Pure Data: Major Scale/Circle of 5ths App

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This is an app I designed and coded a few years ago using Pure Data (Pd). I did it as an exercise in coding the Graphic User Interface (GUI) features of the platform. It functions as an interactive music theory learning aid and visually/aurally indicates the 12 possible major scales, their note names/scale-position numbers, and their overall relationships according to the “circle of fifths.”

To use it, simply select a scale from the red “circle of fifths” panel. The virtual piano keyboard notes will indicate the notes of the chosen scale (in green) along with their scale-position numbers. Use your computer mouse to play the notes by clicking on the green keys. To remove the green keys, hit “reset.”

You will need to have Pure Data (click here) already installed on your computer to use this app*. Turn your computer audio volume down to zero (this is standard health and safety procedure when using audio applications). Open the file and click the “AUDIO ON/OFF” toggle switch so that it shows an X (this turns Pd’s audio engine on). Now, hit any virtual piano key whilst gradually turning up your computer volume to a comfortable level. You’re ready to go.

If you are new to Pd and experience any problems hearing the audio, select the “MEDIA” drop-down menu in Pd. Here you can (amongst other things) test your audio/MIDI settings (with test tones etc). Be sure not to have your computer audio output or speakers set too high during this process!

If you would like to learn how to make an interaction virtual keyboard such as the one featured click here to read a very good free online tutorial by Johannes Kreidler (translated by Mark Barden). It’s an extract from Kreidler’s book Loadbang: Programming Electronic Music in Pd (2013). Click here to buy the paperback edition of Loadbang: Programming Electronic Music in Pd through Amazon.com.uk

*Once again, apologies to PC users if you experience any problems. These instructions are designed for Apple OS users, since it has become the defacto industry-standard for audio. Please note: Pure Data is however available for Windows and Linux users.

This app is (cc) 2015 Marshall Heiser. (Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International). This license lets you remix, tweak, and build upon my work even for commercial purposes, as long as you credit me and license your new creations under the identical terms. Any derivatives will also allow commercial use. Click here for more licence details.


Simple SATB Sequencer

This is a demonstration of a sequencer app built by Marshall Heiser using Max/MSP and the “playframing” approach to creative practice. The video features an impromptu, unedited jam session by the author with the program.


In the 21st Century, popular music creative practice, dissemination, and performance/reception have all been transformed by the rise of the internet, youtube and a general “democratisation of technology” (a term coined by Leyshon, 2009). Popular music making today is seen as a recreational activity for all to engage in (even for “non-musicians”) as much as it ever was a passive one. As a musician and songwriter, I once bemoaned the fact that the performer/audience, producer/consumer dichotomies (amongst other paradigms) had broken down to a point where it became increasingly difficult for individual’s identifying as a practitioners of music to justify their place in society. Now I embrace it.

The game has changed

Around about 2010 I finally accepted that the old music industry ways had passed (at least as the main focus for practitioners). And with that acceptance of the death of the old came the birth of something much, much more satisfying. I had realised for some time that by focusing more on the process of music-making I could reclaim the joy and innocence of music making time and time again. Each piece of music could be approached as a game with its own rules that were totally binding, but only within the scope of that particular piece. Instead of identifying as a practitioner of music, I now saw myself as a practitioner and advocate of play.

At that time, I had discovered Max/MSP, the perfect system for a game-like approach to music making. Instead of trying to using Digital Audio Workstations and instruments that offered too many creative possibilities, I could now build my own virtual systems that were limited in scope according to the needs of the piece of music in question. Each with their own rules of engagement, and with interfaces of my own design that attempted to control the user much as the user would attempt to control them.

The rules of the game

The rules/limitations of this featured program (Simple SATB Sequencer) are what makes effortless action possible and results in the musical statement’s balance of coherency/variation when engaged by the user in a sensitive (rather than “expert”) fashion. Best results are obtained by inputting less notes in each sequencer and focusing attention upon the relationships of the four voices in a “sum-is-greater-than-the-parts” manner. Negotiating the rules (both as designer and user) is a form of “playframing” (a term coined by Sutton-Smith, 1979).

