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Exploring the World of Music

Music and Technology

New instrument types and new electronic media for distribution are obvious results of technology, but so were the first bone flute and the first stretched catgut. How technology affects music is examined here in a case study of the flute, and in an examination of developing recording and composing technologies where the roles of composer, musician, arranger, and conductor begin to fuse.

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Exploring The World Of Music Program #12 “Music and Technology” Transcript



Music and technology have always been closely intertwined. As instrument production, sound recording, and the means of distribution have changed, so has the world’s music.


Mark Slobin:

Technology has become quite decisive for world music making since the advent of the industrial age in a few key ways. One is the creation of new instrument types that simply couldn’t be built before. The modem piano depends on high steel techniques that just simply weren’t available until a certain point in the nineteenth century. Instruments like the modem saxophone, the modem flute, these are all high tech in a nineteenth century way. Another way in which technology has become decisive is in the invention of sound reproduction. It simply was the case that before about 1890 music vanished onto the air. You had to remember  the way somebody played something that you heard once in your life because you would never hear that again. Once you could reproduce that sound you could stock pile it because of the technology of reproduction. This is a profound and deep ranging change that happened to music after a million years of human existence.


Gerald Shapiro:

The invention of the vacuum tube came early in the century. Radio came along and music was delivered to a much different and wider audience and everything changed. But that wasn’t the first time. As soon as you move from just singing to making instruments you’re involved in technology. I just saw this article about this bone flute from years ago, the archaeologist said, “Boy, we didn’t think people were making anything back then.” And yet one of the very first technological advances was this bone flute. That flute was made at the very limits of the available technology for these very very primitive humanoids. And for millennia, instruments, and until the present day, really, instruments were and remain often and in some ways at the forefront of the technology.




The flute is one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. Over time, its construction, play-ability, and sound have been determined by the technology available to instrument makers. Flute production has been and continues to be a marriage of sorts. A marriage of artistry and technology.


Steven Wassar:

The flute is really a very simple instrument. What makes it different from other woodwind instruments, like a recorder, is that instead of blowing down the instrument you’re actually blowing transversely. You’re blowing across the embouchure hole just the way you would blow across a soda bottle.


Mike Greer:

In the early 19th century, late 18th century, flutes were very simple, they had one key or two keys if any and they were hard to play in tune with themselves or with anyone else in a small orchestra and consequently they had a reputation for being whistle-like and not real sonorous or real colorful.


Peter Standaart:

This is the most simplistic of what we call the transverse flutes and it just has the six finger holes and the one key for the pinky. The natural scale on the baroque flute is basically the p sition of the six fingers and the six holes so that if you lift up your fingers in order you get what we call a major scale. (plays) So when you were playing in pieces that required notes that weren’t in that particular scale you had to like make adjustments by rolling in to make it flatter or close more holes down and it was a very sort of awkward thing so if you tried to play a chromatic scale it would get like  this (plays). So that’s when they developed of adding more keys to the  flute. This flute’s pretty much what was developed around Mozart’s time, about 4 or 5 keys. (plays)


Mike Greer:

Mozart hated the sound of the flute but realized that it was so popular that  it should be in an orchestra. What he hated about it was that it was not in tune with other members of the orchestra and consequently sounded awful, as he put it. But he wrote for it and he wrote very well for it. Theobald Boehm back in 1850 came up with what we call the modem day flute key system, but we seem to try and improve on what’s been done for 140 years.


Steve Finley:

Flute production has changed dramatically. Mostly through mechanical and technological improvements digitally. And a lot of the machining has changed dramatically, more specifically through tolerances of 1 thousandths of an inch, which the thickness or a cigarette paper. And if it’s off that much flutists can hear it. We have machinery, we have computerized machinery, we essentially work with metal, we’re metal workers. We melt it, we machine it, we cut it, there’s all kinds of things that we do to metal here and to do most of those functions you need tools and equipment.


Mike Greer:

Technology is the science of what if. I think of it as something that we can’t do without because our minds are curious and something that if we did without it we’d still be starting fire with stones. And the human mind wants more than that. And we want to better ourselves. And sometimes we better ourselves and sometimes we miss.


