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High notes go high tech

Self-tuning pianos? Squeaky toy orchestras? Music technology isn't just for pop anymore.

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Don't expect to hear your local symphony play a suite for daxophone anytime soon.

Oh, the daxophone is a real musical instrument all right, one of hundreds invented in the last century. German Hans Reichel created it out of a long, thin piece of wood mounted in a clamp. The player bows it and uses another piece of wood to control the pitch.

"It sounds like a fantastic elf or gnome," says David Vayo, a professor of music at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.

Most people are aware that in recent decades computers and electronic synthesizers have revolutionized popular music. But acoustical innovations are also continuing - without much fanfare.

A quarter-note flute that can play twice as many notes as a conventional model has gained some popularity. And earlier this year, inventor Geoff Smith announced he had created a device to give the piano "fluid tuning," meaning it would no longer be confined to the 88 tones created by its keys. That way, the piano could be tuned to play music from other parts of the world not based on the 12-tone Western system.

This year also marks 20 years since electronic music really took off and created a gap with conventional symphonic music that has yet to be closed.

"A whole industry of electronic instruments that started out being pretty wacky have become commercial," says Tod Machover, head of the Hyperinstruments/ Opera of the Future group at MIT's Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. "You can't buy a CD these days that hasn't somehow been produced using a computer."

But while the popular music revolution is complete, the modern symphony orchestra looks essentially as it did 150 years ago. The reason, observers say, is simple economics. Traditional pieces, which make up the bulk of most orchestras' performance schedules, call for traditional instrumentation. Composers generally are given commissions to write for orchestras, and in turn, their works tend to fit the existing instrumentation. Meanwhile, orchestras struggling to fill seats are reluctant to challenge their remaining audience too often with the unfamiliar, including new instrumentation.


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