Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 557:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 557.

Today, we wonder if music is real or artificial. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Sebastien Erard gave us a new instrument in 1780. It was the advanced pianoforte -- the first modern piano. As critics rose up against it, a bold young man named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put it to use. Yet critics still complained that pianos were too dissonant and mechanical for concert use, long after Mozart's death.

Every new instrument has to carve out a place in the public's ear. The clarinet fought its battle just before the pianoforte. But now that sort of change is reaching crisis proportions. We aren't just adding new sounds. We're changing the rules of sound generation utterly.

In the late '30s, Benny Goodman reluctantly sat down to play with a man using a regular guitar with a microphone in it. Goodman had said those electrified guitars were a sacrilege. But after he jammed through 16 choruses, his seduction was complete.

A few years later, Les Paul put an electric pickup in a solid shaft of wood with strings on it. When you amplify sound electrically, you don't need a sound box. By getting rid of the guitar body, he got rid of feedback problems. He gave us today's pop-music staple -- the electric guitar.

With feedback screeches gone, electric guitars can hold their own against any instrument. They've changed popular music utterly. Meanwhile, Andres Segovia went to his death without ever touching anything but a pure acoustic guitar.

Robert Moog took electronic sound a step further in 1969. He made the first good commercial synthesizer -- the Minimoog. That put us on the threshold of making sounds at will. Machines like the Yamaha DX-7 fulfilled that promise in the early 80s. Since then, those affordable new digital synthesizers add an unlimited range of new sound.

My son plays synthesizers. His theme music begins and ends this program. He used a DX-7 and a Juno 60 to make those sounds.

So this is change on a new scale. Tenth-century critics objected to the unreality of the sound when Winchester Cathedral put in a pipe organ. But not since the first pipe organs have we so radically stepped clear of the past to create new music.

I'm conservative enough to tremble when I see what's going on. Change on this scale is terribly hard to face. Older musicians wonder if the sensate joy of music-making will survive. And 21st-century players will surely accept sounds that would bewilder the musicians I grew up with.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Charbeneau, T., Is Anything for Real? World Monitor, March, 1991, pp. 74-78.

I'm grateful to Andrew Lienhard for his counsel on this episode -- and for creating its sound track, as well.

Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.

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