Featured, The Art & Science of Sound

The Parallel Evolution of Music and Technology

The evolution of the sound of music is the result of technological and societal advances from the beginning of mankind. Music is produced for how and why we listen to it, and throughout human history, music has benefited from – and been at the leading edge of – technology.

When it comes to technology, sixty-one years is a long time and there is no doubt the state of technology from when KEF first started designing cutting-edge products to today has come a long way. But compared to the history of how music has been shaped by – and shaped – culture, it’s a mere blink of an eye: The relationship between technology and music goes back to the dawn of time. Since our humble beginnings in a Quonset hut in Maidstone, England all those years ago, we’ve been lucky to be a part of the most exciting and explosive growth in all of history. To help celebrate our birthday, here’s a brief look at the relationship between technology and music over the past 37,000 years or so, give or take a decade or two. 

At its essence, music is a means of communication. We’re lucky to live in a time when music is easily accessible and exists for our entertainment, but that wasn’t always the case. If you’re forty years old, your grandparents might have had access to a radio when they were kids. Your great-grandparents grew up without recorded music – every musical experience they had as kids was immediate and ethereal. Music simply ceased to exist after it was performed, except in memory or on some arcane notation on a piece of paper.


The first musical instrument was of course the human body itself – hand clapping and vocal utterances conveyed conditions like danger or available prey and as our needs evolved, so did our methods of making music. There are two instruments found among every ancient and pre-historic human culture – the flute and the drum, with remnants of primitive flutes dating as far back as 37,000 years. Animal bones and tree limbs provided the material for the first flutes, while the first drums were fashioned from animal skins and tree trunks.

Music was a means of conveying information and most importantly to record history. Today we use music for a variety of mostly personal reasons, and we tend to listen accordingly, but the use of music for strictly personal reasons is a modern development. Throughout history music was a communal experience; it wasn’t until recording and playback technology became widely available that we entered a period of personal or small social group listening. Obviously, festivals and concerts are still communal events, but they’re not the primary way we listen to music today. Seventy years ago, we consumed most of our music via live performances and a very small percentage through recorded means, but technology has completely reversed that. At once music has become more personal while technology has largely disconnected us from the performer and performance – and other people.
During the 20th Century, the nightclub, bar or pub played a major role in the development of jazz, rock & roll, country and blues. In the 1970s hip-hop ascended from the streets of the Bronx, embracing automobile culture along the way as a musical style often served best while on the go. Grown from the seeds of Jamaican dance-hall, hip-hop is the result of people expressing themselves using the instruments and technology available to them. Many inner-city schools didn’t have standard musical programs for kids to learn how to express themselves musically but that didn’t stop the desire – need – for expression. This led to innovative uses of what was available, and forty-five years later hip-hop is inarguably one of the most universal and enduring musical styles ever created. By comparison, rock and roll was king of the musical hill for only about thirty-five years. 
Today, we listen to music on smaller home systems while engaged in other activities. Therefore, it stands to reason that heavily produced and intricate music can become an annoying distraction – we are after the rhythm and the hook. That’s why contemporary popular music tends to forego complicated chord structures played by mid-range instruments like guitars and pianos. Because of the way we give our attention to music, we want bass-heavy music with an emphasis on the vocals and tension-inducing instrumentation like strings and keyboard-pads. Of course, there is still a lot of music being made with all sorts of different instrumentation, but for the sake of argument we’re focusing on popular music, which can best be defined as music meant for the greatest level of consumption via the most ubiquitous means available.
In the 1980s and 90s, music was largely consumed as an accompaniment to a visual medium. The 1980s were also a time of tremendous technological development, especially in the digital realm. Snare drums were bigger, melodies were brasher, and productions were bold and complicated. Recordings were bright and spread wide across the soundstage to ensure the songs played well over televisions and car radios. We had our communal musical experiences in hockey arenas and football stadiums; in order to reach people a quarter of a mile from the stage everything had to be bigger than everything else. Watch one of the greatest concert videos of all time, Stop Making Sense. The evolution of the band and David Byrne’s suit tells you all you need to know about that period of musical history.
The 1970s were probably the last decade of communal listening to recorded music, which truly only became a thing twenty years earlier anyway. Home stereos were reaching levels of quality never seen before, and without video games and the scores of other entertainment options available today, music was the thing that bonded people together. Live music was generally consumed in theaters and halls – and you can’t dismiss the influence of the substances being consumed by the audience – so music leaned toward the complicated and ethereal. Punk was meant to be heard in small pubs and nightclubs, so it was simple and loud, while disco, just like EDM today, was meant to be felt more than heard and bass and repetitive rhythms were the foundation of the genre. A generation before, jazz was played before small, discerning audiences in coffee houses and nightclubs, and simple quartets with acoustic instruments provided the intimate experience audiences expected.
Folk music and rhythm and blues joined together in the early 1960s to become the singular voice of the decade – and the glue that held one age group together while it actively and purposely repulsed another. Thanks to the transistor, the radio made music portable for the first time in history, but sound quality was limited so the ‘hook’ became the most important feature of a song. Could the melody cut through the noise and low-fidelity playback to become a memorable earworm? If not, it didn’t get any substantial exposure. As the decade ended, the multi-track recording studio allowed artists to put the totality of the music in their head onto tape. Music moved from corporeal to ethereal because of technology.
An interesting thing happened at the end of the 1940s: Generations stopped attending musical events – and dancing – together. Both of which had historically been a way across all cultures for one generation to introduce the next generation to adulthood. The split between generations started here, and the way generations consumed music was the driving force. Adults in the 50s grew up on communal live performances, whereas kids in the 50s were growing up on recorded music that was suddenly widely available – and intended solely for their consumption. Thousands of years of musical history changed overnight as a result of technology.
In the 1930s and 40s, concerts and dancehalls gained popularity, forcing musicians to play louder. Without the amplification technologies we have today, the way to solve that problem was through the sheer size of the music. Horn sections carried the melody while the “rhythm section” evolved to drive the beat.

