Nowadays most of the music we hear is created electronically. It’s a modern development, but even before the days of radio, pioneers were at work in the field.
On March 16, 1906, a concert took place in the ballroom of the Hotel Hamilton in Holyoke, Massachusetts, that changed the nature of music in our century. The program, including selections by Schumann, Beethoven, and Bach, was standard concert A fare. But the music that filled the hall was made by an entirely new instrument: a music synthesizer.
Nearly a mile away the gears of the first synthesizer spun. The two-hundred-ton instrument, called a telharmonium, filled the cavernous space of a renovated factory. The current that flowed from its 145 alternators was channeled through a maze of telephone switches and directed via telephone line to the hotel, where it emerged—astoundingly—from a single loudspeaker placed on a chair in the middle of the dance floor.
The audience and press in attendance were ecstatic. Ray Stannard Baker, a writer for the popular McClure ‘s Magazine , described the music as “singularly clear, sweet” and surprisingly free of “the whir of machinery.” A writer in Electrical World called the instrument’s tone “remarkably pure and beautiful.” Other reporters hailed the telharmonium as the herald of democracy in music, since it would allow people hundreds of miles apart to have synthetic music delivered right to their homes via telephone. This incipient revolution in the production and distribution of music was the work of a man named Thaddeus Cahill.
The audience at the Hamilton witnessed the first demonstration of a technology that would pave the way for today’s film soundtracks, jingles, Muzak, and pop hits. The synthetic drumbeat of rap music, the bleeps and explosions of video games, and the talking instrument panels of luxury cars all owe their existence to a group of inventors who transformed electricity into sound. Using technology borrowed from the infant telephone, radio, and motionpicture industries, they created a new genus of musical instrument during the first forty years of this century.
When Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone, in 1876, no one predicted it would have any effect on musical technology. But the concept it demonstrated—that electrical energy could be made audible—was crucial to the development of electronic musical instruments. Bell was by no means the first to investigate this phenomenon. In 1837 Charles Grafton Page, of Salem, Massachusetts (who later became a patent examiner), was fiddling with horseshoe magnets and a zinclead battery when he discovered he could produce a ringing pitch by interrupting the connections to the battery. He had no idea why this happened, and neither he nor anyone else who tried could go from there to making music.
One solution appeared nearly forty years later. In 1874 Elisha Gray (best known for his long legal battle with Bell over the patent for the telephone) returned home one day to find that his nephew had attached a vibrating reed and several electric circuits to his bathtub. The contraption made a humming noise whenever the circuits were opened or closed. Inspired by the youngster’s handiwork, Gray created a “musical telegraph” using single-tone telegraph transmitters played from a one-octave keyboard and received by an electromagnetic transducer shaped like a washbasin.
Both Gray and Bell were fascinated by “electroharmonic telegraphy,” mainly as a potential way of transmitting multiple telegraph messages over a single wire. Gray continued to develop concepts for electrical music demonstrations for three years after his first experiments. Then after Bell introduced his successful telephone a number of scientists took up the study of electroacoustics.
Thaddeus Cahill was one of those scientists. A trained musician, part-time lawyer, and admitted dreamer, Cahill had experimented with electricity since his boyhood in Iowa. After moving East, he patented an electric typewriter in 1893, at the age of twenty-five. An avid baseball fan, he worked on one of the first efforts at ballpark floodlights and constructed a rudimentary automatic pitching machine that reportedly threw a mean curveball. Electrical music was the obsession that gripped him most profoundly, and the concert in Holyoke was the culmination of twenty-two years of work with electricity. As he wrote in his patent application, the “grand objects” of his telharmonium were to “generate music electrically with tones of good quality and great power and with perfect musical expression.”
While studying music at Ohio’s OberHn Academy in 1884, Cahill had encountered the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz’s theory of overtones. In his pioneering 1863 work On the Sensation of Tone , Helmholtz showed that the complex sound waves produced by musical instruments were actually the sum of many simple, related waves. Through mechanical means Cahill set out to create and combine the dozens of basic waves needed to reproduce the sounds of musical instruments. This technique, called additive synthesis, is still used today.
