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History of Technology of Music

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This file updated 28 May 2019

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In review: Daphne Duval Harrison, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. 1988.

1920: Birth of Valve Radios: The valve is a component used for amplifying an electrical signal, with co-invention from Thomas Edison plus a British electrical engineer, Ambrose Fleming. First used in the 1920s, the valve produced a "warm sound" which is still great appreciated by musical and technical buffs, though from the late 1940s they were replaced by transistors, which also used less electrical power.

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1921: Birth year of US composer Richard Adler.

1920s: Generally, the music world sees the collapse of the vogue for huge orchestras. See George Simon, The Big Bands. 1971.

1922: C. Dayton Miller, The Science of Musical Sounds. New York, 1922.


fire.gif - 12205 Bytes1923: Early electronic musician Thaddeus Cahill produces another instrument, the theremin, the first widely-publicized electronic instrument. But be it noted, that US music academic Christopher Yavelow regards Vladimir Ussachevsky of Rhode Island as "the father of American electronic music". The theremin is used in music by Bernard Hermann for the sci-fi movie classic (1951) The Day The Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise.

1923: Birth of Sam Phillips, later the rock 'n' roll legend of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. playerSMWHT.gif - 2218 Bytes

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1924: Death of Victor Mahillon (1841-1924), "the father of Organology"). Mahillon's collection of instruments went to help form the collection of Instrumental Museum of the Conservatoire Royal de Musique, Brussels. It contains many examples of C16th wind instruments. "It is unquestionably the first place that anyone with a special interest in musical instruments must visit", is the opinion of one writer on musical history - Baines.


In review: Charles K. Wolfe, The Grand Ole Opry: The Early Years, 1925-1935. 1973. (US country music history)


fire.gif - 12205 Bytes1926: World's first sound movie premieres in New York.

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1927: Piano development: Hungarian Emanuel Moor produces another kind of piano with two keyboards, a "duplex coupler Grand Pianoforte".


More to come

1929: Publication of: E. G. Richardson, The Acoustics of Orchestral Instruments. London, 1929.

From BBC Headlines of 13-3-2012 -
Leon Theremin: The man and the music machine
By Martin Vennard BBC World Service

Ninety years ago this month (13-3-2012) a young Russian scientist and inventor, Leon Theremin, was summoned to the Kremlin to meet Lenin. It was the start of an incredible journey that laid the foundations for modern electronic music. Leon Theremin had come to the Bolshevik leader's attention after inventing a revolutionary electronic musical instrument that was played without being touched. Theremin was nervous before meeting Lenin, but later said the demonstration of his invention, which became known as the Theremin, had gone well. "Leon Theremin was very impressed by the meeting with Lenin in the Kremlin. He was a young Bolshevik at that time and he was very excited by the changes in the country and he respected Lenin a lot," says his grand-niece Lydia Kavina. ¨He saw Lenin as a very intelligent person and Lenin fully understood the wild and new ideas of the young inventor, and also Lenin was very skilled in music and tried to play the Theremin himself and with quite a good success and that impressed Leon Theremin a lot."

The instrument consisted of a small wooden cabinet containing glass tube oscillators and two antennae - one sticking out the side and the other out of the top - which produced electromagnetic fields. Theremin played Lenin pieces including Saint Saens' the Swan. He then guided Lenin's hands - the right one moved to and from the vertical antenna, changing the instrument's pitch, the left one moved to and from the horizontal antenna, controlling the volume.

Theremin, an amateur cellist, had come up with the idea for his instrument shortly after the Russian revolution in St Petersburg. He was developing an electronic device for measuring the density of gases and noticed the sound it made changed depending on the position of his hand. Lenin was so impressed he sent Theremin across Russia to show off his instrument and promote the electrification of the country. "He went all around Russia and gathered great crowds in squares and in halls and made a sensation," says Albert Glinsky, author of the Theremin biography Ether Music and Espionage. He was then sent to Europe and the US to showcase Soviet technology and his performances received widespread coverage in the newspapers, with headlines about magical music being created out of the air. Continue reading the main story
(Theremin as found in film soundtracks ... Pierce Brosnan in Mars Attacks! Spellbound (1945), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), It Came from Outer Space, Ed Wood (1994), Batman Forever (1995), Mars Attacks! (1996) And in pop music, see The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations.

