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Using Music Blocks

Music Blocks is a fork of Turtle Blocks. It has extensions for exploring music: pitch and rhythm.

Music Blocks is designed to run in a browser. Most of the development has been done in Chrome.

Browser Comments
Chrome Supported
Safari Supported
Firefox Supported
Opera Supported
IE Not Supported
Edge Coming soon

You can run it from

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Getting Started

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When you first launch Music Blocks in your browser, you'll see a stack of blocks representing four notes: Do 4, Mi 4, Sol 4 and Do 5. The first note is a 1/2 note; the second and third notes are 1/4 notes; the fourth note is a 1/1 note.

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Try clicking on the Start block or click on the Play button. You should hear the notes play in succession: Do Mi Sol Do.

To write your own programs, drag blocks from their respective palettes on the left side of the screen. Use multiple blocks in stack(s) to create music and drawings; as the mouse moves under your control, colorful lines are drawn and music of your creation is played.

Note that blocks either snap together vertically or horizontally. Vertical connections indicate program (and temporal) flow. Code is executed from the top to bottom of a stack of blocks. Horizontal connections are used for parameters and arguments, e.g., the name of a pitch, the duration of a note, the numerator and denominator of a division. From the shape of the block, it should be apparent whether they connect vertically or horizontally.

Some blocks, referred to as "clamp" blocks have an interior—child—flow. This might be code that is run if a condition is true, or, more common, the code that is run over the duration of a note.

For the most part, any combination of blocks will run (although there is no guarantee that they will produce music). Illegal combinations of blocks will be flag by a warning on the screen as the program runs.

You can delete a block by dragging it back into the trash area that appear at the bottom of the screen.

To maximize screen real estate, Music Blocks overlays the program elements (stacks of blocks) on top of the canvas. These blocks can be hidden at any time while running the program.


There are four toolbars:

(1) The Main toolbar across the top of the screen. There you will find the Play button, the Stop button, the New Project button, buttons for loading and saving projects and the Find and Share projects button.

(2) The Secondary toolbar, in the lower-right corner of the screen. There you will find the Home button, buttons for show/hide blocks, expand/collapse blocks and decrease/increase block size.

(3) The Auxilary toolbar above the main toolbar. It appears when auxilary menu button is clicked. There you will find the buttons Run slowly, Run step by step, Display Statistics, beginner/advanced mode, etc. and also the button for selecting language.

(4) the Palette toolbar on the left side of the screen. (An additional menu appears when a "right click" is applied to a stack of blocks).

These toolbars are described in detail in the Turtle Blocks documentation pages.

Keyboard shortcuts

There are several keyboard shortcuts:

PgUp and PgDn will scroll the screen vertically. This is useful for creating long stacks of blocks.

You can use the arrow keys to move blocks and the Delete key to remove an individual block from a stack.

Enter is the equivalent of clicking the Run button.

Alt-C is copy and Alt-V is paste. Be sure that the cursor is highlighting the block(s) you want to copy.

You can directly type notes using d for Do, r for Re, m for Mi, f for Fa, s for Sol, l for La, and t for Ti.

Block Palettes

The block palettes are displayed on the left side of the screen. These palettes contain the blocks used to create programs.

See the Turtle Blocks Programming Guide for general details on how to use the blocks.

See the Music Blocks Programming Guide for details specific to music: Rhythm, Meter, Pitch, Intervals, Tone, Ornament, Volume, Drum, and Widget.

All of the other palettes are described in the Turtle Blocks documentation pages.

Defining a note

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At the heart of Music Blocks is the concept of a note. A note, defined by the Note value block defines a length of time and a set of actions to occur in that time. Typically the action is to play a pitch, or series of pitches (e.g., a chord). Whatever blocks are placed inside the "clamp" of a Note value block are played over the duration of the note.

The duration of a note is determined by its note value. By default, we use musical notation, referring to whole notes (1), half notes (1/2), quarter notes (1/4), etc., but you can use any number as the note duration. (There are some practical limitations, which you can discover through experimentation.) The relative length of a quarter note is half as long as a half note. By default, Music Blocks will play 90 quarter notes per second, so each quarter note is 2/3 seconds (666 microseconds) in duration.

