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Tech innovations that changed music forever: the classical edition
Editorial Staff


April 15, 2015



by Matthew Parsons

Today, when we think of musical technology, we picture Spotify, smartphones and dubious Neil Young-endorsed luxury products. But the notion of technology being "what's new" obscures the fact that all music is produced with the aid of technology.

I mean, sure, humans come with a built-in musical instrument: a voice. But anything else we use for musical purposes is tech: violins, tuning forks, printing presses. We have generations of science to thank for the fact that we can go to a concert and hear 300-year-old music.

Granted, many of the innovations on this list aren't as concerned with science-y science as they are with adjacent disciplines like engineering, architecture and even alchemy. Let’s just think of it as an opportunity to celebrate the great musical advances that weren't made by artsy-fartsy composers.

Scroll through the list below for 11 technological tales. Also, check out the rest of CBC Music's Science Week posts for more on the collision between music and science.

Drumming (invented by monkeys)

The first game-changing innovation on our list dates back so far that it wasn't even made by humans. Research shows that rhesus monkeys make sounds by drumming on objects to exert dominance. This implies that human musicality may actually be an evolutionary trait, intended for communication.

While hitting things with other things might not seem like an example of technology by modern standards, it totally is: the monkeys are using a tool for a purpose. (Which is the entire point of the first 10 minutes of 2001, in case you missed that.)

To this day, orchestras have an entire section of people whose job it is to hit things, just as a respectful nod to how far we've come.

The hydraulis (third century B.C.)

Here's a crazy thought: the first keyboard instrument pre-dates the harpsichord by nearly 1,500 years. The hydraulis, a water-powered proto-organ, was probably invented by an Alexandrian engineer named Ctesibius.

The one pictured here was uncovered at the foot of Mount Olympus, and was probably built in the first century B.C. This is the instrument that would gradually evolve into the modern pipe organ. Crazily, there are still hydraulic organs around today, like this one in Scotland:

The bow (approximately 10th century)

It's hard to trace the exact origins of the bow that's now used by orchestral string players, but we know that by the 900s, bowed instruments were prevalent throughout the Islamic world. By 1000, they had found their way everywhere from Europe to China.

Musical movable type (1476)

Johannes Gutenberg's famous printing press changed everything in 1450. But it took a couple of decades for the music world to figure out how to use movable type to reproduce the complicated musical notation of the time.

The first full book of printed sheet music was published in Rome in 1476, but the really clever innovation came from the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci. He was the guy who figured out that it's easiest to print music if you print the staff lines first, then the words, then the notes. This three-pass system made his copy look cleaner than anybody's. 

For more on early music printing, check out this documentary:

The divine/mundane monochord (1618)

Actually, the monochord — just a resonating chamber with one string across it — was probably invented by Archimedes in the third century B.C. But the version diagrammed here (alternately referred to as the "divine" monochord or the "mundane" monochord, which makes absolutely no sense) was devised by the alchemist Robert Fludd in the early 17th century.

Yes, alchemist. Fludd's mystical leanings have not earned him abiding respect in the scientific community, but his writing linked Pythagorean ratios with the very movement of the cosmos. (Note that in this diagram, drawn by Fludd, the monochord is being tuned by God.) 

That link between the mundane and the divine (oh, now it sort of makes sense) provided inspiration for composers like Rameau to think about harmony a bit differently from their predecessors.

The fortepiano (1700)

The antecedent to what we now call the piano was invented by an almost comedically dedicated Florentine inventor named Bartolomeo Cristofori. By the time other instrument makers were just starting to think about how to make a keyboard instrument with more subtlety than the harpsichord, Cristofori had already built one. 

His key innovation was to have the strings of his instrument be hit by hammers to produce sound, rather than to be plucked. His design was so meticulous that he basically solved every major problem involved with making this new type of instrument in one go — except for how to manufacture them efficiently. That came later.

The tuning fork (1711)

Yeah, the fortepiano was invented before the tuning fork. But then, the particle accelerator was also invented before the Snuggie. Human progress doesn't always make sense.

It was actually a trumpeter who invented this handy little device. His name was John Shore, and he premiered major works by both Handel and Purcell. At first, its advantages were simply to be able to tune instruments and choirs on the fly. But, eventually, the tuning fork was taken up as a scientific tool. The fact that it produces sound at a certain frequency makes it a valuable reference in physics research.

The metronome (1815)

There were a few contraptions kind of like the metronome floating around before 1815, but it was this classic design by Johann Maelzel that became really successful.

There's no understating how big a deal this was. For the first time in history, composers could mark down exactly how fast they wanted their music played — with a single, universal number.

Maelzel's friend Beethoven was the first to use metronome markings to denote the tempi of his pieces — but most musicians agree that the tempi he selected are just stupidly fast and that we're better off ignoring him.

The saxophone (1840)

The Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax made a bunch of contributions to contemporary orchestral instruments. Not all of them stuck. Who's heard of the saxhorn? The saxotromba? No?

The saxophone, though, proved to be exactly as powerful and versatile as Sax had hoped. Although he invented it for use in military bands — clarinets just aren't loud enough — it soon found its natural home in jazz.

The gramophone (1877)

The great march composer John Philip Sousa once reminisced: "When I was a boy ... in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people singing the sounds of the day or the old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day."

Sousa felt that these machines would ruin America's musicality. "We will not have a vocal cord left."

Well, for better or worse, it wasn't live concerts that made "The Washington Post March" into a melody that everybody on this continent knows; it was recorded music.

Architectural acoustics (1895)

It's hard to come up with a specific date for when acoustics became a science. But, in 1895, a young physicist named Wallace Clement Sabine was tasked with the project of making Harvard University's Fogg Lecture Hall less acoustically horrible.

He took a different approach to what anybody had ever done before: using only an organ pipe and a stopwatch, Sabine spent years calculating how long it took sounds to die out in various parts of the lecture theatre.

Formulas were devised; cushions were moved about. And, eventually, Sabine was able to improve the hall so remarkably that he was called on to design Boston's Symphony Hall — still considered one of the most acoustically perfect halls in the world.

Follow Matthew Parsons on Twitter: @MJRParsons