Monday, May 31, 2010


As you've heard many times, a list surrounded by square brackets is an Array. Specifically, it's a comma delineated list of 0 or more elements. Here are some examples:

[x, y, z]
["in", "the", "house"]

There is often more than one way to do something in SuperCollider, as in life. We can also create an Array by using a constructor. The constructor takes one argument, the size of the array.

a =;

Arrays can hold any kind of object, including numbers, variables, strings or nothing at all. They can even mix types:

[3, "French hens", 2 "turtledoves", 1 "partridge"]

Arrays can even hold other arrays:

[[1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6]]

You can also put an expression in an array. The interpreter evaluates it and stores the results. So [ 3 - 1, 4 + 3, 2 * 6] is also a valid array, stored as [2, 7, 12]. [,] is also an array. It passes those messages to the objects and puts the result into the array. Because commas have extremely low precedence, they get evaluated after the expressions they separate.

A variable can be part of an expression that is put into an array:

 var foo, bar;
 [foo + 1 , bar];

In that last case, it holds the value of the expressions (including the variables) at the time they became part of the array. For example:

 var foo, arr;
 foo = 2;
 arr = [foo];
 foo. postln;

 " ".postln;

 foo = foo + 1;
 foo. postln;


[ 2 ]

[ 2 ]

This is almost just what we expected. From whence did the second 3 at the bottom come? SuperCollider's interpreter prints out a return value for every code block that it runs. bar was the last object in the code block, so bar gets returned. bar's value is 3.

The variables can go on to change, but the array holds the value that was put in, like a snapshot of when the expression was evaluated.

What if we declare a five element array and want to add something to the array? We use the Array.add message.

 var arr, new_arr;
 arr = ["Mary", "had", "a", "little"];
 new_arr = arr.add("lamb");


[ Mary, had, a, little ]
[ Mary, had, a, little, lamb ]

Arrays cannot grow in size once they've been created. So, as stated in the helpfile, “the 'add' method may or may not return the same Array object. It will add the argument to the receiver if there is space, otherwise it returns a new Array object with the argument added.” Therefore, when you add something to an array, you need to assign the result to a variable. arr doesn’t change in the example because it is already full.

There are other messages you can send to Arrays, which are detailed in the Array helpfile and the helpfile for its superclass ArrayedCollection. Two of my favorite are scramble and choose.

The helpfile says that scramble "returns a new Array whose elements have been scrambled. The receiver is unchanged."

The results of scramble are different each time you run it, because it scrambles in random order. When it says, "the receiver is unchanged", it means that if we want to save the scrambled Array, we have to assign that output to a new variable. The receiver is the object that receives the message "scramble." In the following example, the receiver is arr, which contains [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].

 var arr, scrambled;
 arr = [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6];
 scrambled = arr.scramble;

For me, this output:

[ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ]
[ 4, 1, 2, 3, 6, 5 ]

Of course, the second array is different every time. But arr is always unchanged.

Choose is similar. It picks a random element of the Array and outputs it. The receiver is unchanged.

[1, 2, 3].choose.postln;

Will output 1, 2 or 3 when you run it.

Arrays are lists, but they are not merely lists. They are indexed lists. You can ask what the value of an item in an array is at a particular position.

 var arr;
 arr = ["Mary", "had", "a", "little"];;;



Array indexes in SuperCollider start with 0. In the above example, is "Mary".

You can also put the index number in square brackets. arr[0] is the same as If you are using square brackets, you can also modify the contents of the array:

 var arr;
 arr = ["Mary", "had", "a", "little", "lamb"];
 arr[4] = "giraffe";

Arrays also understand the message do, but treat it a bit differently than an Integer does.

 [3, 4, 5].do ({ arg item, index;
  ("index: " ++ index ++ " item: " ++ item).postln;


index: 0 item: 3
index: 1 item: 4
index: 2 item: 5

We've called our arguments in this example item and index, but they can have any name we want. It doesn't matter what we call them. The first one always gets the value of the array item that the loop is on and the second one always gets the index.

The ++ means concatenate, by the way. You use it to add something to the end of a string or an array. For example:

"foo " ++ 3 returns the string "foo 3"

With arrays, you can use it to add a single item or another array:

 var arr1, arr2, arr3;
 arr1 = [1, 2, 3];
 arr2 = arr1 ++ 4;
 arr3 = arr2 ++ [5, 6];


[ 1, 2, 3 ]
[ 1, 2, 3, 4 ]
[ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ]

Note that the receiver is unchanged.

