Getting Started with Csound

Suggestions for Beginners Learning Independently

Jason Thomas
Printer friendly

If youíre reading this, youíre obviously interested in taking advantage of the possibilities of Csound. Youíve probably also have a few common perceptions about the program, such as a) itís capabilities are extensive, and b) itís difficult to use. The good news is that the while the former assumption is by no means an exaggeration, the latter is. The unfortunate persistence of this misperception is perhaps due to fact that the most difficult part about using Csound is getting started, especially if learning independently without the benefit of an academic course, leading many potential users frustrated, who may give up prematurely. Having only recently learned Csound myself, Iíll try to help you more effectively start of on your ambitious but potentially rewarding endeavor.

The best method to begin will depend on the individual. The amount of general knowledge of electronic music one has may help to lead you in a direction involving minimum frustration and maximum results. For instance, if you have glanced over some of the online or print literature concerning Csound and find yourself asking questions like "Whatís a sine wave?" or "Whatís MIDI?" than you may need some formal instruction in the basics of electronic music or at minimum you should purchase a text such as Computer Music or The Computer Music Tutorial to access basic as well as advanced terms as theyíre encountered. Csound is by no means inaccessible to you but one must realize that learning Csound is as much an education in sound itself as it is the acquisition of skill in a software program. If you have a basic knowledge of synthesis but are still intimidated by some of the "jargon" youíll encounter, fear not. Just jump in and pick up the terms/concepts on the fly. If youíre already experienced with most aspects of electronic music, youíll essentially only have to learn to manipulate Csound as any other software application. The good news for whatever your situation is that you need not have computer science experience or be able to use the C programming language to use Csound. The two skills are independent of one another. An approach Iíve found helpful is a combination of all the available resources in print and online. Letís take a look at what some of these tools are before suggesting how theyíre best applied:

Online tutorials including Richard Boulangerís Toots and Allan Schindlerís Eastman Csound Tutorial.

The Csound Book

The Csound Mailing List

The Csound Manual

First off, do Dr. B.ís Tutorials, which are available online or in the CD-ROM included with The Csound Book. While this is usually the best starting point to begin learning Csound, and itís entirely possible to be a competent beginner having done only the Toots, what Iíd recommend is varied repetition of study, meaning that it is beneficial to hear the "same thing" but not simply by reviewing the material over. You will get the same "info," although in varying degrees of detail, in the Boulanger Toots, Schindlerís Eastman Tutorial, and the first article in The Csound Book, "Intro to Sound Design in Csound." Like a musical phrase, often exact repetition is boring or monotonous while varied repetition not only introduces new material but facilitates new understanding of what has come before. By being introduced to Csound via 3 different texts simultaneously, it is more likely that a solid foundation will be built upon which you may then more effectively pursue whatever your interests are.

Now that you have some basic recommended starting points, a word about how to use the Book and Manual are in order. First of all, it would be unwise to attempt to read either from cover to cover as a primary means of learning Csound. While it may be beneficial to undertake this level of detail at a later date, neither are really a "step by step" how to. Use both as a reference to acquire greater detail when issues are introduced in available tutorials or other instruction you seek out on your own. Concerning the manual, I would recommend ownership of a print copy. While it is not available for purchase in print format, one can go to any Kinkoís or other copy chain and have it printed and bound either with GVB or a 3 ring binder, whichever preferred. Just as a heads up, the manual and supplement, coming in at just under 500 pages, will probably set you back about $30 for the printing and binding combined, assuming the store you patron charges what seems to be the average of about five cents per b&w page plus nominal binding fees. Call them beforehand with the appropriate URL from which to download the manual in PDF so as to avoid waiting the hour or so that it will take to do the project. You can, however, until then view the manual online or print it yourself.

Once you have all your tutorials ready, as well as the reference materials (Book, Manual, additional texts previously mentioned...) youíre ready to get started. Just a few parting suggestions:

Tweak existing orchestra and score files before attempting to create your own. (Remember, however, that if any of these tweaks make it to an actual piece, the original author should be credited.)

Once again, donít use the manual or Csound Book as a point of departure but rather a point of clarification/further investigation.

Sign up to the listerve and read posts from the start. It doesnít matter if you understand little or nothing of what is being discussed. This recommendation is intended to immerse you in the language of Csound. When you do come across something later on your own that was discussed, the meaning will be much more significant. Expect to receive between10-30 posts a day on average. You may want to decide upon an alternate email account for this service if impractical for your primary or work address.

Donít feel the need to use everything Csound can do at once.

Listen to some of the compositions included in the CD included with The Csound Book as well as any music in general you can find created in Csound.


Hopefully, youíll be able to take a few of my suggestions, practical or otherwise, and use them to your benefit, although everyone is encouraged to ultimately pursue whatever method of self-instruction they feel most comfortable with. Regardless of the means employed, substantially rewards are waiting at the end.