The Materiality of Music

From brightly colored pigments to the smooth textures of modern plastics, chemistry is a science of the senses. Yet while most people would quickly acknowledge how advances in material science have provided an array of new colors, smells, tastes, and textures, most do not realize the extent to which they have transformed our ability to generate sounds. Not only have improved varnishes and composites enabled the production of improved traditional instruments, but the emergence of the semiconductor industry has opened up new frontiers in electronic music.

The effects of this transition recently became apparent to me when I was recruited to design an exhibit in connection with a March workshop at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) in Ewing. The NSF-sponsored workshop, entitled “Music, Mind, and Invention,” explored the intersection between music, cognitive science, and computation. The exhibit, From Etherphone to Microchip, draws upon the contents of TCNJ’s David Sarnoff Collection. These artifacts, previously housed in Princeton at the former research laboratory of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), span the history of electronics from radio to high-definition television, including several milestones from the history of electronic music.

From Etherphone to Microchip at The College of New Jersey. (Benjamin Gross)

Early electronic instruments depended upon vacuum tubes to amplify signals and transform them into audible tones. Given its longstanding interest in harnessing electricity for entertainment purposes, RCA was well-positioned to explore the musical potential of the vacuum tube. In 1929 the company purchased the rights to commercialize one of the earliest electronic instruments: the theremin. With its unearthly tone and unique performance technique, the world’s first gesture-controlled musical instrument quickly captured the public’s imagination. Despite a major marketing blitz, however, the firm was unable to profit from its investment.

RCA theremin advertisement, c. 1930. (Sarnoff Collection, Hagley Museum and Library)

Building upon recent advances in computing, in 1955 RCA unveiled a new electronic music synthesizer. Due to its continued reliance on vacuum tubes, this device weighed two tons and filled up an entire room. Nevertheless, the company boasted that it was “capable of creating any sound which has ever been produced and any sound that may be imagined by the human mind.” Composers encoded notes onto paper tape and the resulting audio was recorded on a phonograph disc for remixing:

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Harry Olson demonstrates the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer. (Sarnoff Collection, Hagley Museum and Library)

While an impressive technical achievement, the RCA synthesizer was too bulky and expensive to mass produce. Making electronic music at home only became possible when advances in semiconductor technology enabled the replacement of vacuum tubes with transistors and integrated circuits. The rise of microcomputers, like RCA’s COSMAC-VIP, allowed programmers to generate musical notes without the need for punched paper reels. The system’s inventor, Joseph Weisbecker, demonstrated this system’s capabilities at the first Philadelphia Computer Music Festival in August 1978 (Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" plays on the COSMAC-VIP in the clip below).

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The COSMAC-VIP, which relied upon a low-power CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor chip). The COSMAC-VIP could produce tones using a built-in speaker. (Benjamin Gross)

Taken as a whole, these artifacts reveal the extent to which advances in electronic music were linked with the development of new semiconductor materials and the shift from vacuum tubes to microchips. One can only imagine how further advances in materials science will alter our ability to create and enjoy music during the coming decades.

Benjamin Gross is a research fellow at CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy. From Etherphone to Microchip: Electronic Music Technology and TCNJ's Sarnoff Collection will remain on display until May 11 in the lobby of TCNJ’s music building.

Episode 7: Electronics [Distillations]
How Bjork is Mining the Historical Intersection of Science and Music [Periodic Tabloid]
Video: World’s Largest Synthesizer [MIT News]

Posted In: Fellows | History | Technology

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