Photo by Avi Naim / Unsplash

History always has a way of informing the present. Especially in the context of art and music, historical events are often key moments of discovery and exploration for modern day artists. In the case of music technology, the history of instruments have influenced how musicians can create both analog and digital sounds. As the development of instruments grew more and more complex over time, there has been an overarching shift towards the artificial and digital synthesis of sound.

That’s not to say we’ve completely forgotten about our analog past, but that those previous musical artifacts have become blueprints and skeletons for the creative, electronic tools we use today.

The Dawn of MIDI

1. Pipe Organ (3rd Century)

It can be argued that the start of hardware-based music technology history begins with the pipe organ. The origins of the pipe organ can be traced back to the 3rd century BCE with the creation of the Hydralius or “water organ.” Initially powered by a natural resource, like water, the pipe organ was manually operated with air provided by foot bellows.

The addition of pistons and stops enabled an organist to engage and layer hundreds of timbres at a time. Even the construction of the organ itself was a mechanical marvel and still is. Mozart called the pipe organ the “King of Instruments,” a title that is well-deserved when viewed from musical and technological perspectives.

This concept of the manually assigning different sets of sounds with the organ has now become the backbone for how today’s MIDI-based virtual instruments function for DAWs.

Here’s the pipe organ in action:

2. Player Piano (1895)

Moving into the 19th and 20th century, this next instrument can play on its own with no human required.

The player piano, also known as the pianola, worked by punching notes into rotating rolls of paper which could be played back on any model player piano. Piano enthusiasts could buy a piano roll of any famous pianist of that time, and listen to performances played by those artists in their own homes.

Interior of player piano. In 1895, Edwin S. Votey created the main mechanical structure that made the player piano self-playing. Photo from Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0

In a way, the player piano brought the first instance of distributing recorded music. Specific performances could be transported and heard across the world, in different acoustical environments and timbres. The player piano itself was a very popular instrument in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and in high production.

In connection to today’s MIDIs, the player piano’s use of miniature indentations of varying lengths can be translated as the modern, graphic representation of MIDI events. To make the analog and digital connection even more clear, some DAWs call the MIDI window the piano roll, in reference to rolls of paper used in the player pianos.

To The Ends of the Earth

3. Telharmonium (1897)

Digital streaming may seem like the most current and new trend for music listening, although the concept of streaming music was actually invented over a century ago.

In 1897, Thaddeus Cahill took inspiration from telephone wires that could reach across the nation to invent the Telharmonium. The Telharmonium, a streaming synthesizer weighing in at 200 tons, could generate electronic tones and transmit them over an electronic signal to a receiving device. Similar to the pipe organ, the Telharmonium was built to include a number of stops that created different pitches and timbres. This allowed players to create diverse, musical experiences every time.

Like today’s streaming services, the Telharmonium let customers buy a premium streaming service that provided live music for high end businesses to public places. This kind of service wasn’t widely popular at the time of its release. Actually owning a Telharmonium was a costly investment and the instrument itself needed large amounts of power to function properly. The mammoth synthesizer wasn’t commercially successful, but it now serves as a pioneering example of how technological innovations impact how and where we can listen to music.

Ghostly Sounds

4. Theremin (1928)

If you’re a sci-fi horror fan, you might’ve already heard of this instrument:

The theremin, invented by Russian immigrant Leon Theremin, can be considered as the first, truly synthesized electronic instrument. Controlled by hand movements between two antennas, one for pitch and one for volume, the theremin emits a vibrato effect as players rapidly change the distance of their hands from either antenna. Pitches are not clearly defined, and there isn’t a concrete relationship between a player’s hand position to the note it’s producing. It’s certainly not the easiest instrument to play, but musicians and music lovers now can build their own theremins.

You can hear the instrument being used in popular films like The Lost Weekend (1945), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and even in The Beach Boys’ song “Good Vibrations.”

5. Ondes Martenot (1928)

The ondes Martenot, introduced by Muarice Martenot, provided an easier way to create theremin-like sounds, without a theremin.

The pitches are correlated to an 88-key keyboard, exactly like a piano. A sliding ring, controlled by the player’s right hand, determined the pitch the instrument produced based on what note was being held down. Utilizing a sine wave oscillator, the design of the ondes Martenot grew closer to how modern day synthesizers operate and was able to mimic the eerie sounds of the theremin.

In this photo, you can see how the design of the ondes Martenot combines the piano and theremin into one instrument. Photo from Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

Simple Sampler

6. Mellotron (1963)

In the early 1960s, Robert Chamberlin developed the world’s first sampler keyboard: the mellotron. The mellotron could sample audio from other sources by storing tape-recorded audio inside the instrument. With a three octave keyboard, you could record up to 8 seconds of sound then manually attach the tape into the instrument. Ideally, the mellotron was made to recreate the sounds of an orchestra in a home setting, although it took a great amount of effort to set up the instrument. Aside from it’s technical complications, the mellotron became an immensely popular instrument used by many influential bands at the time.

The process of sampling through the mellotron made a lasting impact for musicians to incorporate sampling in their own creative process.

Player changes the tape cartridges in a mellotron. Photo by Eric Haller / Flickr

From looking back at moments in music technology history, now you can see the overlaps and roots of digital tools and ideas commonly used today. The past always finds a way to inform our present.

This content comes from the Session 2 of the course Foundations of Arts and Entertainment Technologies by University of Texas, Austin. Enroll in the course below:

Foundations of Arts and Entertainment Technologies

Foundations of Arts and Entertainment Technologies

University of Texas at Austin