Get with the Christmas spirit with computer carols from Alan Turing

alan turing christmas carols
Antoine Taveneaux / Creative Commons
Just in time for the holidays, computer scientists released a couple renditions of iconic Christmas carols once played by Alan Turing’s computer. Though to our modern ears, the tracks sound more eerie than festive, they marked a major milestone as some of the first computer-generated sounds ever played.

The carols follow the release of three songs resurrected last year by a team of researchers from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“It all started when I found a reference in old material to the BBC doing a Christmas broadcast in 1951 that included some carols played by Turing’s computer in Manchester,” Jack Copeland, a University of Canterbury professor and one of the researchers who led the project, told Digital Trends. The carols included the classics Jingle Bells and Good King Wenceslas.

Along with his collaborator, composer Jason Long, Copeland set out to re-create the carols as they sounded 67 years ago. But, since Turing’s computer was dismantled decades ago, they had to improvise.

“We wanted to hear [the songs],” Copeland said. “The process consisted of chopping up the audio from a 1951 BBC recording of the same computer playing other melodies and then using the resulting collection of individual notes to rebuild the carols. It was like musical Lego.”

The results are some harsh renditions of the two Christmas classics. These aren’t tracks you can expect to find on an upcoming holiday album but, behind all grating melody, you can almost sense a machine trying to express Christmas cheer. Either way it’s impressive to consider how far — and how low — electronic music has come.

“I found it marvelous to hear that historic sound source belting out enjoyable festive music,” Copeland said. “Strange, too, to hear a computer that was destroyed more than half a century ago come back to life via our computers.”

Copeland and Long re-created three more songs last year, God Save the King, Baa, Baa Black Sheep, and Glenn Miller’s In the Mood, which was reported to have been played on the massive computer in the 50s.

“Thanks to Turing and co., there was something entirely new on the planet, software-generated sound,” Copeland said. “Every time your mobile phone beeps, you are sharing in their invention It was the start of something that changed the face of music — digitally created sound.”

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