January 20, 2015

Eight Ideas That Changed The History Of Western Music


Pythagoras creates the scale
Before Pythagoras music was a divine mystery. There are prehistoric instruments dating back at least 35,000 years and evidence that ancient cultures sang songs and made pleasing sounds – but before the Greek mathematician and philosopher, there was no theory to explain why some tones were harmonious together and others produced clashing discords. Pythagoras’ investigations into the science of sound changed this. At some time around 500 BC, he studied the ratios between the lengths of vibrating strings and the different tones they produced. He found a mathematical relationship between notes that were pleasant when sounded together, and extended his discovery to produce a scale – a selection of notes out of the infinity of possible tones. Within the scale he established a hierarchy, in which some notes are more important than others. Pythagoras’ scale – roughly the same as the one we still sing now: “do re me fa so la ti do” – is the basis for all Western music since. Without the scale and a theory of how its notes relate to each other there could have been be no Bach, no Beethoven, no Bebop, Blues or Britpop. Pythagoras turned the hands to 12 and set the clock running.

Notation is developed
At some point in the 7th Century, the scholar St Isidore of Seville pondered a particular quandry music faced. "Unless sounds are held by the memory of man,” he wrote, “they perish, because they cannot be written down." Over the following centuries, monks in Spain and Italy devised a solution to this problem and for the first time recorded music for posterity. They came up with a series of symbols that showed whether a note should be higher or lower than the previous one, and used this system to transcribe their chants. The exact pitches of the notes were unclear, but the general shape of the melody could be laid down to aid memory. At some point around 1000 AD, the Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo began to plot these symbols on a series of lines, making clear precisely which note should follow the last – a forerunner to the musical notation that is still used today. For the first time music left a footprint; we know how the songs that these monks sang sound, because they left a record behind.

The piano enters the home
“We will have a pianoforte,” wrote Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra in 1808, “and I will practice country dances, that we may have some amusement for our nephews and nieces, when we have the pleasure of their company.” Austen’s enthusiasm for the instrument was in evidence in middle-class homes all over Europe at the beginning of the 19th Century. The advancements of the Industrial Revolution made the piano cheaper to produce and distribute, and music education and the ability to play became markers of bourgeois rectitude. A piano in the parlour gave a genteel family something to do in the long, dark evenings; it demonstrated refinement and hard work. And it started a craze for private performance that brought music out of its traditional homes in the church and the concert hall and into the home – a place where it was previously enjoyed by only the richest of households.

The first recording
When Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, using a stylus and a tin foil-wrapped cylinder, the first recorded words were: “Mary had a little lamb”. Among subsequent developments and refinements were Emile Berliner’s 7in rubber disc and the inexpensive gramophone player, which marked the beginning of the modern music industry. Teaming up with machinist Eldridge Johnson, Berliner formed the Victor Talking Machine company. The London branch of his gramophone company was known as HMV – for His Master’s Voice – and the image of Nipper the dog became its iconic mascot. RCA-Victor introduced the first commercial 33 1/3 RPM vinyl discs in 1930, but high fidelity vinyl discs (LPs for albums and 45 RPM for singles) really boomed after World War II. Subsequent formats such as the 12in single, the cassette, the CD and the mini-disc gradually replaced the LP before mp3s, Napster and other digital means of distribution emerged in the 1990s – although vinyl is once again seeing a resurgence in popularity.

The birth of public radio broadcasting
On 13 January 1910 the inventor Lee de Forest broadcast the sound of tenor Enrico Caruso from the Metropolitan Opera House to locations across New York City. Although little was heard apart from static, the event marked a radical shift towards a new media, one that would bring public and commercial broadcasting, news reports, FDR’s Fireside Chats and pop songs into people’s homes. In the following years, hundreds of radio stations sprung up as the technology improved. By the 1930s, half of US homes had radios; during World War II, the figure rose to 9 in 10. By the 1950s, the portability of transistor radios and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll increased radio’s popularity alongside the burgeoning youth culture. But the period after WWII marked the advent of the mass production of television sets – and by the early 1960s, 90% of US households owned a TV.  When Elvis Presley made his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956, he was watched by a record 60 million people – 82.6 percent of the viewing audience. Radio’s dominating influence on the way the public consumed music had a serious challenger.

The first chart is published
In 1936, industry magazine Billboard published a feature called Chart Line, which represented the most popular songs on three major radio networks in the US. In July 1940, the Best Selling Retail Records chart was launched; the first number one was I’ll Never Smile Again, sung by Frank Sinatra. In addition to a record-buying guide that listed the most popular songs played on jukeboxes – a growing industry – the most popular songs on radio were ranked on a 15-point chart from 1945, recognising the important role the medium would play in popularising songs. In August 1958, sales and airplay were combined for the first time, creating the Hot 100 singles chart that still exists today – and now includes downloads and streaming data.

The dawn of electronic music
In 1948 a Frenchman named Pierre Schaeffer produced the first piece of a new type of music he called musique concrete – an avant-garde collage of environmental noise and other non-musical sounds. The music was a product of technology – it relied on electronic means for its production and distribution. The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen worked briefly with Schaeffer in Paris, and he went on to work in the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne. With the possible exception of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, the Cologne studio became the world’s most famous laboratory for the incubation of electronic music. Aside from experiments with tape, the studio produced equipment that was a forerunner to the modern synthesiser. But the music was austere and difficult – it had little popular appeal. The public attitude to electronic music changed in the late 1960s with Walter (now Wendy) Carols’ Switched-On Bach – a best-selling album produced on Moog synthesisers that breathed life into old forms while pointing towards music’s future. Synths were taken up by progressive rock bands including Pink Floyd and Yes, and enabled the German group Kraftwerk to produce their signature sound – which in turn a huge influence on hip hop and dance music. Without electronic instruments and production techniques, most of the music in today’s pop charts would sound very different indeed.

The invention of the Walkman
Phillips had already transformed the bulky  reel-to-reel tape technology, exhibiting the first compact cassette tape at a fair in West Berlin in 1963. And the first audio headphones had been invented by Nathaniel Baldwin at his kitchen table in 1910. When Sony’s Walkman arrived in 1979, it combined these inventions into one personal, portable – and era-defining – package. The ubiquitous Walkman is a product now synonymous with the 1980s, and the do-it-yourself ethos that cassettes brought – through the ability to create and share mix tapes – is the forerunner of Spotify playlists of today. This portable (and private) product – which morphed into the Discman, the iPod and now the smartphone – proved to be a transformative idea in the history of music technology.

And there are possibly more...
With thanks to BBC Culture.

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