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The Pitch block (found on the Pitch Palette) is used to specify the pitch of a note. By default, we use traditional western Solfege, i.e., Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, where Do is mapped to C, Re is mapped to D, etc. (when the key and mode are C Major). You can also specify pitch by using a note name, e.g., F#. An octave specification is also required (as an argument for our pitch block) and changes integers for every cycle of C (i.e. C4 is higher than B3). When used with the Pitch-time Matrix block, a row is created for each Pitch block.

In addition to specifying the note name, you must also specify an octave. The frequency of a note doubles as the octave increases. A2 is 110 Hertz; A3 is 220 Hertz; A4 is 440 Hertz; etc.

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Two special blocks can be used with a Pitch block to specify the name of the pitch: the Solfege block and the Pitch-Name block. The Solfege block uses selectors to scroll through Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Ti. A second selector is used for sharps and flats: ##, #, and. The Pitch-Name block is similar in that it lets you scroll through C, D, E, F, G, A, B. It also uses a second selector for sharps and flats.

As noted, and described in more detail in the Music Blocks Programming Guide, you can put as many Pitch blocks inside a note as you'd like. They will play together as a chord. You can also insert graphics blocks inside a note in order to create sound-sync animations.

A quick tour of selected blocks

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The Set timbre block, found on the Tone palette, lets you choose a timbre for a note. In the above example, a guitar model is used to make any notes contained within the block's clamp will sound as if they are being played on a guitar.

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The Set synth volume block, found on the Volume palette, lets you change the volume, which ranges from 0 (silent) to 100 (full volume), of any notes contained with the block's clamp.

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The Set drum block, which is used inside of the clamp of a Note value block is used to add drum sounds to a note. It is found on the Drum palette.

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The Repeat block, found on the Flow palette, is used to create loops. Whatever stack of blocks are placed inside its clamp will be repeated. It can be used to repeat individual notes, or entire phrases of music.

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The Duplicate block, found on the Rhythms palette, is used to repeat any contained notes. Similar to using a Repeat block, but rather than repeating a sequence of notes multiple times, each note is repeated in turn, e.g. duplicate x2 of 4 4 8 would result in 4 4 4 4 8 8, where as repeat x2 of 4 4 8 would result in 4 4 8 4 4 8.

The Start block, found on the Action palette, is tied to the Run button. Anything inside of the clamp of the Start button will be run when the button is pressed.

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Note that you can have multiple mice and that each mouse is equivalent to a "voice" in music. It can play notes of various pitches in sequence, and can even play multiple notes of the same "note value", but no one mouse can do counterpoint by itself—just like one mouse cannot draw two lines at the same time. If you want counterpoint, pull out an additional Start block, which will create a new mouse that can now perform a new voice.

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The Action block, also found on the Action palette, is used to create a collection of blocks that can be run as a group. Whenever you create an Action block, a new block corresponding to that action is added to the palette. The name given to the action is the name associated with the new block. (It is common practice to use Action blocks to define short phrases of music that can be repeated and modified.)

Actions are a powerful organizational element for your program and can be used in many powerful ways, e.g., an action can be associated with an event, such as an on beat or off beat or mouse click. See Music Blocks Programming Guide, for further details and examples.

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The Store in block, found on the Boxes palette, is used to store a value. That value can be retrieved using the Box block. The value can be modified using the Add one block. These blocks are the typical way in which variables are stored and retrieved in Music Blocks.

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The Forward block, found on the Mouse palette, is used to draw straight lines. (Note that if this block is used inside of a Note value block—the line will be drawn as the note plays; otherwise the line is drawn "instantly".)

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The Right block, found on the Mouse palette, is used to rotate the mouse heading. (Note that if this block is used inside of a Note value block—the heading will change as the note plays; otherwise the heading is changed "instantly".)

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The Pen up and Pen down blocks, found on the Pen palette, determine whether or not the mouse draws as it moves.

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The Set shade block, also found on the Pen palette, is used to set the lightness or darkness of the "ink" used in the mouse pen. set shade 0 is black. set shade 100 is white.

