Music in the browser or app?

Dom Aversano

As The Bard famously put it, ‘The app, or the browser, that is the question.’

At some point, your inspirational idea for digital music will have to travel from the platonic realm of your thoughts, into either an app or browser. Unless you can luxuriate in doing both, this represents a stark choice. The most appropriate choice depends on weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of both. The graphic above is designed to help categorise what you are creating, thereby providing a better sense of its ideal home.

The most traditional category is recorded music, as it predates the proliferation and miniaturisation of personal computing. In the 20th Century, radio transformed music, and then television transformed it again. In this regard, Spotify and YouTube are quite traditional, as the former imitates radio while the latter mimics TV. This might help explain why Spotify is almost entirely an app, sitting in the background like a radio, and YouTube is most commonly used in the browser, fixing your gaze as if it were a TV. Whether a person is likely to be tethered to a computer or walking around with a phone, may help in deciding between browsers and apps.

Turning to generative music, a successful example of this in the browser is Generative FM, created by Alex Bainter, which hosts more than 50 generative music compositions that you can easily dip into. It is funded by donations, as well as an online course on designing generative systems. The compositions are interesting, varied, and engaging, but as a platform it’s easy to tune out of it. This might be because we are not in the habit of listening to music in the browser without a visual component. The sustainability of this method is also questionable since, despite there still being a good number of daily listeners, the project appears to have been somewhat abandoned, with the last composition having been uploaded in 2021.

Perhaps Generative FM was more suited to an app form, and there are many examples of projects that have chosen this medium. Artists such as Bjork, Brian Eno, and Jean-Michel Jarre have released music as apps. There are obvious benefits to this, such as the fact that an app feels more like a thing than a web page, as well as the commitment that comes from installing an app, especially one you have paid for — in the case of Brian Eno’s generative Reflection app, it comes at the not inconsiderable costs £29.99.

Yet, more than a decade since Bjork released her app Biophilia, the medium is still exceedingly niche and struggling to become established. Bjork has not released any apps since Biophilia, which would have been time-consuming and expensive to create. Despite Bjork’s app not having beckoned in a new digital era for music, this may be a case of a false start rather than a nonstarter. As app building gets easier and more people learn to program, there may be a breakthrough artist who creates a new form of digital music that captures people’s imaginations.

To turn the attention to music-making, and music programming in particular, there is a much clearer migratory pattern. Javascript has allowed programming language to work seamlessly in the browser. In graphical languages, this has led to P5JS superseding Processing. In music programming languages Strudel looks likely to supersede TidalCycles. Of the many ways in which having a programming language in the browser is helpful, one of the greatest is that it allows group workshops to run much more smoothly, removing the tedium and delays caused by faulty software. If you have not yet tried Strudel, it’s worth having a go, as you can get started with music-making in minutes by running and editing some of its patches.

The final category of AI — or large language models — is the hardest to evaluate. Since there is massive investment in this technology, most of the major companies are building their software for both browsers and apps. Given the gold rush mentality, there is a strong incentive to get people to open up a browser and start using the software as quickly as possible. Suno is an example of this, where you can listen to music produced with it instantly. If you sign it only takes a couple of clicks and a prompt to generate a song. However, given the huge running costs of training LLMs, this culture of openness will likely reduce in the coming years, as the companies seek to recuperate their backers’ money.

The question of whether to build something for the browser or an app is not a simple one. As technology offers us increasingly large numbers of possibilities, it becomes more difficult to choose the ideal one. However, the benefit of this huge array of options is that we have the potential to invent new ways of creating and presenting music that may not yet have been imagined, whether that’s in an app or browser.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights on creating for the browser or apps in the comment section below!

Dom Aversano is a British-American composer, percussionist, and writer. You can discover more of his work at Liner Notes.