Musical Dice

A new take on Mozart's game

Play the game!

The Original Game

A Musikalisches Würfelspiel ("musical dice game") was a technique that randomly 'generated' music from precomposed options. These 'games' were quite popular throughout Western Europe in the 18th century. Several different games were devised, some that did not require dice, but merely 'choosing a random number.'

The earliest example is Johann Philipp Kirnberger's Der allezeit fertige Menuetten- und Polonaisencomponist ("The Ever-Ready Minuet and Polonaise Composer") (1757 [1st edition; revised 2nd 1783]). Examples by well known composers include C. P. E. Bach's Einfall, einen doppelten Contrapunct in der Octave von sechs Tacten zu machen, ohne die Regeln davon zu wissen ("A method for making six bars of double counterpoint at the octave without knowing the rules") (1758) and Maximilian Stadler's Table pour composer des minuets et des Trios à la infinie; avec deux dez à jouer ("A table for composing minuets and trios to infinity, by playing with two dice") (1780).

The way these games work may be understood in analogy to sentence construction:

# A B C D
1 The cow ran past the field.
2 The pig walked through the yard.
3 The sheep ran into the marsh.

A die is rolled for each column in the table, and the result of the die roll determines which word in that column is used. For example, rolling 2,3,1,3 would give the expression "The pig ran past the marsh". Each progression is essentially the same, although the number of available outcomes in each column may differ. The outcomes are also variations of each other rather than being entirely different. In this example, the outcomes within each column, each represent the same part of speech (noun/verb/etc), therefore the constructed sentence makes sense whichever way it is put together .

Mozart's version

The most well-known was published in 1792, by Mozart's publisher Nikolaus Simrock in Berlin (K. 294dK3 or K. 516fK6). The game was attributed to Mozart, but this attribution has not been authenticated. The dice rolls randomly selected small sections of music, which would be patched together to create a musical piece. This game is capable of producing 11 ^ 16 = 45.949.729.863.572.161 different yet similar waltzes. Some measures have only one possibility no matter what the roll of the dice (measures 8/16) while other measures have a different possibility for each roll (measures 1/16).

Original Rules

Mozart's manuscript, written in 1787, consisting of 176 one-bar fragments of music, appears to be some kind of game or system for constructing music out of two-bar fragments, but contains no instructions and there is no evidence that dice were involved.

The titles of the supposed Mozart compositions are:

  • Anleitung zum Componieren von Walzern so viele man will vermittelst zweier Würfel, ohne etwas von der Musik oder Composition zu verstehen ("Instructions for the composition of as many waltzes as one desires with two dice, without understanding anything about music or composition")
  • Anleitung zum Componieren von Polonaisen ("Instructions for the composition of polonaises")

My version

I decided to compose 12 different pieces, each containing 24 measures in triple time. They all follow the same harmonic pattern and could therefore be considered a single theme with 11 variations.

I divided each of the pieces into 12 fragments (meaning that each fragment consists of 2 measures) and composed them in a way that any fragment can be connected to, or followed by a fragment from any of the other pieces.

Each piece is structured with a part 'A' of 4 fragments (8 measures) and a part 'B' of 8 fragments (16 measures).

The Instructions

The rules of the game are very simple, and you are free to break them at any time!

  • Listen to any or all of the twelve original minuetti.
  • From the row beneath, select which of the minuetti you would like to include in the randomisation (suggestion: start with all twelve!)
  • Play your randomly generated minuetto, or click on the button to create a new randomisation.
  • You can click on the individual cells to listen to the two measures corresponding to that cell.
  • Have fun and remember: there are 8,916,100,448,256 possible combinations, so it's quite unlikely you will hear the same piece ever again!

The Game

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Click on the buttons to listen to the 12 original minuetti

Select below which of the above pieces you would like to include or exclude to randomise from (grid will be repopulated accordingly).

Click on randomise to create a new random minuetto from your selection