# Chess Music

For absolutely no good reason, I found myself wondering what a chess game would sound like if played on the piano.

One can’t help but notice that algebraic chess notation maps almost perfectly to scientific pitch notation

The eight columns of a chess board correspond to the eight audible octaves.  E.g., C4 is a middle square on the chess board and C4 is “middle C” on the piano…

(Both images from Wikimedia Commons).

NOTATION

I know what you’re thinking: the diatonic scale has seven notes “A” through “G,” but the chess board goes up to “H.”  So how can we overlay chess notation with pitch notation?

Fear not!  We’ll simply use the Northern European system of musical notation, where an “H” indicates a B Natural, and a “B” indicates a B flat.  This is the notation that composers from Schumann to Lizst used to sign the name “B-A-C-H” into their music (see BACH motif).

The Bach Motif

So we now have a system for mapping the moves of a chess game onto a piano keyboard.  For example, Anderssen’s “Immortal Game” begins with 1. e4 e5 2. f4… which maps to E natural in the 4th register, E natural in the 5th register, and F natural in the 4th register.

NOTE VALUE

The remaining task is to assign note values.  What makes a quarter note, a half note, and a whole note?

The relative value of chess pieces is Pawn = 1, Knight = 3, Bishop = 3, Rook = 5, Queen = 9, and King = Infinity.

Assigning these exact ratios to note values will create some rather annoying polyrhythms.  So let’s round off the ratios a tiny bit and assign the following note values to the chess pieces: Pawn = 1/16th note, Knight = 1/8th note, Bishop = 1/8th note, Rook = 1/4 note, Queen = 1/2 note, and King = rest.

OCTAVE VALUE

To put the icing on the cake, let’s condense the 8 registers into a single octave to make the chess melodies more tolerable. If a note is doubled (as in 1. e4 e5), let’s jump the second note up an octave to provide some flavor.

So without further ado, here are three famous chess games mapped onto the piano:

“THE IMMORTAL GAME”
June 21 1851

In “The Immortal Game,” Adolf Anderssen gave up both rooks, a bishop, and ultimately his queen, in order to checkmate Lionel Kieseritzky using only his three remaining minor pieces – a bishop and two knights.

LISTEN TO THE MP3: The Immortal Game

I set blues chords in the left hand to justify the constant tonal shifts from B to b flat in this chess game. The chords modulate from C Major to F Major and finally end in B Flat Major.

The game/melody: Pe4 Pe5 Pf4 Pe x Pf4 Bc4 Qh4+ Kf1 b5?! Bxb5 Nf6 Nf3 Qh6 Pd3 Nh5 Nh4 Qg5 Nf5 Pc6 Pg4 Nf6 Rg1!! Pcxb5? Ph4 Qg6 Ph5 Qg5 Qf3 Ng8 Bxf4 Qf6 Nc3 Bc5 Nd5 Qxb2 Bd6 Bxg1? Pe5! Qxa1+ Ke2 Na6 Nxg7+ Kd8 Qf6+ Nxf6 Be7#

THE OPERA GAME
1858, Paris

In “The Opera Game,” Paul Morphy bested the German Duke Karl of Brunswick and Count Isouard during the Opera “Norma” at the Italian Opera House in Paris.

Morphy won with a snazzy queen sacrifice in what is considered one of the most brilliant combinations in chess history.

LISTEN TO THE MP3: The Opera Game

This bouncy, modal melody seemed to lend itself to a Baroque invention. So I added in a left hand melody using Species Counterpoint.

The game/melody: Pe4 Pe5 Nf3 Pd6 Pd4 Bg4? Pd4xe5 Bxf3 Qxf3 Pdxe5 Bc4 Nf6 Qb3 Qe7 Nc3 Pc6 Bg5 Pb5? Nxb5! Pcxb5 Bxb5 Nbd7 0-0-0 Rd8 Rxd7 Rxd7 Rd1 Qe6 Bxd7+ Nxd7 Qb8+! Nxb8 Rd8#

World Chess Championship 1972, Game 6

Bobby Fischer bests Boris Spassky with an aggressive queenside attack. Spassky joined the audience in applauding Fischer’s win and called it the best game of the match.

LISTEN TO THE MP3: Bobby Fischer 1972

This chess game produced a wild jumble of syncopated sevenths and minor seconds. I tried to find order in the atonal chaos by laying in major ninth and suspension chords. My hope was to somehow evoke the major seventh chord sound of the 1970s, when this game was played. It came out sounding like if Schoenberg wrote intro music for a morning talk show.

The game/melody: 1.c4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.d4 Nf6 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bg5 O-O 6.e3 h6 7.Bh4 b6 8.cxd5 Nxd5 9.Bxe7 Qxe7 10.Nxd5 exd5 11.Rc1 Be6 12.Qa4 c5 13.Qa3 Rc8 14.Bb5!? 14…a6?! 15.dxc5 bxc5 16.O-O Ra7 17.Be2 Nd7 18.Nd4 Qf8 19.Nxe6 fxe6 20.e4 d4 21.f4 Qe7 22.e5 Rb8 23.Bc4 Kh8 24.Qh3 Nf8 25.b3 a5 26.f5, exf5 27.Rxf5 Nh7 28.Rcf1 Qd8 29.Qg3 Re7 30.h4 Rbb7 31.e6 Rbc7 32.Qe5 Qe8 33.a4 Qd8 34.R1f2 Qe8 35.R2f3 Qd8 36.Bd3 Qe8 37.Qe4 Nf6 38.Rxf6 gxf6 39.Rxf6 Kg8 40.Bc4 Kh8 41.Qf4 1-0

UPDATE: By reader request, I’ve translated Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” into a chess game. Click the link to see the video.

