Introduction to Music

Music is defined in the Chambers Essential English Dictionary of 1968 as:-

An arrangement of, or the art of combining or putting together, sounds that please the ear.

which is a rather inadequate description, since music has always had an vital role in human love, war and ritual. Most people feel a strong emotional pull towards the music of their particular culture, either because of events in their own lives or perhaps through inherited memories.

At the start of the twentieth century virtually all music was created on conventional acoustic instruments using established forms. This tradition existed simply because there was no reason to change: virtually any kind of human emotion or experience could be expressed using such instruments and the human voice alone. These forms were considered as perfect as the classical orders of architecture, and such music was available to all, especially to those who could play the family piano.

Today, music is frequently created or manipulated using electronics, often blurring the border between real sound and synthesis. In addition, the combination of traditional or ethnic forms with synthetic material has introduced new kinds of music, often known as fusion or new age.

Mechanics and Tape

The move away from historic instruments began with the Victorians, who introduced mechanical technology into an incredible range of automated musical devices, including the musical box, player piano, fairground organ and, at a later stage, the wax cylinder and record. The subsequent consumerism of music and the other arts led many composers and other creative people to look towards abstract forms, mirroring the modernist movement in design and architecture. This was part of the backlash against established structures and systems, a rebellion which was, and still is, often unpopular with the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’.

These new forms of music began by using real sounds, or musical instruments played in an unconventional manner, to create abstract compositions, a technique known as musique concrète. After World War II, the tape recorder became available, allowing a much greater manipulation of sounds. The results rarely gained much in the way of popular acclaim, except perhaps in the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where such material was used to enhance radio and television programmes. Apart from this, most concrète work was considered ‘academic’, only to be understood by those in the artistic elite. Undoubtedly, this was partly due to the difficulties encountered whilst producing such material.

The Synthesiser Revolution

Robert Moog’s invention of the voltage-controlled synthesiser in 1958 didn’t make it easier to create music. These early machines were monophonic (only one note could be played at a time) and required hours of tiresome work to produce anything presentable. Subsequently, hybrid synthesisers employed a microprocessor to control sound generators and other elements, allowing a musician to create a polyphonic performance in real time. And once the micro found its way into the actual generation of sounds the days of Moog’s brainchild were immediately numbered.

The arrival of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) was far more significant. It gave anyone on the street an opportunity to create music without being part of an artistic elite. Now a household computer could control instruments, mixers or audio patch-bays. And sounds could be created in layers using sequencing, complemented by real-time digital sound recording.

As technology has progressed, more and more of the hardware required for MIDI sequencing has been absorbed into software, even replicating several of the older analogue synthesisers and sound processing devices. Music is once more where it belongs; with the people!

©Ray White 2004.