So what are the rules of this particular game (Simple SATB Sequencer)?
1) Four individual (monophonic) voices, each capable
of inputting eight notes in sequence
2) Four pitch steps per voice
3) Each sequence voice’s cycle can be put out of sync with the others by a “quarter measure”
4) Overall pitch scale can be chosen (from a set of presets)
5) Cycle of each sequence voice can run through its series of notes in one of three ways: up(1-8), down (8-1) or up/down (1-8,8-1)
6) The pitch range of each sequence voice is limited to something similar to traditional soprano, alto, tenor & bass.
7) Each voice has it’s own discreet synthesiser sound generator
8) The timbre of each voice can be manipulated easily via choice of waveform type.
9) The timbre of each voice can be further manipulated easily via filter settings (and choice of filter type)
10) The articulation of each voice can be manipulated (less) easily via a set of presets/ graphical user interface embedded in a sub-window (not being able to access this feature from the main GUI window actively discourages the user from using it too much).

Text: (c) 2016 Marshall Heiser, Max/MSP Program: (CC BY 3.0 AU) 2013 Marshall Heiser, Music:  (c) 2013 Marshall Heiser.



Leyshon, A. (2009). The software slump?: Digital music, the democratisation of technology, and the decline of the recording studio sector within the musical economy. InEnvironment & Planning. A, 41 (6), 1309 – 1331.

Sutton-Smith, B. (1979). Play and learning. New York, NY: Gardner Press.

Sunday Sho

Here’s a nutty little instrumental jazz tune I wrote called “Sunday Sho.” Hope you like it. I wrote it using a technique I call “playframing” (for more details go to: playframesphd.wordpress.com). In this particular piece, a simple syncopated 2-bar rhythmic motif was applied to a number of different virtual instruments in Apple Logic Pro software, leaving myself free to play with the pitch values and instrument combinations.

Regarding the video: The footage was sourced/compiled from the creative commons repository “archive.org” and was originally created by Karl Sims as part of a research project titled “Involving simulated Darwinian evolutions of virtual block creatures.” Visit him at karlsims.com Sho nuff.

Music: (c) 2012 Marshall Heiser.



Sims, K. (1994, July). Evolving virtual creatures. In Computer Graphics (Siggraph ’94 Proceedings), (pp.15-22), Retrieved from http://www.karlsims.com/papers/siggraph94.pdf.

SMiLE: Brian Wilson’s Musical Mosaic


smileHeiser, M. (2012). Smile: Brian Wilson’s musical mosaic. In Journal on the art of record production, (7).


The story of Brian Wilson’s aborted Beach Boy’s album SMiLE is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Firstly, it pioneered a non-linear approach to pop record production decades before digital editing became the norm for record makers. Interestingly, this approach was not just a functional necessity of production, but was inseparable from its compositional process and overall aesthetic quality. Perhaps more importantly, SMiLE arguably became popular music’s first interactive work, with fans making their own linear assemblies of various bootlegged (and released) ‘modules’ long before Wilson ever got around to sequencing them into a final concrete form.
And there’s much more about the SMiLE saga featured in my new book:

The Soundtrack as Appropriate Incongruity


The Soundtrack as Appropriate Incongruity by Marshall Heiser is a chapter of the Equinox publication “Sounding Funny: Sound and Comedy Cinema” (edited by Mark Evans and Philip Hayward, ISBN-13: 9781781790991).

Publisher: Equinox Publishing, Sheffield, England.


The idea that instances of humour depend upon the perception of an incongruity is by no means a new idea (Morreall, 1989). Incongruity theories form a major strand of humour studies and have in common a (primarily) cognitive approach to the phenomenon. Oring’s appropriate incongruity theory states that humour depends on relationships that are paradoxically right and yet not-right (2003). This collision of seemingly ‘incompatible matrices’ (Koestler, 1964) need not be limited to one sensory mode however. As an audio-visual medium, cinema has the potential to articulate humour by playfully synchronising sight and sound in an appropriately incongruous fashion. In these cases, the humour may arise as an emergent property of the synthesis, rather than belonging to either of the texts independently. Instances from comedy cinema of the post-War period are examined to demonstrate a variety of ways this humorous synthesis can occur.

References: Oring, E. (2003), ‘Engaging Humor,’ Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Morreall, J. (1989), ‘Enjoying Incongruity’, Humor, 2(1), pp. 1-18. Koestler, A. (1964), ‘The Act of Creation,’ New York: Macmillan.

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