Music technology dominates the charts, the radio, the performing musician and the college and higher education circuit. Over the last six months I’ve used music technology every day in my composing and education work and I’ve been to a lot of of gigs including The 1975, Stevie Wonder and Lukas Graham, all using technology in unique and different ways to create great music and an all-round experience. Technology is such an intrinsic part of music these days that it can generally be assumed that the two go hand in hand.

I recently read a definition of music technology from an educational establishment as “any technology, such as a computer, an effects unit or a piece of software, that is used by a musician to help make music, especially the use of electronic devices and computer software to facilitate playback, recording, composition, storage, mixing, analysis, editing, and performance” (M:Tech). This, for me, is a decent, thorough definition of the music technology of 2016 that works well in its intended context, but I would argue that it runs the danger of losing a longer-term view and chronology. Music technology has been developing since the first bird bone flute and has always had a direct influence on the composition and production of the music itself.

To explore this further, I will briefly examine three early instruments and the means through which they produce sound.

The Tabor – An early drum instrument played almost exclusively alongside a pipe in the 12th to 15th centuries. The tabor has a cylindrical shell with two heads covered with animal skin and tightened by rope. These were widely available throughout western Europe in various forms, and most effectively played suspended from a string rather than on a stand due to their thin shell.

The Lyre – A harp like instrument originating in Ancient Greece. Variations of the lyre include  four, seven and ten string versions played with fingers or a pick and capable of chromatic or enharmonic tunings. The vibration of the strings, as with any string instrument, relative to their length affects the pitch and timbre of the resulting note.

The Organ – An instrument that produces sound by pumping air through pipes triggered by a keyboard (manual) and pedal board. Each pipe produces a single pitch and registration, with each set divided into a rank. The earliest example can be traced back to the water organ in Ancient Greece in 3BC with serious development continuing until this day. A fully specified organ may have five manuals with 20,000 pipes. Different stops (registrations controlling one rank of pipes) are pitched at 8’ (concert pitch), 4’ (one octave higher), 16’ (one octave lower) or in various mutations at different intervals and combinations. This allows a huge range of timbres and variety of sound.

Here are three early instruments that can be placed in three distinct categories: Percussion, String and Keyboard/Wind. All three work on the same principle that every acoustic sound producing device requires:

  1. A source of vibration
  2. A vibrating force
  3. A resonating chamber

Over time, each of these instruments has developed into new instruments many moons away from the original concept. I, personally, view each of these instruments as an example of music technology. The technology and knowledge of the time was used to produce a device that was able to aid the production of music, no matter how simple or complicated it may be. The music of Tallis, Purcell, Handel through to Beethoven and Wagner was influenced through the musical forces and technology available.

It is not only composers, but also performers that have used the most recent technology and pushed it, and the music produced through it, to its limit. J.S.Bach was a consultant to the German organ builder, Arp Schnitger. 19th century clarinettist, Manuel Gómez, championed the new Boehm system of the time. The  Wagner tuba was developed in close collaboration between Richard Wagner, Hans Richter (performer) and C.W.Moritz (instrument manufacturers).

Let us now move forward to the twenty and twenty-first centuries and explore more current examples of music technology.

Moog Mother 32 – The recently released Moog Mother-32 synthesiser draws on the original Moog Modular (originally designed in 1965). The modular concept involves a series of modules that can be added or removed to compile whatever signal chain is desired. Modules include oscillators to produce the soundwaves, modulators to add movement to these soundwaves, filters to take out particular frequencies, equalisers and effects to further shape the  sound waves. There is no way for me not to compare the technology of a synthesiser to that of the traditional pipe organ. Sounds and harmonics are combined to produce resonances – LFOs on a synth provide the tremulant on an organ, and combinations of synth modules mimic the routing of couplers on an organ.

The Reactable – Bjork’s Reactable is a tabletop electronic instrument designed with the Music Technology Group at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. By placing objects on the backlit display a synthesiser is triggered. Different objects (tangibles) affect which part of the synthesiser is triggered (oscillator, arpeggiator, filter..) sending messages to a computer to affect the output. An ipad app of The Reactable is also available.

Manson MB-2 SE Electric Guitar – An aluminium covered electric guitar with a hand-held effects unit (Korg KAOSS Pad), MIDI controller and laser beams built in. Designed in collaboration with Matt Bellamy of Muse and luthier, Henry Manson, and electronics engineer, Ron Joyce, in Exeter.

Here we have examples of three cutting edge instruments, just as the original three would have been at the time of their original existence. The invention of electricity has been a  crucial factor in the the development of music technology. I think it is important, however, not to be fooled into thinking that new technology is always a replacement for earlier versions of the machines. We have had vinyl, tape, CD, DAT, DVD and now the majority of music playback has moved to computer files. This is a natural development but there is, even at this moment, a strong interest in earlier playback methods, with vinyl having a particular renaissance.

Key names that are often quoted in the development of music technology include Luigi Russolo, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich and Vangelis. These are, of course, key figures in the advancement of music technology based music and composition. They each explored how sound could be taken away from the realm of conventional instrumentation to produce new and innovative sound and music.

Leon Theremin, Maurice Martenot, Robert Moog are key players in the development of the synthesiser but they did not emerge out of thin air. They drew on hundreds, if not thousands, of years of instruments and music that had come before them. Remember, if the music wasn’t being developed alongside the technology, there would be no use for the new technology itself.

So, to revisit the earlier definition of music technology, the definition places technology as being highly reliant on electronics and computers. Technology did not suddenly start with the invention of electricity though. The horse-drawn combine is as much technology as the modern day combine harvester. How is this any different then with the bellow organ and the electronic synthesizer? The tabor, the drum kit and the drum pad?

As a composer, I am constantly reminded of the importance of using the equipment most suitable for the task and most pleasing to the ear. Music technology has always existed to help realise musical intentions but, perhaps, the one key difference is that early music technology did not do our homework for us. The performer would have to learn the theory, the technique and the art of practice. Modern music technology often presents us with the ability to get a lot out without putting much in, meaning that we have to work harder than ever to sound different and find our own musical voice. The technology may have these features, but it is the learning of both “music” and “technology” as separate entities and bringing them together and pushing their limitations that will produce the most interesting music.

Relevant Listening

  • Ancient Lyre Albums – Michael Levy
  • Organ Works – J.S.Bach
  • Hyperprism – Varese (1923)
  • Mikrophonie – Stockhausen (1964/5)
  • Petsounds – Beach Boys (1966)
  • Switched on Bach – Wendy Carlos (1968)
  • Emerson, Lake and Palmer – Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1970)
  • Pictures at an Exhibition (Live) – Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1971)
  • Bladerunner – Vangelis (1982)
  • A Smile is a Curve that Straightens Most Things – Bass Clef (2006)
  • Volta  – Bjork (2007)
  • Interstellar Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer (2014)
  • Drones – Muse (2015)