History of Technology in Music

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“We can make sounds you can’t imagine. We can discover new sounds and new forms of music-making.” (Ian Hattwick )

Music is a concept which has existed since time immemorial, being considered one of the most ancient forms of art. As presented in the dictionary, music is “the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity”. In its most general form, the activities describing music as an art form or cultural activity include the creation of works of music (songs, tunes, symphonies, etc.), the criticism of music, the study of the history of music, and the aesthetic examination of music. Ancient Greek and Indian philosophers defined music as tones ordered horizontally as melodies and vertically as harmonies. Common sayings such as “the harmony of the spheres” and “it is music to my ears” point to the notion that music is often ordered and pleasant to listen to. However, 20th-century composer John Cage thought that any sound can be music, saying “There is no noise, only sound.”

With this in mind, people do not usually associate technology with traditional forms of music-making and are used to thinking of music technology in terms of electric or electronic devices. That cannot be further away from the truth, which is that technology and music have been closely correlated since the first musical instruments were constructed. The piano, for example, has taken centuries of evolving technological expertise to become what it is today. Throughout its history, music has freely exploited state-of-the-art technological developments and has had an intimate relationship with sciences such as physics, mathematics, and, more recently, electronics and computing. What is definitely true though is that music technology has come a long way since the time of harps, flutes, and ancient ballads which have now been replaced by electric guitars, synthesizers, and pop songs.

My fascination with art combined with my being technologically-inclined has led me to desire to discover more about the relation between the “language that […] speaks in emotions’’ and “society’s pool of knowledge regarding the industrial arts”, music and technology. By this paper, I seek to understand and present the mechanics used in creating musical compositions and how they have transformed over the years, as then to fully comprehend and investigate what the future might reserve vis-à-vis sounds, genres, instruments, and the perception of music itself. Therefore, in the first chapter, I will elaborate on the evolution of musical technologies throughout history and their impact on the delivery of the lyrical message, and in the second chapter, I will discuss the current technologies used in the music industry, the newest technologies, and ongoing researches and the prospects of these technologies changing the field of music.

Prehistoric and Ancient Times

The earliest known applications of technology to music were prehistoric peoples’ use of a tool to hand-drill holes in bones to make simple flutes. India has one of the oldest musical traditions in the world—references to Indian classical music (marga) are found in the Vedas, ancient scriptures of the Hindu tradition. The earliest and largest collection of prehistoric musical instruments was found in China and dates back to between 7000 and 6600 BC.

In prehistoric Egypt, music and chanting were commonly used in magic and rituals, and small shells were used as whistles. Evidence of Egyptian musical instruments dates to the Predynastic period when funerary chants played an important role in Egyptian religion and were accompanied by clappers and possibly the flute. The most reliable evidence of instrument technologies dates from the Old Kingdom when technologies for constructing harps, flutes, and double clarinets were developed. Percussion instruments, lyres, and lutes were used by the Middle Kingdom. Metal cymbals were used by ancient Egyptians.

In Ancient Greece, instruments in all music can be divided into three categories, based on how sound is produced: string, wind, and percussion. The following were among the instruments used in the music of ancient Greece: the lyre (a strummed and occasionally plucked string instrument, essentially a hand-held zither built on a tortoise-shell frame), the kithara, (also a strummed string instrument, more complicated than the lyre), the aulos (usually double, consisting of two double-reed pipes), the Pan pipes, also known as panflute and syrinx(so-called for the nymph who was changed into a reed in order to hide from Pan, an ancient musical instrument based on the principle of the stopped pipe, consisting of a series of such pipes of gradually increasing length), the hydraulis (a keyboard instrument, the forerunner of the modern organ; as the name indicates, the instrument used water to supply a constant flow of pressure to the pipes).

Numerous instruments are referred to in the Bible, including the horn, pipe, lyre, harp, and bagpipe. During Biblical times, the cornet, flute, horn, organ, pipe, and trumpet were also used.