Steven Wassar:

The pads are a very critical part of the flute and have a major impact on  the responsiveness and the acoustical qualities of the instrument. In the case of a piccolo the pads traditionally are made of felt and about 7 to 10 years age I came up with the idea to design a special silicone pad which actually has a hollow or baffle system inside. One of the advantages of using silicone is that it can truly seal the tone hole. What we discovered however is that the mechanical perfection of this pad was in conflict with the artist’s desire to control his sound. What was happening was that a felt pad is in some ways so bad that when you open and close a pad you don’t get an on off yes no, there ‘s a lot of gray area in between. That makes transitions between notes appear to be very smooth so that you have an imperfection in the pad actually enhancing the artistic quality of the instrument. And what we did to deal with this problem was to actually sandblast the mold to roughen the surface of the silicone to create infinitesimal little leaks. As a result of creating these leaks in the pad we were able to partially satisfy the artist’s desire to have more gray area and to allow for smooth transitions.

Frederick Stubbs:

The evolution of precision technologies has made a kind of standard possible whereby you can go to Duluth or to Paris and find the same A440 on the instrument that you are playing. And this kind of standardization  has lead to the sharing of more music, the playing of more varied instrumentalists together. But a musical instrument can be made of something extremely simple and still have the power of profound expression. It seems to only be true in the European or American world that people look on instruments as a manufactured item. Elsewhere in the world the kind of spiritual aspect to an instrument is much more important. Instrumentalists treat their instruments very very carefully. In many societies, libations and ceremonies are prepared as the instrument is being built and as it is being completed. There’s a kind of soul in each instrument that is the responsibility of the musician to seek out. Because the instrument is an object, but it is not the object. Music is always the object of the instrument.



Technology has always had a fundamental impact on the construction of musical instruments. In the past hundred years it has also influenced what music we hear and how we hear it. In 1877 Thomas Edison designed the first machine capable of reproducing sound and the process of acoustic recording was born.


Jerry Fabris:

The very first phonograph used tinfoil as a recording medium.  At the time he was working on improving Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and was also trying to develop a recording telegraph so he put these two ideas together in his mind and made essentially a recording telephone.  If  you were to walk into a recording studio in Edison’s era, there’d be no microphones. Instead of a microphone what was used was known as an acoustical horn or a recording horn. That  was  what  captured  the  sound and transferred the soundwaves  onto the master  record.  As  the singers sang or a band played, the air in the room would vibrate and an acoustical recording horn  would collect the soundwaves  and these would be transferred through sound pressure down onto a cutting  stylus  which  cut the sound pressure waves into the record. Musicians really had to play for  the recording equipment so you would set up the recording equipment and then the musicians would gather around the recording  horn  and  for example if someone had a solo they  would  move up closer to the horn and if they were not doing a solo they would have to move away from the horn. The main limitation was, it took loud sounds to cut into  the record and for example instruments like an acoustic guitar or a violin were very difficult to record.  One way around  that was at the tum of  the century  for a few years a lot of the recording studios, Edison included, used what was known as a stroh violin which was designed in England. It used a phonograph diaphragm and a phonograph horn so it essentially made a violin into a homed instrument.


Jerry O’Sullivan:

Like anything else technology can be used very badly or it can be used very well. One of the negative things connected with technology has been in the homogenization of playing styles within Ireland and for that matter the rest of the world where Irish music is played. Prior to the radio and the phonograph, learning music was done very very locally. Keep in mind that going back only 100 years ago or so that most people never got beyond their little village. And you could tell where somebody was from just by listening to them play. You wouldn’t even have to hear them speak.

Starting in the 1920’s there were a number of players who were recorded  in this country. Michael Coleman, probably the most influential Irish musician of the 20th century. The old wax cylinders and 78’s that he made here in New York, they traveled back to Ireland and they changed fiddle playing style. People tried to imitate Coleman whether they were from Sligo or whether  they’re from Cork or Donnegal.  It  no longer was the case that you could tell where somebody was from by listening to them.

That was the beginning, that this was starting to be homogenized. In a positive way technology has helped this music in that there’s an awful lot of recordings of very good music out there. So it’s brought it to a wider listening public.


Rave Tesar:

Very very early days, some phonograph recordings were cut right to wax, they’d stand in the room and the cutting lathe would cut the original master right into wax, which by the way had to be very soft, so it had to be very hot. So a lot of the old.time musicians will tell stories about the early days of recording like almost stripping down in their underwear and going in this room and recording for three minutes. It’s 130 degrees in this little room because  it’s got to be hot enough for the wax to be soft enough for the lathe to cut it and everything  was done live right there.  Certainly things are pretty easy, we’ve got air conditioned studios now and this instrument doesn’t even need a microphone, the sound is coming out of a wire and going directly to the tape recorder.


Bill Tesar:

With the advent of multi-track recording you can actually record yourself several times on one piece of tape without erasing what you’ve already done.


