February 10 Readings

This week's readings focused on disruptive music technology and the questions this raises. Specifically, much attention was given to the player piano and its impact on society. While much of the scenarios discussed were historical in nature, themes and applications can be drawn to current society.

Instrument vs. Machine

Much of the discussion in each of the readings revolved around whether player pianos and other music technologies are machines or instruments. Gitelman mentions that salesmen were deterred from using terminology such as machine, self-player, automatic, or operator, as this portrayed the piano as a machine, to be operated like a household appliance. Instead, they emphasized the expressive aspects of the pianos; while they were not played like a traditional piano, they required tasteful use of the pedal and a level of artistry. Sousa, meanwhile, asserted that the player pianos were nothing but a series of cogs and wheels in a mathematical system, resembling a machine moreso than an instrument. Pinch and Bijsterveld also bring up this discussion, saying:

"The influence of technology in music raises questions as to the boundary between 'instruments' and 'machines' and the place of the latter within musical culture."

This discussion is then take further by considering recent developments in music technology. Pinch and Bijsterveld address the use of noise instruments and synthesizers in more recent years. Noise instruments lead to a dialogue regarding the true essence of music, and several conflicting perspectives emerge. Mondrian asserts that music is comprised of tone and non-tone, while Antheil claims that the essence of music is time. Consequently, the manner in which one defines music influences how one perceives the distinction between instrument and machine.

Regarding the synthesizer, this debate emerged again. If someone is able to represent an instrumental sound through a machine, does that in turn make it an instrument? Pinch and Bijsterveld cite Weiss who says that the synthesizer:

" was not as accurate as all the engineers wanted it to be…that was what was so wonderful about the machine, in that sense it was an instrument; it wasn't a machine. A machine would have created no inaccuracies…accuracy like that doesn't exist in our lives, nature is never accurate"

Thus, he believes that the intrinsic differences between instrument and machine are based upon humanity and imperfection. In a sense, machines strip the humanity from music due to the great deal of precision that is possible. Further discussion of synthesizer players using broken or adapted instruments intentionally further illustrates this point.

Copyright and Ownership

Sousa's opposition to the player piano stems largely from concerns over copyright. As a composer, he believes that he should receive some recognition and compensation for his pieces when they are used in the creation of piano rolls. Legally, copyright laws of the time did not protect his property, and he was met with backlash for this assertion. Yet, he held to this belief, saying that the piano rolls:

"are something beyond the mere shape, the color, the length of the pages. They are only one form of recording the coming into the world of a newly fashioned work, which by the right of authorship…belongs to him who conceived it" (284)

While occurring a century ago, these discussions are still relevant today as artists discuss copyright concerns and lack of financial compensation in our technological age. Platforms such as Spotify and YouTube allow for the widespread dissemination of music, but often do not provide the composers or performers with compensation in the manner that purchasing a CD might.

Democratization of Means

The other side to this increase dissemination of music is that it may be available to individuals who might not have otherwise had access. Gitelman asserts that:

"Music rolls offered a new form of access…that was immediately enrolled within a rhetoric of democratization by some and painted as trespass by others" (213)

Since less skill was required to 'play' the piano, those who might not have the time or money to engage in taking music lessons could now enjoy piano music and feel as though they were participating in a musical experience. While Sousa asserts that this will decrease motivation to practice, Gitelman takes a different perspective. Perhaps, by listening to the piano and watching the keys be depressed mechanically, people would actually be more motivated to learn to play the piano. Further, some individuals even learned to read the piano rolls, prompting the addition of lyrics, which were read bottom to top.

Participatory Music

Another theme throughout these sources regards the role of the musician. Sousa references singing schools, village bands, and other musical ensembles as central to American culture. Without these institutions, he claims, the amateur musician will not have a place in society. Essentially, when music can be heard with the press of a button and no specialized training, individuals will not be motivated to learn to play an instrument. He says:

"The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application…it will simply be a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling."

Questions for consideration:

  1. Is music an object (the sheet music) or a sound? How does this distinction influence copyright distinctions?
  2. Sousa asserts that the player piano and other technologies will lead to the loss of the amateur musician. Have we seen this come to fruition today?
  3. What technological instruments or machines exist today? How does these influence musical integrity? Imperfection? Expression?
  4. How did financial concerns drive decisions regarding music technology in the past? Today?
  5. Are individuals operating machines that produce sounds still considered musicians? How do we define a musician? Also, how does this relate to the concept of musicking?

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