Music is among those categories where the influence of technology has always been at its peak. Few have been born as per the necessity of the entire process, and several others that got modified along with the genre and trend of music. Music has always been a forum for exploring and developing new technologies.
Ten technologies, in particular, have had an outsized influence on not only the compositional process, but on the relationship we all have with music. From the software used to record and manipulate audio, to how music is stored, to novel ways of generating tones, these ten developments from the last hundred years or so, presented in rough chronological order, fundamentally changed what it means to be both a composer and a listener.
1. The microphone
Nearly every technological innovation related to music presented here depends on one thing – taking vibrating air-sound-transforming it into an electric signal, and then transforming that signal back into sound. The transformations themselves are achieved via vibrating membranes that we encounter as microphones and loudspeakers. It is such a simple concept that it is almost shocking that it actually works. But as remarkable as these processes are, the signal a microphone captures is extremely faint, making it essentially useless unless something is done to it to make it louder.
Amplification fundamentally changed our relationship with music. Before it, music was experienced as an event. After things like radio and commercial recording became possible because of amplification, music became more common, and it became a thing. It also meant that more composers could reach more people than ever with relative ease. Guitars went from being barely audible chamber instruments to beasts capable of deafening thousands in an arena. An entirely new world of sound became possible. In short, everything changed.
Audio recording has been around since the mid-19th century. The first recordings were purely mechanical engravings in soft material that aged poorly and were difficult to reproduce. It took several decades to perfect the technology, but when it finally happened, sound recordings made it possible for anyone to listen to whatever they want in their own home. The medium of recording itself has also been an inspiration to countless composers.
In the early 1960s, composer Morton Subotnick envisioned a world where anyone could create and perform sophisticated electronic music in their homes. While it took 50 years for that dream to be fully realized, the tool he and engineer Don Buchla forged, the Buchla 100 Series Modular Electronic Music System, was a mighty first step. The “Buchla Box” and all other synthesizers since have liberated the concept of what an instrument is by allowing a user to combine and manipulate electronically generated signals to create sounds that might have never existed before. Suddenly, any sound a composer might imagine became theoretically, if not literally, possible.
5. The portable studio
The Japanese electronics manufacture TEAC released the first Portastudio in 1979. It was a simplified version of a professional recording studio, allowing musicians to record multiple channels of audio directly onto a cassette tape. Compare that to the thousands required to record a single song in a professional recording studio and suddenly the Portastudio seems like a revolutionary tool. Today, virtually every laptop comes with multichannel audio recording software built in, complete with software synthesizers and digital effects. Everyone has the capability for creating professional-sounding music at home with little or no cost.
Sampling – copying a snippet of audio for future reuse – may not seem particularly revolutionary. At the heart of sampling, though, is the idea of looping sounds, and that idea alone has been enough to spawn multiple genres of music. Sampling also provides the most effective means to imitate acoustic instruments. Software companies record every member of the orchestra playing every imaginable dynamic and technique in order to create libraries of sounds that composers use to recreate a symphony on the cheap.
Amplification fundamentally changed our relationship with music.An entirely new world of sound became possible. In short, everything changed.
7. Notation software
Itself a game-changing technology, musical notation was the first method humans devised for making permanent copies of music. It was useful both for storing sketches of musical kernels and artfully describing every detail of a symphony. Now, with software such as Sibelius, notation itself becomes a compositional tool. These programs do more than just facilitate the printing of sheet music. They have built-in sound libraries that allow composers to be confident that what they print out truly is what they imagined.
8. Mobile devices
It has taken virtually no time for the declaration that mobile devices have changed our lives to become a cliché. Nonetheless, it is true, and our experience of music was the first thing that changed. With a music library in our pockets at all times, music has become more central to our lives.But while the ease of digital distribution makes it ever more possible for composers and musicians to find an audience, the middle class of professionals that powered the once-mighty recording industry has virtually vanished. More musicians are being heard, but a smaller percentage of them than ever are making a living from it.
These devices, however, have the capacity to revolutionize music in another way. Whether the promise of interactive music in everyone’s pocket will be realized or prove to be a novelty remains to be seen.
9. Cheap components
Over the last ten years, it has become possible to anyone to cheaply procure electronic components and experiment with them. Access to inexpensive microprocessors and sensors has inspired many to present novel musical instruments as a part of a composition. In addition to the efflorescence of instrument design, some composers use these tools themselves as an instrument. Composer Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony is “performed” by a £1 computer chip embedded in a CD jewel case alongside an on/off switch, a battery, and a headphone jack. It has a gritty, driving sound that demonstrates how harsh constraints can lead to incredible innovation.
10. Visual programming
Composers and computer programmers have much in common. Both user formal languages to make abstract ideas tangible. And both trades tend to require years or decades of training. As composers depend more and more on tools created by software engineers, more and more of them feel the need to create their own tools. Until recently, few could craft high quality software. That is, until composers decide to solve the problem by creating a visual programming environment tailored for manipulating sound. The result has multiple incarnations: the commercial product Max/MSP and the free software Pure Data.