Mozart's Musical Dice Game

A few classical composers, including some illustrious names such as Kirnberger (1721-1783), Mozart (1756-1791), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) and Haydn (1732-1809) all wrote Musikalisches W├╝rfelspiele (musical dice games), one of the first examples of combinatoriality in formal types of music (Cope 1995).

In such works, a two-dimensional table of musical figures offers, in the horizontal dimension, a sequence of musical phrases indexed measure by measure and organized by function. For each of the measures in any phrase, the table displays, in the vertical dimension, a set of syntactically equivalent musical figures. The realization of such musical games is the assemblage process of musical figures by chance operations (i.e., the throwing of the dice).

The entertainment purpose and the popularity earned back then by such musical games should not obscure their theoretical significance. The compositional process underlying a Musikalisches W├╝rfelspiel suggests that, similarly to natural languages (Chomsky 1976), can be defined in terms of syntactic relationships (essentially, the ordering of symbols).