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Materiality of Musical Instruments: New Approaches to a Cultural History of Organology

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This research group was founded from the Leibniz-Gemeinschaft

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Project description

Our research group will develop organology as cultural history – a methodology combining aesthetics and history of science. Our aim is for a reorganisation and a consolidation of organology within musicology, in cooperation with neighbouring disciplines such history of science and acoustics, and the field of material culture. The artefact-based research profile of the Deutsches Museum is an ideal starting point for further collaboration with similar collections.

Our research group will develop organology as cultural history – a methodology combining aesthetics and history of science. Our aim is for a reorganisation and a consolidation of organology within musicology, in cooperation with neighbouring disciplines such history of science and acoustics, and the field of material culture. The artefact-based research profile of the Deutsches Museum is an ideal starting point for further collaboration with similar collections.

Materiality and Music Discussion Group: Research Projects-in-Progress

The discussion group on "Materiality and Music: Research Projects-in-Progress"
is organized by members of the research project "Materiality of Musical Instruments: New Approaches to a Cultural History of Organology".


Leon Chisholm Ph.D., research scholar

Organic Material: Wood, Organs, and the Industrial Revolution

Lewis Mumford described wood as “the most various, the most shapeable, the most serviceable of all materials” in the history of technology. Musical instrument makers have long taken advantage of wood’s versatility to create myriad instruments, from marimbas, ouds, and violas to clavichords, bassoons, and hurdy-gurdies. But perhaps no single instrument exploits the adaptability of wood more than the pipe organ. Its windchest, reservoirs, bellows, expression boxes, console, casing, portions of its pipework, and, in some cases, its internal moving parts, are all fashioned from the material. The sheer volume of wood (and other materials) involved, and the wide ranging craft knowledge required to manipulate it into thousands of diverse component parts, distinguishes organ building from other types of musical instrument making. The organ builder resembles the luthier as much as she does the shipwright.

The task of this project is to investigate the use of wood by a selection of European and North American organ firms before, during, and after the Industrial Revolution. I examine the types of wood and wood products that the builders use, their procurement of wood, their handling of wood in the shop, the values they assign to the material, and their incorporation of it in the pipework of organs. I also give attention to the role of wooden pipes in the construction of organs’ sonic identities and, particularly, the impact of the Tibia and Diaphone stop, both popularized by Robert Hope-Jones and widely adopted in theatre organs.

Why a wood-centred approach to investigating the history of the organ? One answer is that wood, while indispensable to organ building, receives little attention in organ scholarship. More importantly though, by focusing on wood, we open up the study of organ building to discourses surrounding other potentially relevant industries, including silviculture, forestry, shipbuilding, railroad construction, and factory-based manufacturing. A goal, then, of this project is to advance understanding the place of organ building in a broader history of technology. At the same time, this material-centred approach opens up a rich perspective on organ aesthetics, allowing writings by musicians, composers, critics, and audiences to be read against the practical concerns of builders.

Katharina Preller, M.A., doctoral student

Researching Sound and Materials: The Case of Helmholtz’s Steinway Piano

The dissertation project takes as its starting point a special grand piano at Deutsches Museum that reveals connections between acoustics research, instrument making and cultural history. It is the result of a collaboration between Hermann von Helmholtz and Steinway & Son. Built in 1871, it belonged to the physicist and physiologist and is now located at Deutsches Museum. Taking Helmholtz’s research on acoustics as a basis, Steinway built an early version of the so-called “duplex scale” into this piano. In order to increase the richness of the piano’s overtones, the outer portions of the string which have no influence on the pitch are brought into a proportional length to the main section and thus they resonate harmonically. Archive material and contemporary documents will be analyzed to reconstruct the process of this invention.

In terms of sound and method of construction, the piano has experienced particularly fundamental modifications throughout its history. Therefore this instrument provides a good basis to investigate how sound ideals changed and on which factors they depend. In the middle of the 19th century a more accurate picture of the structure of sounds and the behavior of strings was emerging in research on acoustics. Important publications, such as Hermann von Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone and as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music (1st edition 1863) and Siegfried Hansing’s The Pianoforte and Its Acoustic Properties (1st edition 1888) received attention among musicians and instrument makers. The new natural-scientific insights changed the working basis for craftsmen which to that point consisted in building traditions, personal experience and their practiced ear.

