Sonic Pi: getting creative with computer programming

Author:Jenny Judge
Position:Music and Science Researcher, Cambridge University, United Kingdom

On a damp Thursday afternoon in Cambridge, UK, Sam Aaron is telling a barista that he has a gig coming up. She looks up from the espresso machine, interested. “What do you play?’” she asks. “Well, it’s a bit weird,” says Sam, laughing. “I play the computer.”


Software programmer Sam Aaron has made it his mission to “play the computer”, and to help others do the same. From his base in the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, Sam has developed Sonic Pi, a free software synthesizer that produces musical sounds from text commands. It is designed for the low-cost programmable computing platform Raspberry Pi. Sam’s work was initially funded by the Broadcom Foundation, which supported the project for the first three months. After that, the Raspberry Pi Foundation stepped in, providing support by way of donation to the Computer Laboratory.

Sonic Pi is a social project, rather than a commercial one. It encourages everyone to learn to code, while having fun with music. Sam has collaborated with educators to produce teaching materials for computing in primary schools. He has also worked with artists to experiment with the potential of the software. The latest phase in the project, “Sonic Pi Live and Coding”, is aimed at making Sonic Pi into a fully-fledged musical instrument, for live performance.

Sonic Pi: a social mission

“Through Sonic Pi, I want to try to give as many people as possible a creative experience through coding,” says Sam. “That is the drive. And the way to do that is to lower the entry barrier to that experience.” First of all, Sonic Pi’s simple, clean interface, with big buttons and friendly colors, makes programming seem unthreatening. “It makes the programming experience itself easier, and not so scary,” he explains. “Typical programming environments are pretty horrendous for beginners.” The barrier to entry is lowered further by the fact that Sonic Pi is free – and not only that, it is designed to run on a GBP25 computer.

Encouraging children to tinker

The Raspberry Pi was the brainchild of a group of researchers at the University of Cambridge who wanted to change the way children interacted with computers. In 2006, Eben Upton, Rob Mullins, Jack Lang and Alan Mycroft, based in the Computer Laboratory, were becoming concerned that almost none of the applicants to read Computer Science at Cambridge were hobbyist programmers. Why was it that children did not seem to be experimenting with programming anymore? Part of the problem, thought the group, was the fact that computers had become so expensive and complicated. Maybe children were forbidden from experimenting with them by money-conscious parents. The group decided to start by developing a cheap computer that...

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