The origin of automatic musical instruments dates back to the 9th century when the Persian Banū Mūsā brothers invented a hydro-powered organ using exchangeable cylinders with pins, and also the automatic flute-playing machine using steam power. These were the earliest automated mechanical musical instruments. The Banū Mūsā brothers’ programmable automatic flute player was the first music sequencer device, and the first example of repetitive music technology, powered by hydraulics.

In 1206, Al-Jazari invented a programmable humanoid automata band. According to Charles B. Fowler, the automata were a “robotband” that performed “more than fifty facial and body actions during each musical selection”.

Middle Ages

During the medieval music era (476 to 1400) the plainchant tunes used for religious songs were primarily monophonic (a single line, unaccompanied melody).

Instruments used to perform medieval music include earlier, less mechanically sophisticated versions of a number of instruments that continue to be used in the 2010s. Medieval instruments include the flute, which was made of wood and could be made as a side-blown or end-blown instrument; the wooden recorder and the related instrument called the gemshorn; and the pan flute (a group of air columns attached together). Medieval music used many plucked string instruments like the lute, mandore, gittern and psaltery. The dulcimers, similar in structure to the psaltery and zither, were originally plucked, but became struck by hammers in the 14th century after the arrival of new technology that made metal strings possible.

Bowed strings were used as well. The bowed lyra of the Byzantine Empirewas the first recorded European bowed string instrument. The hurdy-gurdy was a mechanical violin using a rosined wooden wheel attached to a crank to “bow” its strings. Early versions of the organ, fiddle, and trombone existed in the medieval era.


The Renaissance music era (c. 1400 to 1600) saw the development of many new technologies that affected the performance and distribution of songs and musical pieces. Around 1450, the printing press was invented, which made printed sheet music much less expensive and easier to mass-produce (prior to the invention of the printing press, all notated music was laboriously hand-copied). The increased availability of printed sheet music helped to spread musical styles more quickly and across a larger geographic area.

Many instruments originated during the Renaissance; others were variations of, or improvements upon, instruments that had existed previously in the medieval era. Brass instruments in the Renaissance were traditionally played by professionals. Some of the more common brass instruments that were played included: the slide trumpet (similar to the trombone), the cornett (played like the recorder, but blown like a trumpet), the trumpet (early trumpets from the Renaissance era had no valves, and were limited to the tones present in the overtone series).

Stringed instruments included: the viol (developed in the 15th century, commonly has six strings), lyre, gittern and mandore (forerunners of modern instruments including the mandolin and acoustic guitar). Percussion instruments included: the tambourine and the Jew’s harp. Woodwind instruments included: the shawm (the most popular double reed instrument of the Renaissance period, commonly used in the streets with drums and trumpets because of its brilliant, piercing, and often deafening sound), the reed pipe (the predecessor of the saxophone and the clarinet), the hornpipe (same as reed pipe but with a bell at the end), the bagpipe, the panpipe (designed to have sixteen wooden tubes with a stopper at one end and open on the other, with a range of an octave and a half).


During the Baroque era of music (ca. 1600-1750), technologies for keyboard instruments developed, which led to improvements in the designs of pipe organs and harpsichords, and to the development of the first pianos. During the Baroque period, organ builders developed new types of pipes and reeds that created new tonal colors. Organ builders fashioned new stops that imitated various instruments, such as the viola da gamba. The Baroque period is often thought of as organ building’s “golden age,” as virtually every important refinement to the instrument was brought to a peak. Builders such as Arp Schnitger, Jasper Johannsen, Zacharias Hildebrandt and Gottfried Silbermann constructed instruments that displayed both exquisite craftsmanship and beautiful sound. These organs featured well-balanced mechanical key actions, giving the organist precise control over the pipe speech. Schnitger’s organs featured particularly distinctive reed timbres and large Pedal and Rückpositiv divisions.

The piano was invented during the Baroque era by the expert harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua, Italy, who was employed by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany. Cristofori invented the piano at some point before 1700.While the clavichord allowed expressive control of volume, with harder or louder key presses creating louder sound (and vice versa) and fairly sustained notes, it was too quiet for large performances; at the opposite side of the spectrum, the harpsichord produced a sufficiently loud sound, but offered little expressive control over each note. Thus, thee piano offered the best of both, combining loudness with dynamic control.

