew the scientists Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, nurse and social reformer Florence Nightingale and novelist Charles Dickens.

Lovelace and Babbage

But it was Lovelace’s friendship with Babbage that is pivotal to this story. They met through Somerville in 1833, when Lovelace was 17 and Babbage was 42.

In the 1820s, Babbage had invented his first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, which he took delight in making the centrepiece of his soirées. De Morgan’s wife, Sophia, later wrote: ‘While other visitors gazed at the working of this beautiful instrument with the sort of expression, and I dare say the sort of feeling, that some savages are said to have shown on first seeing a looking-glass or hearing a gun… Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.’

Babbage was an exceptional polymath and engineer, and the next computer he designed, the steam-powered Analytical Engine, remarkably anticipated the design of computers that would come a century later. It was never built but Lovelace engaged closely with Babbage and this hypothetical machine and the fruits of their collaboration appeared in print in 1843.

Babbage had presented the design in a talk in Turin, transcribed into French by Luigi Menabrea, an Italian general and mathematician who was later to serve as the prime minister of Italy. Lovelace was already an expert on the design and back in London she was invited to translate Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage (Elements of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine) into English. In the process she tripled the length by adding her ‘Translator’s Notes’ – and these have become her enduring contribution to computing.

In those notes is the first published computer program, for which Lovelace is most famous today. But while her contemporaries were focused on the computer for calculation, Lovelace transcended this immediate ambition and offered other extraordinary insights.

How Lovelace saw the computing potential for music

In ‘Note A’ Lovelace suggests the Analytical Engine ‘might act upon other things besides number… Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent’.

What did Lovelace mean by ‘scientific pieces of music’? Did she mean that the music would be systematic, given the established rules of harmony and counterpoint?

Or perhaps it would be lacking in expression, being generated by a machine and not by a human? Of course, science and music had long been entwined – the notion of scientific music predates Lovelace, and humans can compose ‘scientific’ music too.

Christian Huygens, the 17th-century Dutch scientist, railed against it, wishing that composers ‘would not seek what is the most artificial or most difficult to invent, but what affects the ear most’.

A possible interpretation is the use of the systems exercised in canons and fugues, where the music repeats patterns which are transposed, inverted and reversed.

For example, in a ‘crab canon’ the same line is played backwards and forwards simultaneously, and in JS Bach’s The Musical Offering one player turns the music upside down. Lovelace was also interested in ‘magic squares’, the ancient puzzle of assembling numbers in a square so that adding up rows, columns or diagonals gives the same number. These have since been used in music by composers such as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

Was Ada Lovelace musical?

It is no surprise that Lovelace was thinking about the relationship between maths, machines and music. She was a pianist, singer and dedicated harpist, and her letters show that she put music on a par with maths. In 1837 she told Somerville, ‘I play four or five hours generally, and never less than three’.

Lovelace also sponsored the young John Thomas, who was to become a major virtuoso-composer harpist in the 19th century, appointed to Queen Victoria and whose works, such as The Minstrel’s Adieu to his Native Land, are popular pieces today. Lovelace was proud of her voice and we know she sang arias from Bellini’s Norma, fashionable in the 1830s, to an audience in her library.

Also in ‘Note A’, Lovelace writes that ‘we may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves’, reminding us that she had seen the Jacquard looms in operation. Their use of punched cards for programming was destined to be adopted in the Analytical Engine, well ahead of their mid 20th-century manifestation in mainframe computers.

But it is Lovelace’s comments in ‘Note G’ that have provoked most debate. She states that ‘the Analytical Engine has no pretensions to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform’. In other words, even if their capabilities can be applied to the arts, computers can’t come up with anything fundamentally new.

Alan Turing disputed what he called ‘Lady Lovelace’s Objection’ in his seminal 1950 paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, while Margaret Boden, one of today’s polymaths, defined ‘the Lovelace Questions’ in her 1990 book The Creative Mind. She teased apart the differences between computers helping human creativity, appearing creative, recognising creativity, and creating. With the rising adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques in computing today, these questions are more salient than ever.

When did Ada Lovelace die?

Lovelace’s life was cut short by cancer at the age of 36 in 1852.

What could she have achieved if she had lived longer?

We don’t know what she would have done next, but we can enjoy speculation in Sydney Padua’s graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (2015), and Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), the founding novel of the steampunk genre.

The recent Ada Lovelace: The Making of a Computer Scientist by Hollings, Martin and Rice provides compelling evidence for Lovelace’s iconic status in science, technology, engineering and maths.

But music and the arts were far more important to Lovelace than many accounts mention. She is a role model for interdisciplinarity, embodying both the arts and the sciences without distinction between them, in order to transform our understanding.


Main image: Ada Lovelace © Getty Images