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Musical Inventions and Inventors

We’re coming up with some bright ideas this week on the show! (Photo credit: Pixabay)

This week on the program, the Ether Game Brain Trust is coming up with some bright ideas. We hope you’re feeling inspired, because we’re looking at innovation and discovery in music and exploring some musical inventions and inventors!

Here’s our inventive playlist, which will surely get that light bulb shining!


  • Beethoven and Mälzel’s Metronome – An important musical invention that emerged right around the turn of the 19th century was the metronome. The modern metronome was invented and manufactured by a man named Johann Mälzel. Beethoven was friends with Mälzel, and became one of the first composers to use this new time-keeping device. Having access to this brand new technological wonder, Beethoven applied tempo markings to many of his works. On the autograph score of the first movement to his Hammerklavier piano sonata, for instance, there is a Mälzel metronome marking of 138 beats per minute. The only problem? That’s really, really fast. For instance, this Daniel Barenboim performance only clocks in at around 96 bpm. In fact, most of Beethoven’s metronome markings are much faster than how we play them today. So why the discrepancy? Some have assumed Beethoven’s Mälzel metronome was broken, while others assumed Beethoven liked really fast tempos and didn’t care what others thought. And yet others assume that maybe since he was mostly deaf at the time, his judgment of tempo was perhaps a little inaccurate.

 

  • John Philip Sousa and his “Sousaphone” – When you see this march by John Phillips Sousa live or in a parade, it’s probably accompanied by one of the most iconic brass instruments of the low brass section: the Sousaphone. Developed in 1893 by Sousa and James Welsh Pepper, the instrument is a staple of American military and marching bands, replacing the tuba with a bass horn that wraps around the performer and projects sound through a forward facing bell. Sousa called for the invention of a new marching tuba after he became dissatisfied with its predecessor: the Helicon. The helicon was basically a small tuba that sacrificed tone for comfort while marching. Sousa fixed this problem by giving his marching tuba a gigantic bell that rested above and behind the shoulder of the player. The first sousaphones were made of brass but more modern instruments are constructed of fiberglass, making it lighter and more comfortable to play.

 

  • Adolphe Sax and his “Saxophone” in Pictures At An Exhibition – You may have noticed the voice of an instrument not usually heard in symphonic music on this recording; the haunting melodic line of Mussorgsky’s The Old Castle  was played on the alto saxophone. But we can’t give Mussorgsky credit for choosing the instrument. That was done by Maurice Ravel when he produced this well-known orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The saxophone, which is used only in this movement, was invented around 1840 by Adolphe Sax, who marketed the saxophone primarily as a wind band and military instrument. The first version of Pictures at an Exhibition was composed in 1874, at which time the saxophone was still a rare oddity. When Ravel produced his orchestration in 1922, the instrument was rising in favor with composers. Ravel, the master of tone colors, must have thought that the expressive, singing quality of the alto saxophone suited this movement, which depicts a medieval troubadour sitting beneath the wall of an ancient castle.

 

  • Bach’s fifteen “inventions” – Another important musical invention is the musical genre known as the “invention.” The term “invention” first started showing up in musical treatises in the Renaissance, referring to the creative act of composition itself, like the rhetorical device of inventio. Vivaldi, for instance, referred to his famous set of violin concertos that contained the Four Seasons as “Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione,” or “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention.” Johann Sebastian Bach wrote fifteen inventions for the keyboard as student exercises. These inventions are written in imitative two-part counterpoint, allowing the student to learn how to play independent musical lines with each hand. He paired these fifteen inventions with fifteen sinfonias. That’s the name he gave to the three-part contrapuntal pieces that ramp up the difficulty ever so slightly.

