Proceedings 10         14 October 1987         The Department of the Humanities, The Imperial College of Science and Technology, London


The speaker was introduced by Dr Norman Smith, Reader in the History of Technology in the Department.


The Arguement

The central question of history was how the West achieved its ascendancy in world affairs. That ascendancy might be coming to its end, but why was it medieval Europe that gave birth to the Sci-Tech-Industrial complex which now governs world development and not, say, China, Islam or India - all high civilizations when Europe was still in a Third World state of development?

The speaker would argue that the key might be found in the nature of western music. In all cultures music was the fundamental art. The western composer at his keyboard and the computer operator at were close relations in an ancient pedigree.

The Thesis

Music and Sci-tech have been associated in the West since the 10th century, when the organ and early polyphony were introduced in the music of the church. No other tradition of art music had a machine instrument nor a system of singing in independently moving parts. Where Orpheus had his lyre or the Chinese gods the ch'in, St Cecilia played the organ. When Europe admitted the machine to music it made a shift in the human psyche which prepared the birth of the first machine oriented culture.

The twin hallmarks of western culture were its music and its sci-tech. It was no coincidence that Japan, technologically a western culture, had a vigorous western-style musical life.

Interval, scale and harmony

The art music of ancient Greece, like China, India, or Japan to this day, was devoted to exploration of the acoustic facts of scale and interval by a single line heard against a home -note. The basic scales or "modes" had affinities to the seven-note scale used in western music. However, with only one moving part involved it was possible to use micro-intervals (which in polyphonic music tend to dissonances) in melodic inventions of great acoustic subtlety. As the western scholar-musician or musicus developed harmony in many parts, so he shifted out of the age old art of the bard and away from the primal acoustic realities, to create a new, an artificial ambience for human experience.

The primitive polyphony, was known as "organum". An 11th-cent theoretician thought it got its name because the singers produced sounds "somewhat similar to the instrument". A writer in the 1160s protested against organs in church because the congregation was distracted by their workings. Western fascination with technology and its association of it with music were established.

Above: 13th-c. English notation

Far left: St Cecilia at the organ

Left: a Chinese deity play ing the ch'in zither

Kevboards and keyboarding -or St Cecilia Mother of Sony

By AD 1000 organs were in most of Europe's great churches. Their ancestor, the classical hydraulis (air pressure stabilized by hydraulics) had been used in the Roman circus or for festive or ceremonial occasions. It survived in the Byzantine court as part of the mechanical displays, like lion automata, put on to impress visiting barbarians, not as an instrument of serious music. In Western Europe it was introduced into the music of the church – a "hi-tech" device controlled by the intellectual elite, the clergy.

Contemporary with the development of the organ was that of the orqanistrum or symphonia, a massive two-man machine, ancestor of the hurdy~gurdy. Something like a very deep bodied guitar it had a crank handle set in the base. This 'drove a wooden bow-wheel vibrating two drone strings running the length of the instrument either' side of the wheel and two other strings led over the top or the wheel into a casing. A number of wooden tongues ("tangents I sliding in slots were operated somewhat like a keyboard to stop the strings so as to produce notes of varying pitches. One man drove the wheel, another operated the keys. With tangents located according to Pythagorean acoustic intervals, it was used by theory teachers and sometimes in church music. A famous sculpture on the cathedral of Santiago da Compostella (1160s) gave it pride of place in the celestial orchestra. Ponderous compared with the sprightly fiddles and lutes of the minstrels, it had a thrilling timbre and strong rhythmic pulse. A one-man model was soon taken up by traveling musicians who carried the concept of machine music all over Europe. (Lynn White had argued that the crank was re-invented in Europe, not transmitted from China, because: "The crank is a mechanical element which can spread only as a part of a larger device, and it appears first in Europe on the rotary grindstone and ...the hurdy-gurdy, neither of which was used in China." It was typical of western culture that a musical instrument could be evidenced in debating technological history).

