Today, we wonder if music is real or artificial.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Sebastien Erard gave us a
new instrument in 1780. It was the advanced
pianoforte -- the first modern piano. As critics
rose up against it, a bold young man named Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart put it to use. Yet critics still
complained that pianos were too dissonant and
mechanical for concert use, long after Mozart's
Every new instrument has to carve out a place in
the public's ear. The clarinet fought its battle
just before the pianoforte. But now that sort of
change is reaching crisis proportions. We aren't
just adding new sounds. We're changing the rules of
sound generation utterly.
In the late '30s, Benny Goodman reluctantly sat
down to play with a man using a regular guitar with
a microphone in it. Goodman had said those
electrified guitars were a sacrilege. But after he
jammed through 16 choruses, his seduction was
A few years later, Les Paul put an electric pickup
in a solid shaft of wood with strings on it. When
you amplify sound electrically, you don't need a
sound box. By getting rid of the guitar body, he
got rid of feedback problems. He gave us today's
pop-music staple -- the electric guitar.
With feedback screeches gone, electric guitars can
hold their own against any instrument. They've
changed popular music utterly. Meanwhile, Andres
Segovia went to his death without ever touching
anything but a pure acoustic guitar.
Moog took electronic sound a step further in
1969. He made the first good commercial synthesizer
-- the Minimoog. That put us on the threshold of
making sounds at will. Machines like the Yamaha
DX-7 fulfilled that promise in the early 80s. Since
then, those affordable new digital synthesizers add
an unlimited range of new sound.
My son plays synthesizers. His theme music begins
and ends this program. He used a DX-7 and a Juno 60
to make those sounds.
So this is change on a new scale. Tenth-century
critics objected to the unreality of the sound when
Winchester Cathedral put in a pipe organ. But not
since the first pipe organs have we so radically
stepped clear of the past to create new music.
I'm conservative enough to tremble when I see
what's going on. Change on this scale is terribly
hard to face. Older musicians wonder if the sensate
joy of music-making will survive. And 21st-century
players will surely accept sounds that would
bewilder the musicians I grew up with.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds