Creative Commons: Credit: Gregor Tatschl


Thor Magnusson is a Professor in Future Music at the University of Sussex. His work focusses on the impact digital technologies have on musical creativity and practice, explored through software development, composition and performance. He is the co-founder of ixi audio (, and has developed audio software, systems of generative music composition, written computer music tutorials and created two musical live coding environments. He has taught workshops in creative music coding and sound installations, and given presentations, performances and visiting lectures at diverse art institutions, conservatories, and universities internationally. 

In 2019, Bloomsbury Academic published Magnusson’s monograph Sonic Writing: The Technologies of Material, Symbolic and Signal Inscriptions. The book explores how contemporary music technologies trace their ancestry to previous forms of instruments and media, including symbolic musical notation. The book underpins current research, where, as part of the MIMIC project (, Magnusson has worked on a system that enables users to design their own live coding languages for machine learning (see

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In this talk I will discuss the role of visual representation of sound in music software. Software design often remediates older technologies, such as common music notation, the analogue tape, outboard studio equipment, as well as applying metaphors from acoustic and electric instruments. In that context, the aim here will be study particular modes in which abstract shapes, symbols and innovative notations can be applied in systems for composition and live performance.

Considering the practically infinite possibilities of representation of sound in digital systems – both in terms of visual display and mapping of gestural controllers to sound – the concepts of graphic design, notation and performance will be discussed in relation to four systems created by the author: ixi software, ixiQuarks, ixi lang, and the Threnoscope live coding environment. These will be presented as examples of limited systems that frame the musician’s compositional thoughts providing a constrained palette of musical possibilities. What this software has in common is the integral use of visual elements in musical composition, equally as prescriptive and representative notation for musical processes.

I will argue that the development of musical software is a form of composition: it is an experimental activity that goes hand in hand with sound and music research, where the musician-programmer has to gain a formal understanding of diverse domains that before might have been tacit knowledge. The digital system’s requirements for abstractions of the source domain, specifications of material, and completeness of definitions are all features that inevitably require a very strong understanding of the source domain.