Bone Flutes, Pianos, and iPods: Notes on Music, Technology, and Embodiment

by Jonathan De Souza

14 Mar 2010


Is there any connection in the way that music and technology interacted at the dawn of history and today?
The word “technology” commonly refers to modern inventions—the ubiquitous machines, large and small, that fill our daily lives. Likewise, in the world of music, “technology” is often shorthand for modern methods of sound reproduction. This association is evident in the subtitle of Mark Katz‘s emblematic book on the impact of recording—Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. But what if we take a broader view of technology, looking beyond our modern era? Doesn’t technology—especially in the realm of music—have a much longer history?

Consider for instance what archeologists unearthed in southwestern Germany during the summer of 2008. There, the archeological team uncovered fragments of three Paleolithic era musical instruments made from bone and ivory that resembled the modern flute. One of these bone “flutes”, despite being found in a dozen pieces, was remarkably complete in design. This delicate instrument—not even a foot in length—was carved out of a vulture’s wing bone with stone tools. With five finger holes and a notched end, it was probably blown from the end like a Japanese shakuhachi. The other two flutes were made of mammoth ivory, just like a figurative sculpture found nearby.

Maybe the most important thing about the “Hohle Fels Flutes”, however, was their age. The creation of these primitive instruments dates back some 35,000 years, preceding the construction of even the wheel by 30 millennia. As the Hohle Fels flutes demonstrate, people have used technology to modify the world since prehistoric times, making use of objects and techniques to help them hunt, stay warm, and even create music. The Hohle Fels flutes serve then as powerful a reminder that technology has been changing music (and changing musicians) many millenia before such modern inventions as the iPod or even the phonograph.

Hohle Fels Flute

Hohle Fels Flute

Try for a moment to imagine the initial impact that the new sounds emanating from the bone flutes must have had on these prehistoric ears. By arranging pitches through a set of finger holes, which a Paleolithic musician could play by covering in various combinations, new sounds were realized to supplement the vocal range of our ancestors. Perhaps just as importantly, these innovations, regardless of the primitive context, not only opened up new ways of thinking about music, but also at the same time opened up new ways of touching it.

After all, tactile aspects of instruments are important because the acts of thinking and touching are deeply entwined. As theories of grounded cognition argue, the mind isn’t a metaphysical computer; it can’t be separated from the body. Instead, thought grows out of our embodied abilities. When we see, we only see through the viewpoint afforded by our eyes. When we hear, we only hear a certain the range of frequencies detectable to our ears. Our sense of space is tied to our bodies’ immersion in an environment. What we know, understand, or imagine is related to our senses, to the ways we move in and interact with the world. These kinds of ideas have driven diverse research, such as J.J. Gibson‘s ecological psychology or Maurice Merleau-Ponty‘s Phenomenology of Perception.

This perspective is linked to both the world of technology and music. Tools and instruments don’t just enhance existing abilities. Often, they actually transform the way someone does (or thinks about) an activity. When you use a calculator, for example, you don’t need to do all the math in your head—what you have to do instead is push buttons in the right order. This is a key point from Edwin Hutchins‘s seminal work on distributed cognition, which considers “the system of person-in-interaction-with-technology”. Music is full of such systems, where technical instruments and embodied action influence each other. Instruments, as a rule, facilitate certain kinds of musical actions that the body performs through direct physical contact.

As technology goes, the bone flute is fairly simple, yet already made to plug into a human body. Its holes match up with the hand; its notched end, with the mouth. The body, then, shapes the instrument at the same time the instrument shapes the body. Instrumental music emerges from this resonance between body and tool, marked by both their possibilities and their constraints. A flutist, for instance, must learn special ways of breathing and coordinating the fingers—techniques that are specific to the technology.

* * *

Bartolomeo Cristofori Piano

Bartolomeo Cristofori Piano

Obviously, this three-way interaction between music, technology, and the body isn’t unique to the Stone Age. It’s taken various forms in different times and in different places. Consider, for instance, a more recent and familiar example: the piano.

Already, this may feel more “technological”. After all, a piano is a large and intricate machine, a carefully calibrated assemblage of wood and metal parts. Its present design has developed over a fairly long period of time. Starting in the early 18th century, Bartolomeo Cristofori experimented with a hammer mechanism that could combine the power of the harpsichord with the dynamic range of the clavichord. While the piano was fairly well established around the 1770s, the technical innovations continued throughout the 1800s. By the end of the 19th century, Steinway & Sons had registered nearly 70 patents for their technologically sophisticated instrument.

Initially, pianos were handmade by teams of skilled artisans. In the second half of the 19th century, though, the production of pianos, like everything else at this time, became increasingly industrialized. Prices dropped as more instruments—still of a quality nature— hit the market, which helped cement the piano’s place in middle-class parlors across Europe and North America.

Along with this boom in piano-building came a boom in music publishing. Through four-handed transcriptions and piano-vocal scores, people could now hear Mozart symphonies or Rossini operas—pieces that usually required big, expensive orchestras—played in the privacy of their own homes. Four-hand arrangements also let pairs of amateurs play difficult pieces that were originally written for a solo pianist. All of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, for example, were rewritten as do-it-yourself duets. As musicologist Thomas Christensen has discussed, such transcriptions both democratized and commercialized music in new ways.

This emerging popular culture, however, depended on specific technical features. The piano’s wide tonal range meant that it could imitate large ensembles. The size and layout of the keyboard meant that two people could play it simultaneously. Still, all this would have been meaningless without the pianists’ embodied knowledge. Though the instruments and sheet music were mass-produced, musical sound only emerged through a musician’s physical labor. Pianists practiced scales and finger exercises, developed a tactile intimacy with the space of the keys, and cultivated the technique necessary to operate this complex musical machine. As with the bone flute, then, the instrument opened itself to the player, while reshaping the player at the same time.

While this particular combination of technology and embodiment produced certain kinds of sounds, it also influenced ideas about music’s cultural significance. In Horace Greeley’s 1872 book, The Great Industries of the United States, the newspaperman-turned-politician claimed that “The piano-forte may be properly declared to have been the most important single influence which has wrought the social change for the better.” Playing the piano in the nineteenth century, therefore, helped construct social bodies, especially for bourgeois women. The physical discipline that musical training honed became a mark of their social distinction, of their gender and class identities—identities which also restricted their performance to the domestic sphere.

Throughout the 20th century, of course, sheet music and the parlor piano were largely displaced by new musical technologies—player pianos, records, radios, tapes, CDs, and, finally, in the 21st century, iPods. But what does the interaction of music, technology, and embodiment look and sound like in the Age of the iPod?

//Mixed media

Call for Music Writers... Hip-Hop, Soul, Electronic, Rock, Indie, Americana, Jazz, World and More

// Announcements

"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…

READ the article