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Innovation Rocks the Music World — From Sticks to the Recording Studio

5 Oct 2015 by Teresa Meek

Technology is constantly evolving — not unlike a living organism. It isn’t static. It isn’t constant. Which makes it disruptive. Businesses, even niche businesses, often forget to, or choose not to, evolve with technology and are turned upside down — because their products, their policies, their customer interface becomes, simply put, outdated. We live in a consumer-driven world, and we are often drawn to technology everything — from convenience to novelty. This is Insight’s Disruptive Technology series. We will be addressing how technology enters an industry and does exactly that — disrupts.

Please turn on your speakers for this article — there are many links to music.

Oct. 10 is Universal Music Day, and people everywhere will be giving and attending concerts ranging from classical and jazz, to rock, country and rap. Others plan to donate instruments to schoolchildren, host fundraisers or honor artists of the past through podcasts.

Playing a universal language

Music is a universal language, and probably dates back as far as humans do, though scientists can only guess about its expression in the ages before writing began.

Most likely it started with rocks and sticks used as percussion — and of course, the human voice. By 4000 B.C., the Egyptians had harps and flutes; 500 years later, they had lyres and double-reed clarinets.

An early trumpet surfaced in Denmark a thousand years later. The guitar dates back to about 1500 B.C.

The oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, the epitaph of Seikilos, was created in ancient Greece, and you can hear its beautiful and haunting melody here. The lyrics are as relevant today as they were when it was written in 100 B.C.:

While you live, shine.

Have no grief at all.

Life exists only for a short while,

and time demands its toll.

Many centuries passed before modern western musical notation developed. It was preceded by written symbols created in the Middle Ages for the Roman Catholic mass and other liturgical celebrations, commonly known as Gregorian chant. Chant has recently experienced a surge in popularity with the music of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century nun, philosopher and visionary who is also credited with being the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.

During the Renaissance, multi-voice and multi-instrument polyphony was created by masters Gabrielli and Palestrina to take advantage of cross-balcony cathedral acoustics. Monteverdi was one of the first to write opera.

The Baroque period brought us music masters we still listen to today: Bach, Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Scarlatti, Purcell and Pachelbel. And everyone is familiar with Mozart, who epitomizes the Classical period; and Beethoven, the Romantic.

In the modern era, composers like Debussy and later Shostakovich began going beyond traditional tonal structure — and Schoenberg made it completely atonal.

Listening from afar

The 20th century’s analog — and later, digital — representation of sound changed music forever, especially as the quality improved.

No longer did you have to go to a concert on a cold, icy night to hear your favorite artists — you could enjoy them in the comfort of your living room.

YouTube made it even easier to find them — though granted, sound quality doesn’t compare to listening through quality speakers, which most people don’t have on their computers.

Headphones brought a whole new dimension to music listening that some aficionados say "changed the world."

Transforming music with technology

Technology did more than make listening to music more convenient. Programmers started experimenting with computer music back in the days of giant mainframes. The first music program was written by Max Mathews at Bell Labs in the early 1960s. It was a 17-second piece that synthesized the sound of the human voice on an IBM 704 computer.

Now, computer algorithms write music all the time. You may not know it, but you’ve probably heard some of their tunes in movies and TV ads, as well as videogames and smartphone apps.

Making music together

Today’s technology allows musicians to collaborate in completely new ways using platforms like Kompoz. “Upload your song idea to Kompoz. Invite others to jump in. You might get a drummer in France, a keyboard player in Nashville or a bass player in Malaysia,” the company’s website says.

Even people who aren’t professional musicians can join a musical “flash mob” organized through social media, like this one in Seattle.

Revolutionizing music next

While music consumption and distribution have been fully disrupted by the Internet, production of tunes is next to be transformed. Thanks to Landr, you don’t have to be a recording engineer to sound like a pro. The cloud-powered tool uses a sophisticated learning algorithm to eliminate the manual, human-powered work. A song gets recorded, then mixed. It’s mastered in the last step, adjusting the audio for the best listening experience, as well as for a vinyl or digital format.

We’ve come a long way since the days of the Epitaph of Seikilos. But it reminds us that music, like life, lasts only a short while, and we should use our tools to let it shine.