Tech Tuesday: Music and Technology in the Twentieth Century

Music and technology are inseparable. The process of creating music required technology to produce new sounds, new notation techniques and ways of preserving compositions and thus driving social advancement by tying art to science. As with most technological advancement this process experienced a rapid acceleration beginning in the mid-1800s as electricity opened new doors to the musical mind.

Hans-Joachim Braun compiled a series of short research papers detailing some of the more intriguing aspects of technology’s impact on music and music’s reciprocating impact on technology in his 2002 compilation Music and Technology in the Twentieth Century.

The attempt traverses an array of technological artifacts including instrument development, sound recording and reproduction, music distribution and consumption in the context of nearly every style of music performed during the time from the viewpoints of both music and technology practitioners such as performers, composers, sound engineers, marketers and inventors. It challenges typical preconceptions of technology and music’s coexistence demonstrating their intertwined nature allowing both to progress exponentially by pushing one another’s perceived boundaries.

As much as the text seeks to cover it only begins to scratch the surface of any one view due to the concise nature of each paper. One only begins to fathom the impact of the player piano and later the electric guitar and amplification in general, the polyvinyl recording and later the compact disc, the synthesizer and later MIDI, broadcasting and the multitrack recording studio and even the generation of different genres of musical express such as the use of distortion and feedback in rock and roll, to the Italian Futurist movement, to avant-expressionalism, to musique concrete, to the overall aesthetic challenge of soundsampling.

It is a fresh read even now a decade later, albeit missing the effects of the last decade of technology including a retrospective look at the fully digitized studio and home recording and broadcasting advancement, the electronic dance music scene, hip hop sampling and turntable culture, napster and iTunes and Pandora, as well as new electronic instruments. Nonetheless the incredible range the book does cover makes it a dizzying read that is both inspiring and intimidating. After all there aren’t may texts that will take you from Thaddeus Cahill to Torakusu Yamaha to Robert Moog or Igor Stravinsky to John Cage to Pratella to Jimi Hendrix and regardless of what you believed your musical preferences were leave you longing to seek out and imbibe every last referenced recording with a new awe of its inspiration.

Of all the texts attempting to cover external elements impacts on music Braun’s approach in compiling the works of Barbara Barthelmes, Karin Bijsterveld, Martha Brech, Hugh Davies, Bernd Enders, Geoffrey Hindley, Jüergen Hocker, Mark Katz, Tatsuya Kobayashi, James P. Kraft, Alexander B. Magoun, Rebecca McSwain, Andre Millard, Helga de la Motte-Haber, Trevor Pinch, Susan Schmidt-Horning, and Frank Trocco is what allows it to stand out because of the varying approaches in research, in thesis building and philosophy, in written tone and voice and in-as-such it presents both a challenge in digestion and a convincing view of the inter-marriage of music and technology. If I could ask one thing it would be for someone to add to the compilation to include the aspects of the 1990s onward…


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