Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Technology of Rock and Roll

I spent the day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.  I had not been there before but I quickly realized that I had been missing out on something special.  The museum does an excellent job covering everything from the roots of Rock and Roll (in musical genres as disparate as Delta Blues, Gospel, and Bluegrass), to the artists, costumes, and memorabilia of fifty years of entertainment.  Being interested in technology, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how technology helped shape Rock and Roll.  The museum had many pieces of recording equipment of historical interest including the first four-track tape recorders used by the Beatles in their pioneering album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  The museum also had Les Paul’s first solid body guitar which he made from a fence post with a guitar neck bolted onto it.  In the tradition of all innovators, Paul was shunned by the Gibson Guitar Company for a decade before they were finally willing to build his instrument (and the rest, as they say, is history).

Perhaps more than any other form of music, Rock and Roll is driven by technology.  The amplifiers, guitars, sound boards, recording equipment, microphones, even the lighting, are integral to the music.  It is tempting to think that Rock and Roll is unique but I think technology has always been one of the prime motivators that has advanced musical forms.  For instance, the piano forte (now called just the piano) replaced the much less capable harpsichord.  Other examples are the valves that were added to horns and the technology that allowed more consistent production of strings for instruments.

Our technology enhances our arts, our humanity.  The arts are one of the few uses of technology that seems to me have no downside.  You may not like a particular genre of music or a particular artist but new technology allows artists to find new levels of expression that convert ideas and instruments into something with a deep sense of life.  Rock and Roll is just the latest in a long series of musical steps from that first stick beating on a hollow log to today’s highly sophisticated artistic creations.  In the words of one of the classic songs of the era:

I love that old time Rock and Roll, That kind of music just soothes the soul!

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