Cristofori’s great success was solving, with no prior example, the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammer must strike the string, but not remain in contact with it because this would dampen the sound. But even though the piano was invented in 1700, the harpsichord and pipe organ continued to be widely used in orchestra and chamber music concerts until the end of the 1700s. It took time for the new piano to gain in popularity, but, by 1800, it generally was used in place of the harpsichord (although pipe organ continued to be used in church music such as Masses).


From about 1790 onward, the Mozart-era piano underwent tremendous changes that led to the modern form of the instrument. This revolution was in response to a preference by composers and pianists for a more powerful, sustained piano sound, and was made possible by the ongoing Industrial Revolution, with resources such as high-quality steel wires for strings, and precision casting for the production of iron frames. Over time, the tonal range of the piano was also increased from the five octaves of Mozart’s day to the 7-plus range found on modern pianos.

Beethoven’s instrumentation for orchestra added piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombones to the triumphal finale of his Symphony No. 5. A piccolo and a pair of trombones helped deliver storm and sunshine in the Sixth. Beethoven’s use of piccolo, contrabassoon, trombones, and untuned percussion in his Ninth Symphony expanded the sound of the orchestra.


During the Romantic music era (c. 1810 to 1900), one of the key ways that new compositions became known to the public was by the sales of music sheets, which amateur music lovers would perform at home on their piano or in chamber music groups, such as string quartets. Saxophones began to appear in some 19th-century orchestra scores.

The piano continued to undergo technological developments in the Romantic era, up until the 1860s. By the 1820s, the center of piano building innovation had shifted to Paris, where the Pleyel firm manufactured pianos used by Frédéric Chopin and the Érard firm manufactured those used by Franz Liszt. In 1821, Sébastien Érard invented the double escapement action, which incorporated a repetition lever that permitted repeating a note even if the key had not yet risen to its maximum vertical position. This facilitated rapid playing of repeated notes, a musical device exploited by Liszt. Other improvements of the mechanism included the use of felt hammer coverings instead of layered leather or cotton.

One innovation that helped create the sound of the modern piano was the use of a strong iron frame. Also called the “plate”, the iron frame sits atop the soundboard, and serves as the primary bulwark against the force of string tension that can exceed 20 tons in a modern grand.

XX-th and XXI-st Century Music

With 20th-century music, there was a vast increase in music listening, as the radio gained popularity and phonographs were used to replay and distribute music. The invention of sound recording and the ability to edit music gave rise to new sub-genres of classical music, including the acousmatic and Musique concrète schools of electronic composition. Sound recording had also a major influence on the development of popular music genres, because it enabled recordings of songs and bands to be widely distributed. The introduction of the multitrack recording system had a major influence on rock music, because it could do much more than record a band’s performance. Using a multitrack system, a band and their music producer could overdub many layers of instrument tracks and vocals, creating new sounds that would not be possible in a live performance.

The 20th-century orchestra was far more flexible than its predecessors. In Beethoven’s and Felix Mendelssohn’s time, the orchestra was composed of a fairly standard core of instruments which was very rarely modified. As time progressed, and as the Romantic period saw changes in accepted modification with composers such as Berlioz and Mahler, the 20th century saw that instrumentation could practically be hand-picked by the composer. In the 2000s, the modern orchestra became standardized with the modern instrumentation that includes a string section, woodwinds, brass instruments, percussion, piano, celeste, and even, for some 20th century or 21st century works, electric instruments such as electric guitar, electric bass and/or electronic instruments such as the Theremin or synthesizer.

Cite this paper

History of Technology in Music. (2020, Nov 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/history-of-technology-in-music/



What has technology done for music?
Technology has revolutionized the way music is created, produced, distributed and consumed. It has made it easier for artists to share their music with a global audience, and has also opened up new avenues for music discovery and exploration.
When was technology first used in music?
The first use of technology in music was in the late 19th century with the invention of the phonograph. The first use of technology in music was in the late 19th century with the invention of the phonograph.
Who invented music technology?
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which allowed music to be recorded and played back for the first time. This was the first major music technology invention, and it paved the way for all subsequent music technology inventions.
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