## 47 thoughts on “Chess Music”

1. Kiri says:

This is an absolutely delightful combination of two kinds of geekery! Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed listening to all of your chess-inspired compositions. 🙂

2. Wow, Jon. Just, wow. You have out-nerded me, big-time. Congrats.

3. Dave says:

Sweet–this far exceeds an attempt I made at this some time ago; my attempts at generating compositions algorithmically were somewhat… lacking. May have to try again now!

4. luc says:

Interesting application.
How did you generate the mp3 from the musical notation?
I did something similar, but much less professional, converting the daily number of submissions to a revision control system into notes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TuQDx8kgfE

5. wonderwhy-er says:

Wow, makes me want to create an app where you load game moves sequence and see how game was played + listen to the music generated out of it 🙂

6. Josh says:

Well played, Sir! Now try it with Arimaa. Rather than assigning note lengths due to unit strength/value, you might try applying note duration based on how many of the four available moves are used by the same piece (i.e., if a rabbit is moved three spaces and a camel one, the rabbit could be a half note while the camel a sixteenth…)

7. wondertrash says:

Chess si also a great way to consult the I Ching – 64 squares of the chess board corresponding tot he 64 hexagrams of the oracle. a1 of course = hexagram 1, and H8 = 64. So the last 2 moves form the moving hexagrams, unless it ends with an opponent pinned and unable to move, stalemate, or concession – in which case there is no “moving” hexagram, but only a single hexagram as result.

8. DaveM says:

For dynamics, maybe map the relative weights of a piece exchange to loudness, e.g., pawn x pawn = mp, pawn x queen = fff, knight x queen = f, etc.

9. Pavel says:

Heh, I wonder if this would work the other way around… Turning composed music into a meaningful chess game.

10. Matt Butler says:

This is brilliant!

11. BlueSeraph says:

Just wondering. Can you do the opposite? Turn Ode to Joy into a chess game? How about some Lady Gaga, LOL?

12. Markus says:

Neat. How about video and audio? Animate the moves to the song.

13. Rachelle says:

This is a really interesting bit of music. I applaud your ingenuity of thinking this up.

Thanks everyone! I considered trying the reverse -translating music into a chess game – but didn’t think it would work.

However, I just tried the Ode to Joy on the chess board and it actually works. It creates a very symmetrical, albeit bizarre game.

15. Zach says:

Please animate this against the game moves. Thank you. Also, please bake a pie using the same process.

16. Paul says:

Can someone make this a video
The chess game being played on chessgames.com synced with the piano music.
That would be amazing.

17. Theta says:

Have you tried coding a program for this, either stand alone or insert it as an attachment for Jose, Gnome-Chess, GNU-Chess, or X-Board? you’d load a game library select the audio option, during game playback and listen while you watch the game… play out with the notes… have a speed feature, or have the notes play as the move is completed for each player? with an option to record it using the play list after the game is finished.

18. mendel says:

fascinating concept. what makes it most interesting is your interpretation of what comes out and what you set as accompaniment for it.

the bobby fischer one is probably my favorite.

it’d be neat to map it out in all m2’s instead of using the standard “white keys” with the Bb to see how much funkier it could get.

the other idea is to make a more steve reich version of this, where instead of the piece class dictating the note value, the note keeps repeating metronomically until another move breaks that and turns it into something else. that potentially gives you some neat six or twelve note chords that shift around a bunch. when i get a break from my busy schedule i might try something like that.

cheers to you. 🙂

19. Jonathan, I did a very similar project back in 2009.

Background info here:

20. George says:

Interesting listen, but you can’t hear kings moving which I think is kind of important. Why not make them something like a whole note, and make castling a distinct chord?

21. Tom B says:

It’s Liszt, not “Lizst”.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Liszt

22. Ricardus says:

I wonder what the Fischer/Byrne “Game of the century” from 1956 would sound like.

23. uncle fred says:

Great stuff.
What if instead of limiting the melody to the squares on which each move ends you also include the starting square? That is, each move would then translate into two notes, corresponding to the starting position and the ending one. That would create issues with rhythm, but these could be solved. It would make for a longer piece and one I think more representative of the “battle.” Especially if you don’t limit the range to one octave but let the full range be in play. Might be a but Schoenberish but why not?

24. Jordyn says:

I’m not sure if there are a lot of famous games out there that kept track of this sort of information (I’m a chess novice), but how about using the lengths of time between moves as rests?

25. Bobby Fiske says:

Funny stuff. More, more!

26. Charles says:

Marvelous.

The addition of dynamics via piece value/weight in an earlier comment is excellent.

