» Archive for January, 2015

Turning Points in Music

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 by Martin Hester

A recent piece on the BBC site gave food for thought – it identified and commented on eight important “turning points” which influenced music as it is produced and consumed in the “West” today. In slightly condensed form, here are the 8 points –

Pythagoras creates the scale
There is evidence that ancient cultures sang songs and made pleasing sounds, but not until the investigations of the Greek mathematician and philosopher around 500 BC was there a theory to explain why some sounds sounded pleasant when played together, and others not. Pythagoras studied the ratios between the length of vibrating sings and the sounds they produced. He found a mathematical relationship between notes that were pleasant when sounded together, and extended the discovery to produce a scale – a division of intervals between notes which are exact whole multiples of the frequency of one another (which are called harmonics). Pythagoras’s scale – roughly the one we use now – is the basis for all Western music since.

Notation is developed

Not until about the 8th Century onwards did monks in Spain and Italy begin to use a series of symbols which showed whether a note should be higher or lower than the preceding one, and use it to record their chants. At some point around 1000 AD the Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo began to plot the symbols on a series of parallel lines, making clear how a note related to the previous. This gradually developed into the system of musical notation we use today, which enables music to be remembered, and executed by other people.

The piano enters the home

Up until the early 1800s, music was largely practised in Churches and in the homes of the nobility. With the invention of the pianoforte and improvements in manufacturing techniques, the piano became an essential part of the middle- and upper-class home, and playing and singing an important social accomplishment. Together with publishing and distribution of musical scores, music-making became common in homes and places of entertainment.

The first recording

The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, using a stylus and a tin-foil-wrapped cylinder. Later, an inexpensive gramophone player using a needle running in a groove on a vinyl disc started the music recording industry. Playing speed dropped from 78rpm to 45, and after WWII the LP of 33 1/3 rpm really boomed. At that time, a popular disc could make rich both the recording company and the artists. However, the LP was gradually replaced by the cassette, the CD, then by mp3 and digital media, and the strict control of reproduction was lost to both the companies and the artists.

The birth of public radio broadcasting

Radio broadcasting started about 1910 and quickly both public and private stations set up, to broadcast news reports, music, discussions, politician’s addresses, and advertisements. By the 1930s, half of US homes had radios, and this rose to 90% during WWII. By the 1950s, portable transistor radios and rock ‘n’ roll had increased radio’s popularity. But TV grew strongly post-war, and by the early 1960s about 90% of US households had a TV. Radio’s influence on the way the public consumed music began to wane.

The first chart is published

In 1936, the music industry magazine Billboard published a feature called Chart Line, which ranked the most popular songs on three radio networks in the US. In July 1940, a best-selling list of records was also compiled, and by 1945 this included the most-played songs on juke boxes. From 1958, the airplay and record sales listings were combined, and this charting continues today, now including downloads and streaming data.

The dawn of electronic music

In 1948 a Frenchman named Pierre Schaeffer produced the first piece of a new type of music he called musique concrete – an avant-garde collage of environmental noise and other non-musical sounds. The composer Stockhausen worked in Cologne, and his studio became a famous laboratory for the incubation of electronic music. The studio also produced synthesisers, but the music had little popular appeal – until the sounds started to be used by progressive rock bands. Today synthetic sounds are an important part of hip hop and dance music. Without electronic instruments and production techniques, most of the music in today’s pop charts would sound very different.

The invention of portable players

Tape recording had been transformed to use cassettes by Phillips in the 60s, but Sony’s  1979 Walkman combined a compact player with audio headphones, and became a defining package for the 1980s. This portable (and private) music-reproducing product evolved to the Discman, the iPod, and now the smartphone. These products brought along also the idea of creating your own mix of music – leading to the Spotify playlists of today.


So those are the eight points. I find it surprising that half of these points are concerned with how music is reproduced and distributed, and few are concerned with the development of musical instruments and the musicians themselves.

There is a period of more than 100 years of development of orchestral music, which went in the development of the instruments, bettering the training of the musicians, learning to compose (by hand!) for huge ensembles, and bringing them to play with coordinated expressiveness. The great works for orchestra with choir and soloists (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler) should be considered turning as they are high points in music – after that the conditions for such creations didn’t exist. They are like the cathedral on the hill compared with the flashy car outside the front door which is today’s popular music!

Another key point (not mentioned) seems to be the adoption of the guitar as the predominant instrument for making music. The guitar is portable, quite easy to learn to play, and can be a backing instrument (playing chords and rhythm) or a solo instrument, though it needs amplification. Amazing how it has come to dominate the musical scene.


So ……do you agree, or do you have other points to add?