At the start of the 20th Century, blues and country music was written for an immediate audience – typically a gathering on a front porch or church social – and stringed instruments were loud enough to convey the song to the intended audience. The subject matter was an extension of the storytelling and history-keeping that had always been music’s primary function. A sharecropper in Mississippi had a story to tell that was his and his alone, yet it was the exact same story a listener in Chicago could relate to – this was, and always has been, the connection we have to music and musicians.

From the Renaissance through the 18th Century, music began to grow from simple storytelling for a small audience to an artform intended for the people who had the money to subsidize the art and artist. Chamber and Baroque music, consisting of small stringed ensembles (typically a quartet in the European styles) was written for small audiences in rooms and halls in estates and palaces. As we entered the Industrial Age in the 19th Century, people found themselves with free time and disposable income. Music evolved alongside society and symphonic music, played by large orchestras in large halls for larger audiences became the norm. The technological advances that lead to the rise in personal wealth ushered in the era of the large-scale performance. Opera and theater styles such as kabuki were meant for audiences of a few hundred to a few thousand patrons in theaters designed specifically to transmit the onstage voice and music to the entire audience without any artificial amplification.

During this time, particularly in the West, church music began to take advantage of the massive cathedrals being built and new technology like the pipe organ. The argument could also be made that the massive churches and cathedrals in Europe were built as an expression of musical technology rather than a result of it. Exploiting the cathedral’s reverberation times, music became a supernal experience meant for the masses. Melodies were simple and repetitive, enhancing the meditative experience. A similar effect is obtained by the Islamic adhan recited from a mosque’s minaret by the mu’azzin – a musical call to the spiritual that goes directly to the soul of the listener.  
Throughout our history, we have had one constant companion – music. Sometimes using technology to lead us, and other times taking advantage of new technology to further enhance our experience with it, music is at once universal and highly personal.

Music is imprinted in our souls and cultures because of the messages it conveys – happiness, sadness, loss, regret, hope for the future, and a simple telling of stories we relate to as our own. It’s interesting to look at any genre of music and see how it was written, produced and performed for the intended audience and medium. It’s also interesting to look at how technology and progress has constantly changed our relationship with music.

Music is a reflection of the times, and the times are a reflection of what the music is capable of doing – a truly symbiotic relationship if there ever was one.

By Jack Sharkey for KEF
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