The telharmonium used dynamos to generate the simple sound waves. Cahill mounted cogged metal wheels, which he called rheotomes, onto twelve axles. As these “pitch shafts” rotated, alternating sections of the rheotomes made contact with the metal brushes attached to an electrical circuit. Using this elementary alternator design, each contact produced an electrical oscillation, which in turn generated sound waves. The speed of the shaft’s rotation controlled the wave’s pitch.
To expand the variety of simple waves, Cahill attached several additional rheotomes of different sizes to each pitch shaft. By carefully sizing the rheotomes, Cahill was able to generate the frequencies of the “overtone series” described by Helmholtz. The instrument had a simple mixer that controlled the blend of the simple waves produced by each shaft. Though the telharmonium sound had an odd, electronic tone—similar to that of a vibrating wineglass—Cahill was able to create recognizable facsimiles of instruments, including the French horn, oboe, flute, and cello.
As a nod to musical convention, the telharmonium was given two keyboards, arranged one on top of the other, as on a two-manual organ. Each key, when depressed, closed the circuits of a specific group of rheotomes and produced a tone. Like a piano’s, these keyboards were touch-sensitive: the harder a key was pressed, the louder the sound. The instrument also had several hand and foot controls.
Despite the conventional keyboard, to the casual observer the telharmonium must have resembled a power station more than a musical instrument. Because it operated without the benefit of amplification, the instrument had to be designed to produce from 12,000 to 15,000 watts for each rotating element. The contraption’s 145 alternators were attached to pitch shafts that measured 6 to 30 feet long. The colossal machine was supported by 60-foot steel girders mounted on brick supports. Nearly 2,000 telephone switches connected its various circuitry.
Not surprisingly, it was a very difficult instrument to play. The performer sat at the two keyboards and, disconcertingly, heard the music he played through a single telephone receiver behind him. Cahill eventually had to hire a professional keyboardist, Edwin Hall Pierce, to master the device and teach others to play it.
To go with the machine, Cahill had an ambitious marketing and distribution scheme for the music it produced. In a system that anticipated today’s ubiquitous Muzak, he planned to pump synthetic music, or “telharmony,” directly into people’s homes via their telephones—for a small subscription fee, of course. His instrument was constructed with that in mind.
In 1900 Cahill had begun working full-time in Washington, D.C., on a single-keyboard prototype for the telharmonium. Two years and $200,000 later he had completed a working model. In a savvy fund-raising ploy he quickly arranged a demonstration to broadcast the music directly into the home of the electrical-industry baron George Westinghouse. Westinghouse was impressed enough to offer Cahill some funding and recommend other backers. The inventor also got support from the British mathematician and physicist Lord Kelvin. With such influential contacts he raised enough money to set up a factory in Holyoke. In 1904 he founded the Cahill Telharmonium Company with his two brothers.
Encouraged by the reviews from his concert at the Hamilton and similar demonstrations in Holyoke, Cahill advertised for potential subscribers for his in-house music in New York City. As he had hoped, the initial response was resoundingly positive. He moved his equipment to the offices of the newly formed New York Electric Music Company (which became known as Telharmonic Hall) at Thirtyninth Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Thirty railroad cars were required to transport the two-hundred-ton instrument.
In the fall of 1906 Cahill began his telephone broadcasts to subscribers in the New York area. Problems arose immediately. The enormous amounts of power that the telharmonium generated caused its music to leak into phone lines all over the city. Cahill frantically sought solutions, but he found no way around this elemental design problem, and legalities prevented him from running his own telephone wires.
Soon the novelty of the telharmonium wore thin. The instrument’s unorthodox sound ultimately grew annoying to listeners. Sensing disaster, Cahill’s financial backers withdrew support one by one, and the company collapsed in 1911.
The telharmonium was unceremoniously dismantled. Some accounts allege that the instrument was dumped into the Atlantic, while others maintain that it was sold as scrap. With this humiliation Cahill effectively withdrew from public life.
While it would be easy to dismiss Cahill’s creation as a grand failure, it did establish two important capabilities that performers and composers expect from synthesizers: control over the quality of the tones, and the ability to produce music shaped by the performer’s sensibility and technique. Cahill’s designs survived and were incorporated—with several modifications —into the Rangertone and Hammond electric organs of the 1930s.
