Instruments and technology

Photograph of musical instruments on a stage

© Morris

Technological development has had a major effect on how music sounds. Inventions from amplification and microphones to synthesisers and computers have led to musicians incorporating new sounds into their work and so to the emergence of completely new types of music. The longest tradition within this process has been in the invention and refinement of musical instruments themselves.

As soon as new technologies and instruments are invented musicians are quick to find a use for them, and through frequent use their sounds become associated with recognisable musical styles. For instance, when African-American musicians working in the noisy clubs of US cities such as Chicago and Detroit in the 1940s started using the electric guitar, it was soon understood by the audience as marking the difference between urban and rural forms of blues music.

This is not to suggest a simple one way flow from technological development to music-making. Often it has been musicians themselves who have driven technological change. The creativity of musicians has often led them to imagine new sonic possibilities and new ways of realising their artistic vision through technology. A good example of this is the guitarist Les Paul, whose interest in having multiple guitar parts on his recordings led to early developments in multitrack tape recorders. Similarly many modern composers in the 1950s and 1960s (often working in universities) wanted to push at the boundaries of contemporary classical music. They often did so by using new and synthesised sounds in their work. These electro-acoustic composers often collaborated with electrical engineers within their universities, and were instrumental in the development of the synthesiser technologies which would go on to revolutionise the sound of popular music.

Developments in the music instrument industry are also centrally important to the relationship between technology and musical practice. At many points in music history there has been a shift from small-scale production by small entrepreneurs towards mass production by big companies. We can see it in the mass production of pianos in the later 19th century and again in large corporations entering the synthesiser and home recording market in the late 1970s.

Follow these links to explore some particular aspects of the impact of instrumental technology: