Live vs recorded music

Discussion of the relative merits of live and recorded music probably started as soon as recordings became widely available. As the fidelity of recorded sound improved, the discussion evolved somewhat, but it still continues. One of my professors in college disapproved of recorded music, but frequently attended concerts. He did not even own a record player. I have never met anyone else who prefers live music to the absolute exclusion of listening to recordings, but I know lots of people who agree that there is an immediacy in live performances that recordings cannot duplicate. What’s more, recordings must be almost … Continue reading

Vienna, 1800: the divergence of classical and popular music

Revised February 27, 2017 What kind of music do you think of when you think of Vienna? Classical music, of course. Extra credit if you thought of Johann Strauss and realize that his waltzes aren’t classical music. But did you know classical music was hard to find in Vienna in 1800? Mozart had been dead for nine years. Haydn was an old man close to retirement from composing. The young Beethoven had made a strong start in establishing his reputation. Schubert was only three years old. And most of the public idolized musicians you’ve probably never heard of. In fact, … Continue reading

Tension and resolution, or, an odd musical alarm clock

In tonal music (that is, the majority of what we listen to), each chord has a function. One chord, the tonic (the chord build on the first note of the scale) is a place of rest. Once the key is firmly established, every other chord has some degree  of tension that demands eventual resolution to the tonic. Probably every listener knows, at least instinctively, whether the occasional pause in a piece is on the tonic, a fit place to end, or something else, which requires the music to continue. Professional musicians, of course, are acutely aware of the tonic. If … Continue reading

The birth of the popular music industry

In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, a rigid social stratification arose when the ruling classes began to patronize music for their own entertainment that none but their peers ever heard. The nobles usually maintained wind bands for ceremonial purposes and keeping common people entertained. These bands played tunes that everyone knew. I have described this social stratification in some detail in an earlier post. As I tried to demonstrate there, “classical” music started in the eighteenth century when the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie started liking the same music. By that time, everyone had forgotten most of the music formerly … Continue reading

The buccin: a dragon-headed trombone

In the early nineteenth century, some  French and Belgian instrument makers manufacturered a fanciful adaptation of the trombone known as the buccin. In place of the standard bell section, it had a widely curving tube  ending with a gaudily painted serpent’s or dragon’s head.  The same makers also put monster’s heads on serpents, serpent bassoons, and other precursors of the ophicleide. Judging from the trombone parts in French music during or after the Revolution, the was played loudly, primarily in the lower register.  As the French used a very small-bore trombone, its sound must have been coarse and at times … Continue reading

Trombone vs bull

This article, copied from the September 23, 1841 issue of the [Pittsfield, Massachusetts] Sun speaks for itself: Trombone vs. Bull.–The Lafayette (Louisiana) Chronicle, in enumerating the various definitions given to the word “gentleman,” relates the following anecdote: An intoxicated trombone player was returning from a country ball, and while crossing a field he was accosted by a bellowing bull. What with the darkness in the eyes of a man who could not have seen straght had it been daylight, the trombone player mistook the bull for a brother musician,and the bellow for a defiance to a trial of skill. Possessessed … Continue reading

An ear for music

Lest anyone doubts that Rossini’s music was once deemed contemptible by lovers of classical music, English publisher Vincent Novello visited Europe in 1829 with the hope of hearing good music (specifically Mozart) in the land of its birth. He was disappointed. In Mannheim, he noted in  his  journal, “Heard Rossini’s Overture to “Barbiere de Siviglia” on the Piano Forte. . . I should have preferred hearing something by their celebrated townsman John Cramer, but sterling music appears to be at a very low ebb here, . . .” In Vienna, he wanted to find Beethoven’s last residence, and was upset … Continue reading

Popular singing and the invention of the microphone

Bing Crosby and microphone The microphone, like all successful new technology, had a profound impact on life and culture, including the development of entire new industries. It affected music in numerous ways. For one, it enabled the development of an entirely new approach to singing popular songs. Before the microphone came along, people singing in public had to develop a technique of vocal production that could make their voices heard in the farthest corner of the largest venues. Opera singers were the first to require it, but they were not alone. Singers of American popular music did not need a … Continue reading


Armies have used trumpet calls as signals to the troops for centuries. Because early trumpets had no valves and early trumpeters played only the lowest notes in the overtone series, only four or five notes are available. When trumpets became fully chromatic in the early nineteenth century with the invention of valves, military calls did not take advantage of the easy availability of extra notes. In fact, the military soon gave up trumpets in favor of bugles for their basic calls. As simple as these calls must be, someone had to compose them. In recent history, the task has usually … Continue reading

Untouched by performers’ hands: the theremin

The theremin, named for its inventor Louis Théremin, is the only instrument that is played without the performer touching any part of it. It uses two ultrasonic oscillators, one of fixed pitch and the other variable. The variable frequency oscillator is attached to an antenna. Audible pitch results from the heterodyne interaction of the two oscillators. That is, what we hear are the beats between two ultrasonic pitches, the difference tones. The frequency of the pitch results from how close or how far away the performers right hand is to the antenna. The performer’s left hand similarly controls the volume … Continue reading