Technology Used in Musical Compositions

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  • 0:04 Technology in Musical…
  • 1:02 Electronic Instruments
  • 4:43 Audio Editing Software
  • 6:03 Electroacoustic Music
  • 8:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

In this lesson, you'll learn about how technology has changed the way composers make music. You'll encounter electronic instruments, audio editing tools, and electroacoustic music, and then take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Technology Used in Musical Compositions

A few centuries ago, in the time of Mozart and Beethoven, the tools for composers were pretty simple: a pen, sheet music, and perhaps an instrument, like a piano. Technology beyond these simple tools didn't exist. Many of the great masterworks of the Classical era were likely written by candlelight.

Fast forward to the present day. Just as technology has changed radically in 200 years, so has the array of tools available for today's composers. Musicians still write music for acoustic ensembles like orchestras and string quartets, of course, but composers can also write new kinds of music using technology. They can publish their own scores using software and a laptop. Some composers even write music specifically to be performed by computers. There's almost no part of the music world that hasn't been changed by the digital age.

In this lesson, we'll look at some of the ways technology has impacted how composers write music.

Electronic Instruments

You've probably heard music played by instruments that use electronic amplification. Amplification makes an instrument louder through the use of speakers, amplifiers, or other means. These instruments can include electric guitar, electric base, and a singer holding a microphone. The technology that makes amplification possible has been around for over half a century. Once amplification became popular, it didn't take long for inventors and musicians to realize the same technology could be used to create new sounds from acoustic instruments. Using pedals, filters, and other devices, musicians could alter the sound that emanated from their amps, creating a whole new sound palette for performance.

One common device like this is the wah pedal, also occasionally called the wah-wah pedal. The wah pedal was developed in the 1940s, but is perhaps most popular for its use in the 1960s by guitarist Jimi Hendrix. It allows a musician, usually an electric guitarist, to alter the overtones of the sound that reaches the speakers by changing the position of the pedal. The musician can use the pedal to create a wah or waka-waka sound, which you might recognize from the Shaft movies.

The 1970s saw the advent of synthesizers, electronic machines capable of creating sounds using a series of simple sound waves. Often, synthesizers worked through additive synthesis: they would combine simple sound waves to make a more complex sound wave, resulting in a sound unlike any acoustic instrument. For example, a sine wave is one of the simplest types of sound wave; it has a clean, pure sound. Several sine waves can be added together to form a sawtooth wave, which has a much harsher and brighter sound. By merging the sawtooth wave with a new sine wave, a composer can make an even more interesting new sound. Often, synthesizers will feature a piano keyboard that can play back the sound wave at any pitch, enabling the sound and the synthesizer to be used for live performance.

Synthesizers feature prominently in just about all popular music of the 1970s and 80s, but recognizable examples can be found in music by Thomas Dolby, Devo, and even classical composers like John Adams. Synthesizers are still used regularly in all areas of the music world, but many developers have created banks of sound designed to be playable by a wide series of electronic instruments.

Modern electronic instruments often function using a computer language called MIDI, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. This coding language allows computers to communicate with special musical instruments called MIDI controllers. MIDI controllers are played just like regular instruments, then translate the live performance into MIDI data that can be read by a computer. The information they record includes things like pitch and rhythm, but a MIDI signal also includes information for things such as volume and modulation, which allow a musician to play as expressively as they could on a live instrument. Computer programs called sequencers can translate the data into a readable form, allowing the musician to edit the MIDI data of their performance later on. When used with a library of synthesized instruments, MIDI can be used to reproduce large orchestral works with synthesized sounds. It can also allow a musician playing a MIDI controller to change the instrument's sound into anything for which they have a series of sound samples.

Audio Editing Software

In addition to performance using electronic and MIDI instruments, composers use computers to create and edit recordings of their work and often to create new works that use the computer as the instrument. This is possible using audio editing software specifically designed to allow the musician to edit and add effects to be recorded or synthesized sounds. There are many different kinds of audio editing software out there, but the most common is the Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW.

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