Furthermore this dissertation explores other experiments in sound and materials carried out by instrument makers during the past 250 years. Although this period seems to develop from wide diversity to a gradual standardization the search for innovations such as application possibilities of materials still goes on.

Dr. Rebecca Wolf, Research group leader

Materiality of Sound: Experiments in Musical Instrument Building, 1830–1950

This project focuses on the period between 1830 and 1950, when instruments were being made with a wide variety of materials and the insights of the burgeoning science of experimental acoustics led to novel experiments and innovations. Investigating the basic materials of musical instruments can bring to light previously hidden connections with neighboring disciplines such as the history of acoustics and materials science. Against this background, fascinating research questions arise: How did the craft of instrument building affect the demands that instruments placed on musicians and the expansion of instrumental capabilities?

To what extent can instruments be understood as practical experiments in knowledge production in the field of acoustics? What is the relationship between the materials of instrument construction and the ways that the resulting tone is heard and interpreted? For example, what makes the use of metal and other materials in woodwind instruments so thrilling, and how is this related to the musical culture of a specific period? What was the rationale for introducing surrogate materials – such as early plastics – that were otherwise widely found in the objects of everyday life, and that oscillate between lending an aura of novelty and one of cheap substitution?

These questions will be explored using the experimental results and written records of instrument makers, official reports on exhibitions, patent specifications, and music reviews. Due to the availability of materials, my examples are largely drawn from Germany, France, and the United States.Anhand von Experimenten und Schriften von Instrumentenbauern, Instrumentenschulen, Berichten von Gewerbe- und Weltausstellungen sowie Patentschriften soll diesen Fragen nachgegangen werden. Der Fokus liegt auf Deutschland, Frankreich und den USA. Ausgewählte Kompositionen mit Verwendung der entsprechenden Instrumente machen dieses Projekt für die Musikwissenschaft und ihre Analysemethoden besonders interessant.

Stephanie Probst, PhD, Scholar in Residence

The Line in Early Twentieth-Century Musical Visualization

This dissertation traces notions of line in musical discourses of the early twentieth century. It investigates not only lines in visible representations of music, but also as invisible (purely conceptual) manifestations. In the latter form, as metaphor, the line diffuses through musical treatises associated with varying aesthetic ideologies, by such prominent theorists and composers as Ernst Kurth, Ernst Toch, Heinrich Schenker, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, among others. In its graphic form, the line is employed in different formats of music inscription, including analytical representations, artistic renditions (such as by artists at the Bauhaus), compositional notation, and mechanical modes of recording sound (including annotated player piano rolls).

Across these sources, the line is applied to different musical parameters, from a motivic gesture to melody, counterpoint and form, and in each instance it assumes manifold connotations, such as coherence, continuity, expressivity. This research project explores how such associations could arise within the intellectual and cultural context of the early twentieth century, pursuing them in discourses in psychology and cognition, philosophy and aesthetics, science and technology, and the visual arts. These investigations are meant to expose the plurality of qualities that even a single token of imagery can encapsulate in music, tracing it through music’s different states – from its conception in the composer’s mind to the cognitive image in the listener’s mind, and from the expressive scribbles of a composer’s hand to graphological interpretations of these notated manifestations.

After completion of the dissertation, research as Scholar in Residence on the topic "Metrostyle: Shaping Musical Timing on Mechanically Perforated Rolls for Player Pianos."

William Bennett, Ph.D. Candidate in Music Theory, Harvard University

The Trautonium on Tape: Oskar Sala’s Sound-Effect Scores in the Films of Manfred Durniok

Following its invention in 1929, the Trautonium was hailed as a ‘new, perfect musical instrument’ (Patteson 2015). With its dynamic sensitivity, timbral range, and capacity for microtonal nuances and glissandi, it purportedly offered its user unrestrained – and hitherto unrivaled – sonic control. For decades, the Trautonium’s greatest exponent, and its only virtuoso, was the physicist and composer Oskar Sala.

For over thirty years, Sala collaborated with filmmaker Manfred Durniok, documenting subjects such as train stations (Gesicht des Bahnhofs, 1962), factories (Aus unserem Arbeitstag, 1969), West Berlin’s Teufelsberg (Teufelsberg,1994), and Harlem (New York, 1966). Each of these films had no diegetic sound, with music and effects all from Sala and his Trautonium. Renowned for his attention to detail and skill in synchronization – as well as the timbral capacities of his instrument – the soundscape flits between Foley, mickey-mousing, and music; there is no distinction between imitative and imaginative sonic practices. One moment factory workers’ gestures create strange melodies; the next, the sound of steam is presented in a perfect simulacrum. This play with imitative fidelity is evinced too in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), for which Sala provided the electronic effects.

Such examples buttress narratives about the sonic-sculpting capabilities of the Trautonium, and electronic musical instruments in general. However, a critical look at the materials of Sala’s estate, held by the Deutsches Museum archive, tells a more nuanced tale. My research is primarily focused on his tapes – demos, experiments, and works-in-progress – focusing on how they disclose the complexities of the compositional process. Preliminary research suggests Sala’s attention is often directed as much toward studio technologies, such as tape decks and reverberation units, as it is towards the Trautonium, manipulating pre-recorded material in myriad ways. Therefore, we might characterize the interactions of composer and sound technologies not as bilateral relationships ¬– mediations between discrete objects and the composer’s imagination – but rather as an engagement with a sound-creation environment. Fruitfully for the study of music and materiality, these insights into his compositional procedure challenge the categories of ‘instrument’ and ‘performer’. Furthermore, thinking of tape, effects, and Trautonium as bearing equal importance breaks down the perceived distinction between ‘sound effect’ and ‘musical score’, as well as complicating the relationship between approaches to electronic composition such as ‘electro-instrumental’, ‘concrète’, and ‘electroacoustic’.

Niko Plath, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Hamburg

Development process of the duplex scale as an example for prototyping in the late 19th century piano workshop

The late 19th century was a period of change with regard to piano production in several manners: Production methods changed from traditional craftsmanship to industrial mass production. Steinway & Sons was one of the first companies to implement modern industrial working methods in piano production: when opening a new factory in New York in 1870, they became the first manufacturer with vertical integration of the whole range of piano part manufacture. The approach to piano development changed from knowledge in terms of craft and experience (development by trial and error) to consideration of scientific findings and regular exchange with scientists. 1870-1890 was also the most innovative period for Steinway & Sons in terms of the number of obtained patents per year, driven mainly by the work of C. F. Theodore Steinway.

The so called Helmholtz-piano, a Style 2 model built in 1871, was used  at the factory as a workshop piano for experiments. Most prominently the  piano is a prototype in terms of the concept of duplex stringing. For  the invention of the duplex schematic, which was patented in 1872, C. F. Theodore Steinway is said to have been inspired by von Helmholtz’  thoughts on the perception of higher order harmonics, published 1863 in  ”Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik”. In 1881, C. F. Theodore Steinway presented the piano as a gift to Hermann von Helmholtz in appreciation of the impact of his work on the company’s piano development. Since 2009, the piano is situated as an exhibit at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany.

Aim of this work is to trace the development process of the duplex scale  as an example for prototyping in the late 19th century piano workshop. Acoustical investigations of the earliest examples of implemented duplex schematics allow to shed light on the question of how much of the development in that time period was still a trial-and-error approach or already a methodical process based on empirical findings. Design parameters from several Steinway grand pianos from the time period 1870-1885 are obtained, e.g. string length ratios, angles from main string to front duplex, boundary conditions and string diameters. For a modern grand piano, the influence of the duplex schematic on the vibroacoustic behavior and the aural impression is extensively covered by Öberg and Askenfelt. In the current research, acoustical measurements are performed on several pianos from the late eighteen hundreds to examine, if introduced constructive changes have any significant effect on the generated sound and to allow a comparative analysis of both historical and contemporary instruments. Further, it is investigated if the intended effect was instantly perceivable, or if the development was firstly based on a theoretical concept, which was later refined to enhance a certain tonal character. Possible implications for recent instrument building from the findings on the Helmholtz-piano are discussed.

