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What is Chance Music?

Updated: Jun 1, 2019


#Chance #Music or #Aleatoric Music is music where some element of the music is left to chance. This might be using cards, dice, computer generator, mathematical formulas, the I-Ching, or other methods to make musical decisions. In fact, the word "aleatory" comes from the Latin word alea meaning "dice." Musical dice games have been known for centuries, including a famous example attributed to no other but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. According to the instructions, this Musical Dice Game or Musikalisches Würfelspiel allows anyone "To compose without the least knowledge of Music so much German Waltzer of Schleifer as one pleases, by throwing a certain Number with two Dice".

Sheet Music from "Musical Dice Game" Attributed to Mozart
Sheet Music from "Musical Dice Game" Attributed to Mozart
To compose without the least knowledge of Music so much German Waltzer of Schleifer as one pleases, by throwing a certain Number with two Dice".

John Cage
John Cage

In the 20th century, chance music went from a novelty to serious business. American composers Charles Ives in the early 1900s and Henry Cowell in the 1930s emptied chance techniques. Composer, John Cage, was a pioneer of what he referred to as "Indeterminacy." Indeterminacy is a composing technique where some aspects of a musical work are left open to chance or to the performer's choice. Cage wrote that it's "the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways." There are three different types of chance music. The first is the use of random procedures to produce a determinate, fixed score. The second is mobile form. The last is indeterminate notation, including graphic notation and texts (like playing music based on a drawing, rather than a traditional music score. See the Steiner example below using Pure Data, a computer language for computer music and multimedia works.)

Hans-Christoph Steiner's graphic score for "Solitude," created using Pure Data's data structures.

From the early 1950s on, Indeterminacy or chance music referred to the mostly American composition movement that emerged around Cage. This group included members of the The New York School, including composers Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, visual artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, as well as dancers and poets The French conductor and composer, Pierre Boulez, was largely responsible for popularizing chance music in Europe. For example, concerning his Third Sonata for Piano (1963) or Sonate, que me veux-tu? (translated: Sonata, What Do You Want?) Boulez wrote, "Why compose works destined to be renewed at each performance? Because the development that is fixed in his final way has struck me as no longer coinciding exactly with the current state of musical thought, with the very evolution of musical technique, which it must be recognized, is turning more and more toward to the search for the relative universe, towards a permanent discovery — comparable to a ‘permanent revolution’. Boulez was recognizing that the composer was no longer stuck within the limits of the traditional score or traditional harmony, but music was becoming an art, through chance techniques, where each performance is an unique experience to the performer, composer, and listener. After all, even the most controlled concert hall experience is full of factors that can not be controller by the composer, conductor, performer, the venue or the audience. For example, an audience member might sneeze or a fly could land on the violinist's bow.

...The very evolution of musical technique ... is turning more and more toward to the search for the relative universe, towards a permanent discovery — comparable to a ‘permanent revolution’. – Pierre Boulez, French Composer and Conductor
Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez

In 1958, John Cage gave two lectures in Europe, the first at Darmstadt, Germany, titled simply Indeterminacy and the second in Brussels, Belgium called Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music. The second lecture consisted of 30 short stories, read by Cage in exactly one minute. Eventually, the number of stories grew from 30 to 190. Live reading of these stories jammed into one-minute spurts where accompanied by David Tudor playing piano (as on the Folkways recording) and/or Merce Cunningham dancing.

Starting in 2007, Dutch artist Iebele Abel develops an electronic music instrument, the Real-Time Indeterminate Synthetic Music Feedback (RT-ISMF). The instrument creates music based on the feedback the listener gives it based on their emotional state while listening. You can create a log-in and listen to an online version at

Make Your Own Chance Music

Let's play a short music game of our own. We will create a found instrument out of what is around us and using chance methods to create music with our instrument. You will need one dice and something to write your score on. This could be a computer, smartphone, or pad and pen.

1. Look around the room you are in. What do you see? Is there a table or desk in front of you. If how, is there a tree or wall? Tap on the surface you choose in different places and listen for three different sounds, a low bass sound, a middle sound, and a high sound that you like.

2. Once you have chosen your sounds, roll the dice 24 times. Write down the numbers you roll.

3. Each number you roll will have a pattern assigned to it. You can play the patterns at any tempo you like.. This exercise is non-metric; you decide how long each sound lasts. Here are the rolls:

Roll a 1: Low sound

Roll a 2: Medium sound

Roll a 3: High sound

Roll a 4: Low and medium sound

Roll a 5: Medium and high sound

Roll a 6: Low and High sound

4. Play your piece.

5. You can roll and again and see how your piece changes with each performance. You can assign your own rules to the dice rolls and play your piece again.

Feel free to share your chance music pieces with us by tagging @perennialmusicandarts on Instagram and #chancemusic101.



Boulez, Pierre. "Sonate, que me veux-tu?"

(accessed March 5, 2019).

Cage, John. "Indeterminacy". accessed March 5, 2019).

Harbinson, William G. "Performer Indeterminacy and Boulez's Third Sonata".

(accessed March 5, 2019).

Nichols, David.."Getting Rid of the Glue".

(accessed March 5, 2019).

Mozart, Wolfgang A. "Musical Dice Game".

(accessed March 5, 2019).


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound healer and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She created the Perennial Music and Arts concept with her colleague, Jacqueline Bata in 2016 .She is passionate about tea and creating our own daily rituals. Visit for more about music lessons and for more about a variety of wellness related topics including tea, sound healing, and recipes. Contact her via for questions about tea, ceremony, music composition, sound healing, writing, photography, or other relevant topics.


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