Size is a message which gives us the size of the array. This can be useful, for example, if we have a variable that we want to use as an index, but which might get bigger than the array: % arr.size);

Remember that the modulus (%) gives us a remainder. This means that if the count gets to be greater than the number of elements in the array, using a modulus will cause it to wrap around to zero when it exceeds the size of the array. There is also a message you can send to arrays that does this for you:


It does the modulus for you.

Musical Example

In a previous post, I mentioned Nicole, the ex-grad student working at a SuperCollider startup. Since then, she's gotten another assignment from her boss. She has to write a function that takes as arguments: an array of tuning ratios, a base frequency and a detuning amount. It has to figure out the final pitches by first multiplying the base frequency by the ratio and then adding the detuning amount to the result. It should then play out the resulting scale.

She's created SynthDef:

 SynthDef(\example8, {|out = 0, freq, amp, dur, pan = 0|
  var pm, modulator, env, panner;
  modulator =, 0, 0.2);
  pm =, modulator);
  env =, dur, amp), doneAction:2);
  panner =, pan, env);, panner);

Since she's been working in the field, she's learned that instead of writing "arg" followed by a list or arguments and then a semicolon, she can just put all her arguments between two vertical bars. The two versions are exactly identical.

In the synthdef, one of the SinOscs is modulating the phase of the other SinOsc.

After learning about Arrays, our hero does a bit of research on tuning ratios and comes up with an array of ratios that she will use to test her function. It looks like: [ 1/1, 3/2, 4/3, 9/8, 16/9, 5/4, 8/5 ]

That is 1 divided by 1, 3 divided by 2, four divided by 3, etc. Now remember that precedence means that the interpreter evaluates things in a particular order. It looks at / before it looks at commas. So it seems a bunch of /'s and starts dividing. Then it looks at the commas and treats it as an array. The interpreter stores that array as:

[ 1, 1.5, 1.3333333333333, 1.125, 1.7777777777778, 1.25, 1.6 ]

Nicole's function will contain a task which cycles through the ratios, taking each one and multiplying it by the base frequency and adding the detuning amount. Remember that SuperCollider is like a cheap calculator and +, -, *, and / all have the same precedence. Math is evaluated from left to right. So ratio * baseFreq + detune is not equivalent to detune + ratio * baseFreq, like it would be in algebra. However, fortunately, she can use parenthesis like we would in algebra.

She could write out her expression as (ratio * baseFreq) + detune or (detune + (ratio * baseFreq)) or in many other ways. Even though she could get the right answer without using parenthesis at all, it's good programming practice to use them.

Nicole has a formula and she has an Array. She just needs a way to step through it. Fortunately, she knows that the 'do' method also exists for Arrays.

She writes her code as follows:


  var func, arr;
  func = { |ratio_arr, baseFreq = 440, detune = 10, dur  = 0.2|
   var freq;{ |ratio, index|
    freq =  (ratio * baseFreq) + detune;
    Synth(\example8, [\out, 0, \freq, freq, \amp, 0.2, \dur, dur,
       \pan, 0]);
 arr = [ 1/1, 3/2, 4/3, 9/8, 16/9, 5/4, 8/5];
 func.value(arr, 440, 10).play;

This is pretty cool, but it always plays out in the same order, so she changes her do loop to:{ |ratio, index|


  • You can declare an array by putting a list in square brackets or by using the constructor Array(size)
  • Arrays can hold any types of objects, all mixed together
  • You can put an expression into an array. It will hold the result of evaluating the expression.
  • You can add items to an array by using the add message
  • The scramble message returns a new array which has the same contents as the receiver, but in a random order
  • The choose message will return a single element of the receiver, chosen at random
  • You can access elements of an array with their index: or arr[index]
  • You can modify a single element of an array with the index: arr[index] = foo
  • You can loop through an array with do:{|item, index|
  • ++ can be used to concatenate strings or arrays
  • arr.size returns the size of the array
  • In order to make sure your index is not larger than the size of the array, you can use modulus or wrapAt: arr[index % arr.size] or arr.wrapAt(index)
  • arguments can be listed inside vertical bars instead of after the word arg: |arg1, arg2| is the same as arg arg1, arg2;


  1. You can navigate arrays of different length using variables for indexes.
  2. (
     var arr1, arr2, index;
     arr1 = [1, 2, 3];
     arr2 = [3, 4, 5, 6];
     index = 0;
{{ arg item;
       ("arr1 " ++ item).postln;
       ("\t arr2 " ++ arr2.wrapAt(index)).postln; //"\t" means tab 
       index = index + 1;
    Use this idea to create duration, pitch and wait loops of different lengths. Write a task to pay them
  3. In the previous post, there was an example that used if statements to control adding to or subtracting from the frequency. Instead of changing the frequency directly, change an index that will access an array of tuning ratios.

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