Walter Chinaglia, Master Organ Builder at Organa, Como, Italy Visiting Fellow, July-August 2018, Research Fellow January 2019-April 2020

Building an organo di legno


During my residency at the Deutsches Museum, I am building a new Italian Renaissance-style organo di legno (an organ that consists of open wooden pipes) based on the famous sixteenth-century organ of the Silberne Kapelle in Innsbruck. The new organ will be an organo positivo di legno, one of the largest among the organi di legno described by early sources. It presents a unique opportunity to explore and show the Renaissance organo di legno as an integral, unified instrument in which early modern music, art, science and craftsmanship converge.

The project builds on my work from last year, which resulted in two smaller organi di legno. The sound that these earlier instruments produce is likely similar to one that was intimately familiar to musicians in early modern Italy, including Claudio Monteverdi, yet one that is all but lost today. Since their completion in December 2017, these two organs have been used in performance and are thus helping to reintroduce the sound of the organo di legno with its open wood pipes to modern-day early music groups, who usually use small organs with stopped wood pipes.

The project comprises four sessions. During the first session, I will construct two ranks of pipes, a Principale and a Flauto, from cypress wood, from the 8' bass pipes up to the 1/8' treble pipes. I will also begin work on the keyboard. The second session will centre on the construction of the windchest. The third session will focus on the building of bellows with five pliers. In the fourth session, I will continue the work on the keyboard that I started previously. I will also work on the mechanical action.

In my work as builder of organs in historic styles, my philosophy is to limit myself as much as possible to the tools and materials that were available to builders from the historical period in question. This is the approach I take in building the new organo di legno. Yet constructing a modern organ in a historical manner presents conundrums. While the current Innsbruck organ will serve as my model, the new organ will differ from it in several ways. Split chromatic keys, a common feature of Renaissance organs, will be added. A reed stop that was originally included in the Innsbruck organ (later replaced by the Fiffara) will be reintroduced. The two bellows will be placed inside the case, as they were in the original Innsbruck organ (today, the bellows are located behind the organ). The thickness of the walls of the pipes will be refined. The windchest will be adapted to withstand modern heating systems.

Claudio Albrecht, BA , Institut für Musikwissenschaft, Universität Wien

Glass-sounds: sound analysis and digital exhibition

The Deutsches Museum in Munich holds 6 playable glassinstruments (one piano and one verrophone, a trumpet, a flute and two glass harmonicas) in its collection. These instruments form the basis of this research project.
The goal of the project is to measure the sound of the 6 instruments by recording single samples across the tonal range. Those single samples can be further used to generate a digital sample library to make the sound of the instruments accessible to a broader population without having to use the actual instrument.
Furthermore the sound can be analysed by using Music-Information-Retrieval and other tools to make the glass-sounds comparable to other instruments. The project wants to make a contribution to researching instruments made of glass, which have a long tradition in european instrument making.
Through a cooperation between the Viennese department of musicology and the research group „Die Materialität der Musikinstrumente. Neue Ansätze einer Kulturgeschichte der Organologie“, Claudio Albrecht and Prof. Christoph Reuter will record the sounds of the instruments with their equipment. The instruments will be played by colleagues and recorded using capacitor microphones, two placed near the instruments and two near the ears of the person playing. The direct sound as well as the sound reaching the ears will be recorded and analysed, to contribute to the understanding of the instruments in the analysis as well as in the digital sample library.

In einer Kooperation mit dem Institut für Musikwissenschaft der Universität Wien und der Forschergruppe „Die Materialität der Musikinstrumente. Neue Ansätze einer Kulturgeschichte der Organologie“ am Deutschen Museum in München werden Prof. Christoph Reuter und Claudio Albrecht die Instrumente mit Equipment ihres Instituts vermessen.
Die Messung der von Personen gespielten Instrumente wird unter Verwendung von Kondensator-Messmikrofonen erfolgen, die an den Instrumenten selbst sowie an den Ohren der spielenden Personen positioniert werden. Sowohl der abgegebene Direktschall als auch das beim Ohr ankommende Signal der Glasinstrumente kann so für ein besseres Verständnis der Instrumente in die Klanganalyse/Sample-Library miteinbezogen werden.