 

  • Alexander Borodin, the organic chemist – Alexander Borodin was a Russian composer capable of creating some of the most inventive melodies in 19th-century Romantic music. This melody from his second string quartet, for instance, was reused as the melody for the tune “And This Is My Beloved,” a song from the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet. But Borodin lived a second life, and was equally inventive in this other career. Alexander Borodin’s day job was as a chemist at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. Most of Borodin’s research was in the field of organic chemistry, especially in the branch known as “organic synthesis,” that is, bonding organic compounds together. One of his most notable achievements was the invention (or really discovery) of the aldol reaction. The aldol reaction bonds the carbon atoms of simple organic molecules to each other, creating more complex organic compounds.

 

  • Theobald Boehm’s flute in Debussy’s Syrinx – It’s not uncommon to hear a piece for solo flute these days, but before Debussy wrote Syrinx in 1913, the most significant piece of solo flute music had been published 150 years earlier by C.P.E. Bach. Syrinx marked a pivotal point in the development of solo wind music, and its composition would not have been possible without the invention of the Boehm Flute. Invented by German flautist Theobald Boehm in 1847, Boehm transformed the flute from the fairly limited wood instrument of the Baroque era to the metal, fully chromatic instrument that we know today. Debussy originally wrote the piece without bar lines, giving the performer ample room for expression. This, combined with new techniques made possible by the Boehm system, showed audiences the full emotional potential of the unaccompanied flute, and brought to life the ancient subject that inspired the piece. Debussy named the work for the beautiful nymph Syrinx, who is accidentally killed by Pan in a tragic love story.

 

  • Josef Strauss, polymath inventor – As the younger brother of the “Waltz King of Vienna” Johann Strauss II, and the son of composer Johann Strauss I, Josef Strauss only reluctantly went into the family business. Josef initially had other interests. He took courses on mathematics at Vienna’s Polytechnic Institute and studied drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts. He later pursued a career as an architect and mechanical engineer, published two books on mathematics, wrote an anthology of poetry, and also wrote a five-act drama, sketching the costume and set designs himself. Josef Strauss was also an inventor: he invented a street-cleaning machine later adopted by the city of Vienna! It was only after his brother Johann fell ill briefly in 1853 that Josef began conducting and composing, strictly on an interim basis to fill in for his ailing brother. And as it turned out, he excelled in that too, writing nearly 300 original dances.

 

  • George Antheil, bad-boy inventor (with Hedy Lamarr) – Self-styled as the “bad boy” of music, George Antheil’s aggressive music blends a number of trends in the twentieth century—the anti-Romantic objectivity of Stravinsky, the Futuristic fascination with machines, and the fad for blending art music and popular culture. This American composer was the enfant terrible of the Parisian music scene in the 1920s, and was constantly reinventing himself. He composed film scores, wrote essays for Esquire, published a murder mystery, and even dabbled in electronics. His affinity for electronics put him in touch with, believe it or not, Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr was also a tinkerer, and during World War II, she wanted to leave Hollywood and become an inventor. Together, Lamarr and Antheil invented a radio-controlled torpedo guidance system that hopped around to different frequencies to avoid detection by radar. Aspects of their invention are still used in telecommunications today, and Antheil and Lamarr were even inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame.

 

  • Les Paul, guitar innovator – Les Paul was not only a world-class musician, but also a pioneer of the electric guitar. Paul was always a tinkerer: when he was a teenager, he invented a neck-worn harmonica holder and experimented with achieving an amplified and sustained tone on his guitar. Later in life, he was an innovator in the studio, experimenting with multitrack recording, heard prominently in this version of “How High The Moon” (and the many overdubs of singer Mary Ford). Les Paul’s most famous innovation was an early electric guitar prototype he lovingly called “THE LOG.” “The Log” was a piece of construction lumber fashioned with guitar strings and a rudimentary electronic pickup for amplification. He even attached pieces of a regular guitar to either side of it to make it look a little more appealing. “The Log” was one of the first solid body electric guitars, and he sold the idea to the Gibson Guitar Corporation in the 1940s. They eventually took him up on the offer, and the solid body Gibson Les Paul guitar, later used by thousands of rock guitarists, still bears his name.

Music Heard On This Episode

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