Another suggestion might be to produce separate “melodies” for each side, black & white, and assign them to either 1) different registers or 2) different instruments (e.g., via midi), and then play them, with black entering either 1 “step” (i.e., a pawn’s or knight’s duration) after white. This might produce even more of a contrapuntal effect (and probably even more Schoenbergian games).

Have you “automated”/programmed the mapping/translation? If so, any chance of the source being made available, for additional experimentation.

Many thanks.

27. Hey, I wonder: what would happen if you applied the reverse process? I mean, translating music into chess games?

28. David B says:

What would it be like if the left hand played black while the right hand played white? The black moves could be also represented by a reflection plus inversion of the board. In this manner you would better represent the pas-de-deux that is occurring – a dance that is the higher form of the conflict.

Regards,
David

So many great ideas here! I may try the left hand black with right hand white idea… Depends how much time I have next week!

30. Nate says:

This concept was explored in a book I read about seven years ago called “The Eight”. I have been fascinated with turning chess into music ever since, and have transposed some of these same games! It’s interesting how different your compositions sound than mine, even though they have the same notes serving as the melody

31. Evan says:

Hey I did something similar to this a few years ago. Instead of using algebraic formulations, however, I am more of a Random-Number kind of composer. I liked your method 😀

Send me an email if you want to hear my version(s) and how I did it.

32. Josh says:

I’m always interested to see the way people translate game data into music. There are so many ways to do it, two different artists could generate entirely different pieces of music from the same game data. I do like what you’ve done here.

You might be interested to check out a project that I did to translate a checkers game into drum patterns in real time. Something similar could be done melodically instead with just a slight change in system configuration, or could be expanded to work on a chess board, though the chess piece tracking would be much harder!

http://www.prettyextreme.com/?p=124

33. Lyfe Isgoode says:

I used an early Commodore 64 to do a very similar thing back in the day, but without the .mp3 output – as it didn’t exist then.
When the first 64 bit CPU/programming became available I used it to translate chess and checkers musically to stanzas of the Beatles tune “When I’m sixty-four.”
I’ve washed down each success down with a cold MGD 64 (more recently) while coloring in each picture of the Kama Sutra’s 64 positions with the Crayola 64 pack, my Smith & Wesson 64 Revolver by my side. The \$64,000 question is why do I love hexagons so darned much???

34. Gurdonark says:

Very inspiring. Thanks for sharing this idea.
I’d be more tempted to do an ambient piece based on Ulf Andersson’s games, such as the victory over Karpov in Milan.
Karpov-Andersson, Milan 1975: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 5.Nb5 d6 6.c4 Nf6 7.N1c3 a6 8.Na3 Be7 9.Be2 O-O 10.O-O b6 11.Be3 Bb7 12.Rc1 Re8 13.Qb3 Nd7 14.Rfd1 Rc8 15.Rd2 Qc7 16.Qd1 Qb8 17.f3 Ba8 18.Qf1 Nce5 19.Nab1 Nf6 20.Kh1 h6 21.Rdd1 Bf8 22.Nd2 Rcd8 23.Qf2 Ned7 24.a3 d5 25.cxd5 exd5 26.exd5 Bd6 27.Nf1 Rxe3 28.Nxe3 Bxh2 29.Nf1 Bf4 30.Rc2 b5 31.Bd3 Nb6 32.Be4 Nc4 33.a4 Re8 34.axb5 axb5 35.Re2 Be5 36.Qc5 Nd6 37.Na2 Ndxe4 38.fxe4 Bd6 39.Qc2 Re5 40.g3 Qe8 41.Rde1 Bb7 42.Kg1 Nh7 43.Nc1 Ng5 44.Nd2 Bb4 45.Kf2 Bxd2 46.Rxd2 Nxe4+ 47.Rxe4 Rxe4 48.Ne2 Bc8 49.Nc3 Re1 50.Ne2 Ra1 51.Rd4 Qd8 52.Qc6 Bd7 53.Qd6 Qe8 54.Qf4 Qc8 55.b4 Bh3 56.Qe4 Bf5 57.Qe3 Qc2 58.g4 Bd7 59.Qe4 Qb3 60.Qd3 Qb2 61.Qe4 Ra8 62.Qe3 Ra2 63.d6 Ra8 64.Re4 Bc6 65.Qd4 Qb1 66.Re7 Qh1 67.Qf4 Qg2+ 68.Ke1 Ra1+ 69.Kd2 Qd5+ 70.Qd4 Ra2+ 71.Kc3 Qf3+ 72.Re3 Ra3+ 73.Kd2 Ra2+ 74.Ke1 Qh1+ 75.Kf2 Qg2+ 76.Ke1 Qh1+ 77.Kf2 Ra1 78.Rc3 Qg2+ 79.Ke3 Qf3+ 0-1[4][5]

35. Tony says:

Jonathan-

Please host a generator for us to submit chess moves. This is awesome stuff! A lot sounds like Charlie Brown background music. This would be an awesome source for people to create their own unique audio content. I would be sure to host the generator, or provide a link to it on your site, if you would be open to doing that. Thank you for your submission!