PD Dr. Martin Rempe, Universität Konstanz, Scholar in Residence

Between Art and Military Music: On Jean-Georges Kastner’s knowledge about musical instruments

The project focuses on the knowledge about musical instruments, including their sounds and playing techniques, of the French composer and musicologist Jean-Georges Kastner (1810 to 1867). I am mainly interested in the conditions of the production of this knowledge and its specific content, to be exemplified by three instruments: the ophicleide, the saxophone, and the kettledrum. I will argue that, first of all, Kastner’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge about musical instruments was based on his careful establishment of a European network of musicological experts. Secondly, Kastner’s knowledge profited enormously from his broad interest in instruments of all kinds, which clearly transcended categories such as art music and military music. Thirdly, with respect to the three instruments mentioned above, I will argue that Kastner’s state-of-the-art knowledge in organology represented a new threshold in the scientification of this discipline. Altogether, Kastner’s activities reveal the formation of a transnational “military-musical complex” in the first half of the 19th century and shed new light on the cultural history of organological knowledge production.

Dr. des. Charlotte Holzer, Deutsches Museum, Conservation Science, Research Fellow

Glass instruments: Possibilities and boundaries of non-destructive XRF analysis

Six musical instruments made of glass are the focus of my material science research project: a glasschord, a set of musical glasses, a trumpet, a flute and two glass harmonicas from the museum collection. The project builds upon the conservator Hanna Kirst’s examination of these instruments, which was conducted in conjunction with a sound analysis by Christoph Reuter and Claudio Albrecht from the University of Vienna. The potential of easy, non-destructive methods for the research of glass, such as portable x-ray fluorescence analysis and diagnostics with UV radiation, will be determined.

The results of this purely qualitative analysis will be discussed in relation to the instruments’ manufacturing context. To that end, research into historical sources on the production of glass instruments in Europe will be conducted, though limited by the dates of the artifacts. If the fluxing agents in the glasses are successfully identified, conservation guidelines regarding an ideal climate for the display and storage of the objects can be outlined. Researchers worldwide can access the findings of this project through the virtual exhibition on the Materiality of Musical Instruments.

Julin Lee, B.A., student researcher

Exploring the Agency of Oskar Sala and the Mixturtrautonium through the Lens of the Actor-Network Theory

Oskar Sala (1910–2002) and the Mixturtrautonium – two entities that have become inextricably intertwined in present-day cultural memory. Coming on board the Trautonium’s developmental phase under Friedrich Trautwein in 1930, Sala, possessing both musical and scientific expertise, helmed the subsequent technical evolution of the instrument. Touring extensively, Sala thrust the Trautonium into public attention through his virtuosic performances during his career which spanned the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and post-World War II Germany, thus strengthening the Sala–Trautonium association. He successfully further developed the instrument into the Mixturtrautonium in 1952, which he used to produce over 300 soundtracks for film and television in his studio in Berlin-Charlottenburg Germany. He found his niche in underscoring and providing sound effects for film and television, especially the industrial films of the 1960s and most prominently, the avian sounds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

Utilizing the Actor-Network Theory and approaches in Science and Technology Studies, this research project investigates Sala’s reciprocal relationship with the Mixturtrautonium he himself developed and how this influenced his creative output. Particular focus is given to the Mixturtrautonium, which Sala highlighted as his “fascinating instrument” amongst the various electronic sound generating equipment in his personal studio. While Oskar Sala drove the Trautonium’s technical evolution from its prototype to its final stage, the Mixturtrautonium in turn gave Sala new tone generating capacities and novel timbres, which enabled him to establish a distinct, idiomatic sound for his works. The subharmonic features of the Mixturtrautonium prompted Sala to reconsider notions of musical texture and to develop a new understanding of the concept of ‘harmony’ in his compositions. Concepts of virtuosity are also reworked in the case of Sala and the Mixturtrautonium: Virtuosity not only lies in the expert coordination of finger and pedal techniques but also in the skilful generation and the tasteful modulation of timbres. Through interacting with his instrument, Sala developed the ability to harness a wealth of sound material and develop his own aesthetic, which enabled him to operate within the entire continuum from noise to sound and music.

Viewing the Mixturtrautonium’s agency through the lens of the Actor-Network Theory has proven useful in highlighting certain previously unaddressed aspects of the instrument’s history, thus strengthening the case for broader approaches in the study of musical instruments so as to construct a more comprehensive history of any musical instrument under consideration.

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