The tangents of the organistrum no doubt played a part in the next keybard development, its adaptation to the stringed monochord. A simple teaching device to illustrate the Pythagorean ratios of interval, it comprised a single string tensioned between two bridges over a box resonator. The teacher demonstrated the intervals by setting a third, moveable bridge at designated positions and plucking the string. Sometime before 1300 the third bridge was replaced by a number of tangents made to hit the string at the designated positions by means of keyboard. A number of keyed monochords set back to back produced (by 1360) a forerunner of the clavichord (Latin, claves,"key"). In China a monochord-type instrument must have been ancestor of the hand-plucked scholar musician's ch'in: in Europe it was mechanized. By 1400 the keyboard had been modified yet again to activate a plucking action and so give rise to the first generation of harpsichords. During the 16th century research and development continued to produce keyboards with split keys to permit the playing of microtones. By this time organs and harpsichords had two or more manuals, one above anto give control of additional ranges of strings and pipes.

Leonardo and others suggested further applications: keyboards to control bowed string instruments, keyboards for harps, even keyboards for wind instruments. But the next important development came in the 1710s when the Italian Christophori produced a stringed instrument with a keyboard mechanism which projected hammers against the strings: the pianoforte or Hammerklavier.

In 1837 another Italian, Guiseppe Ravizza made an inspired adaptation of the musical keyboard to mechanical writing, calling his new machine the cembalo scrivano. With the Remington company's first commercially successful typewriter (1870s} the keyboard's application to computing would be inevitable. The studio tool of the medieval ~usicu~ was ready to serve the data bank.

Western musical notation forerunner of software programming

Perhaps even more profound in its implications was the West's uniquely complex, precise and prescriptive musical notation. All other traditions used aural transmission of theory and melodic formulas from master to pupil, notation being essentially mnemonic to assist in years of memorizing . The West, by contrast, developed a code to record specific instructions for vocal or physical operations. A new piece could be read at sight without the master being present. A precise symbol system "programmed" the player and through him, his instrument.

The beginnings of true notation lie in the 9th-10th centuries. Two factors prompted the development. First, the musical need for a reliable symbol system to codify the new art of two parts moving together; secondly, ecclesiastical politics, for at this time Rome was working to establish a unified liturgy throughout the Catholic world to supercede the regional aural traditions. Pitch and rhythm were the two principal variables needing codification. The first was achieved by a grid of horizontal lines (the staff), evolving from the 1030s. The second by symbols of different shapes and colours from which came the familiar note symbols of today.

During the 1200s the search was on for an efficient system of rhythmic notation and a theorist writing ca.1300 complained there were as many new symbols as the world had music copyists. In 1316 the French musicus and mathematician Philippe de Vitry (in his late 20s) delivered an historic course of lectures, published as Ars Nova, principally concerned with the notation of motets. Nothing better illustrated the importance of notation to the medieval musicus than designating a treatise on it "the new art".

The 1320s also witnessed major developments in mathematics of motion pioneered at Merton College Oxford. Leibniz so respected Richard Swyneshead, one of the Mertonians, that he called him "the great calculator"; the Italian humanists, unable to understand the mathematics coined the word "suisetica" (corrupted from Swvyneshead) as a derisive epithet for "scholastic inanities". However, mathematics evolved according to its own laws, independent of the literary concerns of humanism. So did music.

Harmony and "progress"

Renaissance theorists earnestly searched for classical precedents, in all the arts. Musicians had the disadvantage that no one knew what ancient music actually sounded like. Some looked back nostalgically to the ancient modes to which they attributed semi-magical powers. In the 1590s, the camerata in Florence produced opera per musiche, chiefly comprising monodies and austere recitatives. But the development of harmony had a momentum of its own. The new art, aiming to return to Greek monody led, in the early 1600s, to the rich music of Monteverdi. At the same time keyboard music developed a new individuality. The century which began with manifestoes heralding a return to the mystic purity of Orpheus ended with developments which would lead to the harmonies of Wagner and the keyboard-pyrotechnics of Liszt.

In its very terminology Western harmony is revealed as an art of forward movement. Harmonies change by "modulation" and chord "progressions", the chord on the "leading note" impels towards rest and resolution. Harmony is integral to the contained formal structure of western music which distinguishes it from the reflective open-ended idiom of other world art musics. The idea of music as a developing progressive art, an invention of the medieval musicus, infected western thought patterns. Western musical notation made possible a reliable record of past practice, liberated the musician from much memorizing and so encouraged creative innovation. The machine element in music, small at first though it was, marked a radical shift in the Western cultural ethos which would bring the machine to the centre of culture itself.

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