"When he arrived in New York it was to great fanfare and he was celebrated as one of the great scientists and his invention was hailed as the equal of radio," Glinsky told the BBC World Service. He performed at Carnegie Hall. His instrument also attracted the attention of the Radio Corporation of America, RCA, who offered him what was then the huge sum of $100,000 to manufacture it. A contract was signed on 12 March 1929, making RCA the first mass producer of an electronic instrument. "That moment was the beginning of a long progression that comes right up to this day when a young person goes into a store and says 'I want that electronic keyboard for my band,'" Glinsky says.

"RCA felt this was going to replace the parlour piano and anyone who could wave their hands in the air or whistle a tune could make music in their home with this device." The Theremin went on sale in September 1929 at the relatively high price of $220 - a radio set cost about $30. It was also much more difficult to play than the advertising claimed. And just one month later came the Wall Street Crash. "You took it home and found that your best efforts led to squealing and moaning sounds. So the combination of the fact that only the most skilled people could teach themselves how to play it and the fact that there was a downturn in the economy meant that the instrument really wasn't a commercial success," Glinsky says.

RCA halted production. Theremin saw little of the $100,000 he was paid, Glinsky says, which most likely went straight into Soviet coffers. But he stayed in the US for a while working on other projects, and engaging in industrial espionage.

"His very reason for being sent over was his espionage mission," says Glinsky. Demonstrating the theremin instrument was just a distraction, a Trojan Horse, as it were. "He had special access to firms like RCA, GE, Westinghouse, aviation companies and so on, and shared his latest technical know how with representatives from these companies to get them to open up to him about their latest discoveries. Continue reading the main story Find out more "He also ran his own companies, which were fronts for industrial espionage, and he reported to Amtorg, the Soviet trading corporation in America, itself a front for espionage activities." Theremin also developed a prototype drum machine and an instrument that responded to a dancer's movements, alarm systems and an electric door opener, but none of his inventions proved a commercial success, and he ended up in debt.

He met and married a young black American ballet dancer, Lavinia Williams, in 1938. Lydia Kavina says the relationship further compounded his financial problems. "When he got married to the black woman, this event turned a lot of bankers and his sponsors away from him. It wasn't a time when such a marriage would be acceptable in American society." Later that year he returned suddenly to the Soviet Union, leaving his wife behind. Some people suggested he'd been kidnapped by Soviet officials, but Glinsky says a combination of debt and homesickness led to Theremin returning voluntarily.

He returned to a Soviet Union in the grip of Stalin's purges. He was arrested and falsely accused of being a counter-revolutionary, for which he received an eight year sentence in 1939. He was sent to the Gulag in Siberia, but with war looming he was taken back to Moscow and, while still a prisoner, made to work on aircraft technology. He also developed highly advanced bugging devices that were used against foreign embassies.

Theremin was released in 1947 but returned to work for the state security system as a free man, then worked at the Moscow Conservatory where he worked on, and taught his instrument. In the US, the Theremin had been revived by Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Its eerie sound was used in films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound and sci-fi classics, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still.

A young Robert Moog, who went on to become a synthesizer pioneer, began making and selling Theremins. He later wrote that it was a "vital cornerstone of our contemporary music technology".

In the 1960s its sound made its way into popular music, most notably in the Beach Boys' song Good Vibrations.

Glinsky says Theremin knew little of what had happened to his most famous invention in the US until shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union when he was able to go abroad again.

The author met Theremin on his trip to the US in 1991. "He was honoured not only in New York, but he was brought out to Stanford University. I'm sure deep inside he was very grateful to be recognised by people who knew the worth of what he'd done."

Leon Theremin died in Moscow in 1993 aged 97. His invention is still made and played by enthusiasts around the world.


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For useful lists of songs songs songs by year. etc – and very impressive – see compilations at (Error 403 - Forbidden):

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