Before long a second generation of synthesizers appropriated technology from the emerging radio industry. In 1907 Lee de Forest patented the grid audion, a three-element (triode) vacuum tube that detected and amplified radio signals. In another decade this would make long-range wireless broadcasting possible. In 1915 he applied for a patent on an oscillator circuit that generated a sustained electronic signal. With the audion and the oscillator, de Forest had found a way to create electronic amplification, which meant that massive generators (like Cahill’s) were no longer needed to produce electrical sound.
The audion glowed with an eerie light when charged with current. De Forest was fascinated with what he called the “music of the lamps,” the sounds made by audions coupled with an oscillator. Though he was not a musician, he designed a primitive instrument in 1915 that used a keyboard to control the pitch of an audion’s electronic hum. By placing his finger on or close to certain parts of the circuit, he was able to vary the timbre of the humming of the tube to mimic traditional instruments. He found this device endlessly captivating and wrote, “In all my work with the audion, I have never found any phase of its unlimited possibilities quite so interesting as this of producing musical notes.”
A second fundamental principle of radio broadcast, the heterodyne circuit, had been patented by Reginald A. Fessenden in 1902 and was first employed in high-frequency alternators and arc oscillators. Heterodyning—or mixing—two signals to obtain a third “beat” frequency is a basic concept behind AM and FM radio. Soon after the First World War, Edwin Armstrong developed a more practical version of this phenomenon, “superheterodyning,” which produced an intermediate frequency that could be amplified more cleanly and effectively than others. In the twenties a number of musical instruments were invented based on the superheterodyning principle. The most successful model from this group came from the Russian physicist Lev Sergeivitch Termen (anglicized to Leon Theremin) in the early twenties. He named his instrument the Thereminvox or the Aetherphon, but it came to be known simply as the Theremin.
The Theremin’s two radio-frequency oscillators generated signals well above the range of human hearing. The frequency of one oscillator was fixed, while the other was variable. The difference between those two frequencies caused a “beating,” which, in turn, produced a sound that had some of the overtone structures of the voice and the violin. By successively changing the frequency of the variable oscillator, a melody could be played.
Besides this method of tone production, the Theremin differed from the telharmonium in two important ways. First, it was a monophonie instrument, producing only one note at a time. Second, it could not mimic traditional instruments; it had a fixed tone that the player could not alter, aside from its vibrato.
This, curiously, gave the instrument great expressive capabilities in a manner uniquely controlled by the performer. Musicians played the Theremin simply by waving their hands near the circuit. While introducing his creation, Theremin announced, “I visualize great possibilities in connection with the problem of controlling sound material by means other than mechanical, by the free movement of the hands in the air.”
Specifically, the frequency of the Theremin’s variable oscillator was controlled by the fluid motion of one’s right hand in the electromagnetic field of a vertical antenna, causing changes in pitch. At the same time, volume was controlled by similar movements of one’s left hand near a second antenna that projected horizontally from the side of the instrument. While performing, Theremin looked like he was physically coaxing sound from his unwieldy instrument.
The Theremin caused an enormous stir in Europe. A concert at the Paris Opera in 1927 attracted such a large audience that police had to be called to keep order. The French pushed and shoved to get a glimpse of the Russian as he conjured sounds from his mysterious contraption. Theremin brought his instrument to the United States later that year; it was publicly unveiled at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City and met with lukewarm reviews.
To a large extent the dramatic performance technique of the Theremin accounted for both the positive response from audiences and the negative reactions of many musicians. Because the instrument produced a continuously variable pitch with no breaks between notes, playing it in tune required stamina as well as precision. Consequently, very few performers were willing to devote the necessary time to master it. Theremin finally conceded his design flaws and later produced a keyboard version of the instrument.
Despite the mixed reactions to its American debut, the instrument was eventually embraced by composers and the concertgoing public, thanks to a few Theremin virtuosos who appeared in later years. Several avantgarde composers, including Edgard Varèse, Joseph Schillinger, Andrei Paschenko, and Bohuslav Martinu, all wrote for the instrument. Filmmakers found the Theremin’s eerie, gliding tone ideal for futuristic sound effects, and it made its way into the soundtracks of King Kong , The Day the Earth Stood Still , and many other features.
