Bone Flute to Auto-Tune Project

“Bone Flute to Auto-Tune” is a course, a conference, and the framework in which I am developing my next book project.

This project stems from a desire to unsettle the notion that with sound recording or electronic instruments, “technology changed music.” This common notion not only oversimplifies the relationship between music and technology, it also casts music prior to the twentieth century as unconditioned by the tools used to make, store and transmit it. Scholars of music manuscript and print cultures have long told a different story: informed by the material history of the book, their work illuminates the ways in which technologies of music writing have been shaped by and reshaped existing musical practices. Recently, their work has been joined by scholarship that treats musical instruments not as the transparent vehicles of composers’ artistic intentions but rather as technologies formed through social negotiations and informing composers’ work. Emerging from within musicology, sound studies, history of science and STS, this new scholarly direction has been called “critical organology.” Yet, work in this vein has by and large addressed the relation of music to technology in historically isolated instances. This project undertakes a sustained engagement with music and technology over their long history, and across the range of tools for making, storing and transmitting music. It does not attempt a chronological narrative of music-technological development; rather, through a selection of case studies, it illustrates the kinds of questions and insights made possible by the comparative perspective of a long history. To give one example: auto-tune appears as a technology for correcting singers’ intonation. However, the notion of “in tune” to which the technology defaults comes from equal temperament – a compromise system wherein purity of intonation was sacrificed for the ability to play in all keys without retuning. Though technically possible much earlier, equal temperament became standard only with the rise of the modern piano – a fixed pitch instrument that is difficult to tune (the job typically being done by dedicated professionals), and the resonance of which makes equal tempered intervals relatively pleasing. Today, auto-tune is used to equal-temper the voice in contexts where neither modulation to distant keys nor fixed pitch instruments are any longer necessary considerations. But this is not only a tale of standardization erasing the expressive resource of variable tuning: artists have also discovered new expressive resources in the timbral effects of auto-tune. The case of auto-tune thus illustrates how a naturalized notion of being “in tune” grew out of social and technological conditions of previous centuries; how this notion shaped new technologies; and how these technologies gave rise to new musical possibilities.