Yale University Library home page link link to yale library homepage


Back to Beyond Paper Home | Exhibit Gallery

Musical Game Devised by Henry Gilbert

Henry Gilbert Papers
Gilmore Music Library

To Previous Exhibit Item | To Next Exhibit Item

liszt letter cosima von bulow

In the late 18th century, there was a great vogue for games that enabled the novice to compose a brand-new piece of music by repeatedly rolling a pair of dice and consulting a table of musical fragments. These games were created by experienced composers; in fact, one such game was attributed to Haydn and another to Mozart, although scholars have debated their authenticity. The composer devised a set of possible melodies for Measure 1, another set for Measure 2, and so on, and then published them all in tabular format. The player selected a version of each measure by rolling the dice, and then assembled and played the resulting piece. Despite the element of randomness in their creation, these pieces made musical sense because all the versions of a given measure used the same chords. Each game had millions of possible realizations, but they all sounded similar because they shared the same harmonic structure.

More than a century later, the American composer Henry Gilbert (whose baby hair and death mask also appear in our exhibit) devised a similar musical game. Gilbert made it easier for the player; by placing the musical fragments on the dice themselves, he eliminated the need to consult a table and write out the music. Gilbert's game specifies which musical fragments are to be used for the 8th and 16th measures of a 16-measure composition, but the other fragments can appear in any order—a much freer arrangement than in those 18th-century games. In his instructions, Gilbert acknowledges that some orders are better than others, and he suggests that this very fact can be educational.

This is not Gilbert's only musical game. The Gilbert Papers contain no fewer than five boxes of game-related materials: blocks, cards, instructions, sketches, and even patents.