By Dr Sarah Bell,  British Science Association Media Fellow


Live coding feels like something you are more likely to hear about on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on Radio 6 than at a science festival. It involves a programmer writing code for music as it is performed live, with the evolving computer script projected onto a screen in the background. In the inaugural Daphne Oram Award Lecture at the British Science Festival, Alex McLean showed how live coding challenges stereotypes about computer programmers and pushes the frontiers of computer music. It is also mesmerising.

Those of us who were too old, too young or too straight-laced for the acid house scene can find computer music a bit daunting. Neither geek enough to code, nor cool enough to rave, the idea of live coding seems rather niche. That is until you meet Alex, see him code and hear his music.

Lifecycle of a live coder

Live coders come from two directions – artists who want to learn to code, and coders who want to express themselves. Alex started out as a programmer. With unspectacular results in his first degree in computing, he spent 10 years working in industry. Alex and a friend started playing around with computer music and formed a band in 2000. “To start with we made quite bad music”, he admits. He has now been making music for 16 years and live coding since 2003. “I don’t know how to play an instrument or read music, but I perform every week. I am a musician but I come at it from the position of a programmer”.

As his art practice developed Alex returned to study an MSc in Arts Computing followed by a PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. Now a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, he sees his research and performance as “separate threads that interweave and influence each other”. His art practice uses the software and functional programming language that he has developed in his research, and his research benefits from live testing, experience and feedback.

Alex has developed a coding language that allows musicians to code quickly and simply, connects the perception of the music with the programme, and enables creative feedback. Feedback is essential to live performance. It is the basis of the relationship between the musician, the code and the audience, so the programming language needs to work fast.

Coding, but not as we know it

"Live coding is quite different to software engineering. It is not about making a product. It’s about making an experience for yourself and people around you,” Alex told the audience at the BSA British Science Festival this week. This opens up new ways of thinking about computer programming that challenge the usual stereotypes. Programming is often portrayed as a solitarily activity, undertaken by lonely dorks or ambitious entrepreneurs. For Alex it is a way of expressing himself and building social connections through a shared experience of music. Writing code that makes people dance breaks down more fundamental preconceptions about the act of programming. “Programming is symbolic and mathematical”, explains Alex, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t experience it in our bodies”. All coding is experienced in the body as well as the mind of the programmer, and live coding makes this more obvious as other people join in dancing.

New creative generation

Computer programming is now a compulsory element of the school curriculum in England and Wales. Most people think this will be good for science, engineering and the economy. Alex is excited about what this might mean for music and the arts. “Now that all kids are learning computer science a more diverse cross section of people will have the opportunity to do live coding. The next generation will take it and run with it, blending it with other forms of electronic music."

The blurring of science, technology and the arts is a key theme in Alex’s work, and in the programme at this year’s British Science Festival. Telling us about his experience of the Festival, Alex noted that “people are interested in the creative as well as the scientific aspects of my work”. In addition to Alex’s lecture in digital innovation, this year’s programme included the Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture for science and the arts by Julie Wertz. Julie uses chemistry and historical texts to understand how Turkey red dye was made in the 18th and 19th century, driving a revolution in the textiles industry.

History and textiles come together in Alex’s research project ‘Weaving codes – coding weaving’, in collaboration with artist Ellen Harlizius-Klück. Ellen uses textiles to show the thought processes of Neolithic weavers, in a similar way that Alex uses live coding to make his creative thought processes visible to audiences.

Blending, blurring, collaborating and weaving across disciplines and practices are recurrent themes in Alex’s work. Computer languages are becoming more like human languages, making it easier for a diverse range of people to express themselves in code. And if Alex has his way, this will also be fun. He told the Festival audience “live coding is all about programming, but in the context of people having fun.

We may have missed the groove in the 1990s and we might not comprehend much of the music on the Freak Zone, but live coding is a new way blend of computing and art that we’ll be keeping our ears and eyes on.

Dr Sarah Bell is a 2015 BSA Media Fellow. Her Fellowship was supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and she was placed at Sarah is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering and director of the UCL Engineering Exchange.