The inventor granted RCA Victor a license to produce the instrument commercially in 1929, but its $500 price tag placed it beyond the means of most Depression-burdened households. Though sales were never brisk, Theremins were sold in limited numbers in the early 1930s—many to radio stations for special effects. Robert Moog, a leading figure in synthesis in the sixties and seventies, later produced a transistorized version of the instrument, which a player controlled by moving a slider on a track instead of waving his hands in the air. When the Beach Boys were looking for a catchy sound for their 1966 hit “Good Vibrations,” they settled on the whining of Moog’s Theremin.
As inventors kept devising new ways to convert electricity into sound, an entirely different family of instruments emerged in the 1930s—ones that converted modulated light into sound. Logically enough, some of the first experiments were sponsored by film studios. The Fox Film Corporation found the earliest reliable approach, based partly on developments pioneered by Lee de Forest and Theodore W. Case. Their Movietone system, first used commercially in January 1927, incorporated an “optical soundtrack” that was recorded directly onto the film, thus eliminating synchronization problems.
In optical soundtrack systems light is translated into sound using a photoelectric cell. The cell’s electrical output depends on the amount of light it senses. When the cell is exposed to fluctuating amounts of light (caused by the varying degrees of opacity of the optical soundtrack), a fluctuating current is produced. The signals can then be amplified and converted to sound.
In Germany in the early thirties, students at the Bauhaus synthesized sound by drawing and painting directly onto the film soundtrack, a laborious process analagous to cartoon animation. (Walt Disney introduced moviegoers to a visual caricature of such soundtracks in his 1940 film Fantasia .) While these early experiments were conceptually important to sound synthesis, other inventors explored the possibility of making musical instruments using more advanced optical technology.
One inventor, Frederick Sammis, combined soundtrack technology with a standard keyboard instrument to create a “singing keyboard.” Sammis had moved to Hollywood in 1929 to lead RCA into the era of film sound. By that time he was already familiar with the Moviola, a sound- and filmediting table that incorporated photoelectric cells. Using methods that were being developed for talking pictures, he recorded sung and spoken words onto individual strips of film. He then attached the resulting strips to the keyboard in such a way that a specific strip would be drawn across the optical cell when he depressed a corresponding key.
Although Sammis’s singing keyboard was never manufactured commercially, it became the conceptual forerunner of several musical instruments built in the 1960s. The Mellotron and Orchestron, staples in the equipment of pop groups such as King Crimson, Tangerine Dream, and the Moody Blues, played actual recordings of acoustic instruments, and became in turn the ancestors of today’s digital samplers.
Other scientists took a different approach to photoelectric tone production, using rotating “tone wheels.” Theremin worked with this method in 1931, when he constructed his Rhythmicon, a device that rotated a pair of perforated disks between a light source and a photoelectric cell. The machine was, essentially, an electronic drum that produced especially complex rhythms. Though the inventor only built two Rhythmicons, the machine had a considerable influence on New York’s musical community in the 1930s, when the composer Joseph Schillinger used it to instruct students including George Gershwin. Still, the device had limited capabilities for composition, and it fell into obscurity after Schillinger’s death in 1943.
Ivan Eremeeff, an inventor who devised several electromagnetic instruments in the thirties, took the concept a step further with his more ambitious Photona. Built in 1935 at radio station WCAU in Philadelphia, the machine employed a system of twelve circular disks representing the twelve notes on the chromatic scale. Each disk had several slits cut into it and was rotated by a motor between its own set of 75 six-volt automobile lights and a photoelectric cell. The speed at which the disk rotated controlled the frequency of the alternating current generated by the cell, thereby controlling the pitch.
The instrument had a number of organlike stops that activated the various groups of lamps, and circuits that controlled the amount of current flowing to the lamps. These contrivances allowed the player to manipulate tone by adjusting the amount of light that fell on the photoelectric cells. With its 900 lamps the Photona was more a brilliant engineering curiosity than a practical instrument, and its popularity was relatively brief.
The Second World War effectively ended advances in the Photona and other synthesizers, as wartime needs dictated new priorities. Scientific developments in areas like communications were accelerated, while industries like musical-instrument design were virtually ignored. In fact, many promising electronic instruments made in Germany in the 1930s were destroyed during the war. While the actual music machines of the early twentieth century may not have endured, the concepts they introduced certainly did. And they were essential to the development and distribution of sound, and to the ultimate triumph of Cahill’s “democracy” in music.