Rave Tesar:

Each person is recording on a different line on that tape. So the tape recorder is recording me on let’s say not the whole 2 inch width of the tape, but maybe an eighth of an inch. And someone else gets the next eighth of an inch. You can see what we call the meter bridge and actually see all the sounds of the individual musicians when they’re playing, when they’re not playing. Let’s just say the band plays a five minute piece of music and everybody loves what they played. Oh, it was just so perfect.  But one person just made one dumb mistake and played something and missed a note or their finger slipped and they hit something they didn’t want.   And it was just one note.  We have the ability for that person  to play, let’s for example just say that they meant to play this (plays) and they played (plays). Well the tape recorder can actually go back, after the fact, and do what we call a punch in and a punch out or an edit.


“Was that a punch or was that another rehearsal?” “That was just rehearse”

“All right, let’s just, let’s do that and we’ll be fine, let’s make that edit”


Now what will happen is before it goes into record it’ll just be playing back (plays) that person’s performance. The minute  it goes into record  it will start with what they’re  now  playing, so what we would need to do is go back and play what we had played originally minus the mistake.


“Okay, I think that was it, did you get that?” “yeah”



Mark Bernstein:

Technology has really enabled the bass to come out. The bass has traditionally been a really supportive instrument. If you listen to any old records, you can hardly hear the bass player at all. With the advent of the electric bass and then the bass became much more a force.  The bass line  has just become much more a part of what the average listener hears. Of course it’s a double edged thing as far as with anything technology in the studio gives you the possibility of making something perfect, theoretically, and so it has created a whole new art form. Making  a record and playing live are two different things. I think that’s the first thing I had to learn as a musician. In the studio you have to learn  to create in a different environment without the energy of the audience, without the energy of necessarily even the live performance. But you’re still creating the music. The challenge for the Jazz musician is to be able to maintain  the live feeling.


Rave Tesar:

There is a universal code or language that many  musical instruments operate on, MIDI, musical instrument digital interface,  M-I-D-I-.  By having a universal code like MIDI, I have the ability of playing this keyboard and controlling sounds from maybe other sound sources, or even other keyboards. Many of the different sounds that I played on this instrument really come from what’s called a sampling technology. At one point there was a microphone stuck inside a real piano and a recording of that instrument was made, converted into a digital code, and through the MIDI language, is played back on this instrument.


“At the risk of sounding greedy I’d actually like to layer another part on top of that…”


Of course sampling technology does open up somewhat of a Pandora’s box for musicians. Now if I can play the sound of violins maybe I don’t have to have a string section anymore. So to some degree it has changed, it’s the cotton gin so to speak, it’s changed the nature of the way music is being made. I liken the whole studio experience to playing an instrument itself. Look, every musical instrument is just some kind of a contraption anyway and in many ways the tape recorder is almost become like another musical instrument. It really makes each individual musician kind of like a conductor, a composer, an arranger. It  affords each individual  musician the ability to do all those things. So it almost brings us back 500 years to the days of the wandering minstrel where like somebody had to write their own tune, walk from village to village, play whatever instrument they could, and they were the whole show.


Gerald Shapiro:

I graduated from high school in 1960 and I didn’t have a tape recorder.  I had no technology. An electronic music studio was oscillators taken from the physics lab. There was nothing like a synthesizer made for musicians. Here behind me, here’s an Arb synthesizer, how many of those were made? Three, four hundred, maybe a thousand of this big model. It was made for composers, it was invented by composers, right?  Here in front of  me, here’s a Kurtzweil synthesizer. Hundreds of thousands of these are made. It’s made for consumers. And of course, the synthesis got linked to computing.  One way of making a piece is to make the piece on a synthesizer and record as you go on the computer. No notation, playing, playing. I like this. I don’t like that. Try it again. Record again on the computer  as a sequence.  Little by little I began to realize that the music that I wrote was very shaped by the technology I was using to write it. The process became sort of passive.  Way more listening, and way less writing, it was slowed down, and I was losing track of the shaping of it. So I switched over to paper and pencil again. And then after a while I switched back again.   And after a while it began to seem that I could  work either way interchangeably. All instruments have developed technologically, and it slowly slowly changes. The important  thing  to remember  is it doesn’t get better. Technology gets better but the music of the Middle Ages is as compelling, is as good as the music of the 20th century, and I know some would say better. There’s no progress in music or in any of the arts but there is change and that change is certainly driven as much as anything by changes in technology.