Music, Technology, and Musical Composition
D. L. Stieg

Over the past three-quarters of a century, technological developments have effected tremendous changes in the world of music. In the second quarter of the 20th century, the invention of the electric guitar, and the development of greatly improved technologies for sound recording and sound amplification, laid the groundwork for the creation of numerous new styles and genres of music, a process that continues today. The greatly increased availability of recorded music, beginning around the middle of the 20th century, led to the popularization of a number of musical genres (including folk, Broadway, bluegrass, jazz, and country) that before then were not nearly as widely familiar as they have since become. The switchover from mono to stereo musical recordings, which occurred toward the end of the third quarter of the 20th century, allowed for the production of higher quality recordings of classical music, and there is now a vast worldwide library of exceptional classical music recordings. More recently, the development of the Internet has made it possible to listen to recordings of virtually any style or genre of Western music, and the greatly increased visibility and accessibility of music from other world cultures has broadened musical perspectives in ways that would have been difficult to imagine at the turn of the 20th century.

Although improvements in the technology of electronic sound amplification have mostly impacted non-classical musical genres, the use of microphones and amplification is no longer uncommon for classical music performances. Interestingly enough, though, the invention of the piano around the turn of the 18th century, which was a crucially important event in the history of classical music, had such a great impact because it allowed for an acoustic amplification of sound. The piano was a much louder instrument than the various keyboard instruments by which it was preceded, and this bigger voice was utilized by composers in a great many compositions in which the piano accompanies other instruments, or in which the piano is accompanied by an orchestra. The fact that the piano is loud enough to be heard in a good size hall in solo concert performance also led to the composition of a great many works for solo piano. Although the piano remains an integral part of the domain of classical music, and it is an important component of music of various other genres as well, acoustic pianos have largely been replaced, at least in terms of ownership by individuals, by cheaper, smaller, and more versatile electronic keyboards. Continued advancements in the technology of electronic keyboards, which were first introduced around the middle of the 20th century, have now resulted in a very close approximation, at least in high-end instruments, of the touch and sound of an acoustic piano.

The acoustic piano served as the basis for a number of new styles of popular music in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the development of popular and non-classical music in general has more to do with the guitar than with the piano. Much of the history of the development of the guitar is a history of continued advancements in the amplification of sound. The modern classical (nylon string) guitar, which was developed toward the end of the 19th century, was much larger and much louder than earlier variants of the guitar. The increased volume of the instrument made solo concert performance much more feasible, and this was an important factor in the popularization of classical guitar music, especially in academic circles, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The use of steel strings on the guitar, beginning around the middle of the 19th century, similarly gave the instrumentís voice much greater volume, and led to the development of numerous new styles of play.

The initial appeal of electric guitars was greatest among jazz guitarists, because it could be played loudly enough to be heard over the horns in jazz ensembles. The jazz guitar and rock guitar traditions that have since evolved are ample testament to the power and versatility of an amplified guitar. But the argument can nevertheless be made that an even more impressive technological advancement in the amplification of the sound of the guitar has been made. Even when an acoustic guitar is played in a subtle and intricate style of play, the amplified sound, if a high quality microphone and sound amplification system are used, is virtually identical to the acoustic sound, only louder. A similarly complete control over the volume of the instrument, but with the freedom to play in however subtle a fashion, is the chief advantage of an acoustic-electric guitar, which is an acoustic guitar with a built-in transducer (microphone) for amplification.

Technological developments have also effected many positive changes in how music is taught and learned. The development of greatly improved public address systems, and the availability of quality instrumental recordings for appropriately themed musical productions, have made it possible to stage impressive and engaging performances by students in the elementary grades. Developments in electronic keyboard and interconnection technology have made it possible for a great many more schools to establish piano labs, which are an effective resource for teaching the basic keyboard skills that every musician should have. The Internet has become an increasingly useful free resource for learning about music, and numerous ingenious and captivating software programs have been developed for learning and practicing basic musical skills. The development of instructional videos, a continuation of the oral tradition of learning that is associated with most non-classical genres of music, has also facilitated musical learning by a great many individuals. In these and in many other ways, technology has greatly influenced music in general, but technological developments have had the most profound impact on how music is written, or the process of musical composition.

All but a few of the classical composers of note wrote music either at the piano or at one of the keyboard instruments by which the piano was preceded. The importance of keyboard skills is given by the fact that it is nearly impossible to hear complicated music in which many notes are sounded at a time without playing the music (this is obviously not impossible, since Beethoven wrote a great deal of music after he had gone almost completely deaf). And since the more complicated the music, the greater the level of keyboard skill required, it is not by accident that a great many classical composers of note were also accomplished pianists. Since very few composers had the luxury of ensembles of musicians at their disposal, many composers wrote works that they never even had the opportunity to hear performed, or at least only heard performed less than a handful of times. Because composers did not generally have the option of revising scores after hearing the music performed by the instruments for which it was written, there was a sense of finality about writing music.

Nevertheless, a composerís original hand-written work score rarely has a look of finality about it, and is usually more like a collection of scribblings. This is so because the interruption of the creative process, made necessary by the task of writing the music down, normally produces haste, and normally does not produce neatness. Composers who could afford them, and most could not, hired copyists to transcribe their work scores into more functional and more attractive finished scores. A great many works were never published in engraved printed scores, and very few composers enjoyed the privilege of seeing all or even most of their works published during their lifetime.

Like the vast majority of their predecessors, most classical music composers today write music at the piano, and keyboard training remains an essential component of a formal education in musical composition. Most composers today still create hand-written work scores, but the work of copyists and engravers has largely been replaced by the development of music notational programs that can be used to produce professional looking printed scores. Apart from allowing for the universal publication (printing) of music, these notational programs have transformed the composerís craft in a number of other important ways as well.

For example, because notational programs usually have sound playback capabilities, composers no longer need to have well-developed keyboard skills in order to hear the music they are writing. And because most notational programs allow for the entry of notes in guitar tablature, composers no longer need to have any keyboard skills at all. It is even possible to compose music for a complicated ensemble like a symphony orchestra with only nominal skill at playing the guitar, and with only a vague familiarity with staff notation. Very few composers are likely to write symphonies in this fashion (one part at a time, and entirely by ear). But all composers can benefit greatly from the fact that because the soundtrack for notational programs is usually in MIDI format, the sound can be translated into an approximation of the actual sound of the various instruments for which the music is composed. This important feature, and the attendant ability to make revisions in a score after hearing the actual effect of specific combinations of notes and instruments, would probably have been very much the envy of most if not all of the classical composers of note.