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The Set color block, also found on the Pen palette, is used to set the color of the "ink" used in the mouse pen. set color 0 is red. set color 70 is blue.

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The Random block, found on the Numbers palette, is used to generate a random number, because sometimes being unpredictable is nice.

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The One of block, also found on the Numbers palette, is used to generate a binary choice, one of "this" or "that", because sometimes being unpredictable is nice.

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The Show block, found on the Media palette, is used to display text and images.

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The Mouse button block, found on the Sensors palette, returns true if the mouse button is clicked. The mouse button block can be used to create some interactivity in your program.

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The Cursor x and Cursor y blocks, also found on the Sensors palette, return the X and Y coordinates of the cursor. These blocks can also be used to create interactive programs.

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The Push and Pop blocks, found on the Heap palette, are used to store and retrieve values on/from a first-in, last-out (FILO) program heap.

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The Print block, found on the Extras palette, is used to print messages during program execution. It is very useful as a debugging tool and also as a means of adding lyrics to your music—think karaoke.

Widget Palette

Music Blocks has various Widgets that can be used within Music Blocks to enhance your experience. The Pitch-time matrix is described here.

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Many of the blocks on this palette are used to create a matrix of "pitch" and "note value". The matrix is a convenient and intuitive way for generating short musical gestures, which can be regenerated as a "chunk of notes" that can be played back programmatically. Musicians may find it helpful to think of the pitches within the pitch-time matrix as being akin to a bellset in which notes may be added and removed as desired. The "note value" representation acts as a "rhythmic tablature" that should be readable by both those familiar with the concepts of rhythm in music and those unfamiliar (but familiar with math).

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Pitch-time Matrix blocks clamp is used to define the matrix: A row in the matrix is created for each Pitch block and columns are created for individual notes, which are created by using Rhythm blocks, individual note blocks, or the Tuplet block.

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The Rhythm block is used to specify a series of notes of the same duration (e.g., three quarter notes or seven eighth notes). The number of notes is the top argument; the bottom argument is the the note duration, e.g., 1/1 for a whole note, 1/2 for a half note, 1/4 for a quarter note, etc. (Recall that in traditional Western notation all note values are (1) in powers of two, and are (2) in relation to the "whole note", which is in turn (3) defined by tempo, or beats—usually quarter notes—per minute) Each note is represented by a column in the matrix.

Special ratios of the whole note can be created very easily with the Rhythm block by choosing an integer other than the traditional "powers of two" that standard Western music notation affords us. For example, putting a 1/5 into the argument for "note value" will create a note value equal to "one fifth the durational length of a whole note". This gives the user endless rhythmic possibilities.

As a convenience, blocks for the most common note values are also provided (whole note through 64th note). They are automatically converted into the corresponding Rhythm blocks, which can be used to create columns in the matrix.

If you would like multiple note values in a row, simply use the Repeat block clamp or Duplicate block clamp.

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The Tuplet block is how we create rhythms that do not fit into a simple "power of two" rhythmic space. A tuplet, mathematically, is a collection of notes that are scaled to map into a specified duration. For example, if you would like to script/perform three unique notes into the duration of a single quarter note you would use the tuplet block. The Tuplet block is able to calculate how many notes you have inserted into the clamp and will generate the tuplet accordingly (e.g. if you put three notes in, it will generate a "triplet". We have designed the tuplet block to allow for any input of note value, so the triplet can be three quarter notes, three eighth notes, etc. This design choice allows for maximum flexibility) You can mix and match Rhythm and individual Note blocks within a Tuplet block to generate complex rhythms (e.g. two quarter notes plus an eighth note is possible within the tuplet). Each note is represented by a column in the matrix.

Note: Each time you open the matrix, it tries to reconstruct the notes marked from the previous matrix. If you modify the Pitch and Rhythm blocks in the Pitch-time Matrix clamp, Music Blocks will try to make a corresponding change in the matrix.

Note: You can construct a matrix from a chuck of blocks by including the chunk in the clamp of the Pitch-time Marix block.

More details about all of the widgets are available in the Music Blocks Programming Guide.