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Pitch, Tone, and Note

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter recasts the terms “Pitch,” “Tone,” and “Note” as far-reaching historical-materialist categories, with a view to expounding and defending the following ideas: (1) there is an immanent developmental logic to the way that Pitch, Tone, and Note have changed over time; (2) this trajectory of development is open to empirical investigation and to explanation anchored in the concrete features of human practices and institutions and their environing natural and social contexts; and (3) this developmental dynamic has had, and continues to have, appreciable consequences for many aspects and types of “musicking.” After setting up a Marxian framework, we then put these categories to explanatory work in a series of three case studies concerning the development of music’s “forces of production.” The origins of music printing, the evolution of piano manufacture, and the birth of sound synthesis are used to reveal causal linkages between changes in musical practice and trends in capitalist development.

The familiarity of the words “pitch,” “tone,” and “note” belies their conceptual unruliness, which reveals itself as soon they are laid bare to a bit of philosophical cross-examination. Are tones more like qualities that attach to quality-bearers, or are they more like events that have causes? That is, is a tone “rather like the redness to the apple, than it is like the burp to the cider” (Bouwsma 1965, 49), or vice versa? More to the musical point: when a musical instrument vibrates as a “sounding body,” to use that venerable Rameauian locution, does it possess a tone or does it produce a tone? Does a tone have a pitch, or is it the other way around? If pitch is a feature of tonal events, is it an essential feature, one that tones cannot lack? Is any given tone associated with one and only one pitch, such that a change in pitch is necessarily also a change in tone? Is the whine of an ambulance siren best described as a single tone with an undulating pitch, or as a gradual oscillation between a high-pitched tone and a low-pitched tone, or something else? Are tones and pitches subjective attributes (experiential properties? mental events?) that are to be distinguished from the physical vibrations that are their extramental basis? And what about notes? Is a note a sonic entity, a written symbol, a cognitive category, something else, all of the above? Are notes to tones (or to pitches?) as numerals are to numbers, or as words are to concepts, or what? Do notes describe tones (and/or pitches?), or prescribe them, or designate them, or stand to them in some other relation of aboutness?

Rather than attempting to manicure the conceptual landscape by offering tight formal definitions of “pitch,” “tone,” and “note,” we prefer to embrace the terminological messiness.1 Hereafter, we will treat “pitch,” “tone,” and “note” synecdochically, that is, as adaptable omnibus terms that cover wide-ranging domains of interrelated and overlapping phenomena for which there is no single designation in common use. Let “Pitch” serve as the category heading for the material (physical, quantifiable, causal, naturalistic) space in which music’s sonic material has its objective, determinately measurable being;2 “Tone” for the ideal (cognitive, notional, ideational, perceptual, phenomenological, affective, emotional, normative) space in which this material is sensuously and intellectually present to perceivers and knowers; and “Note” for the symbolic (representational, communicative, interpersonal, semantic, semiotic) space in which informational exchanges about sonic/musical material are transacted by members of epistemic and linguistic communities.3 (Capitalization of these terms indicates that they are being used in this free-wheeling and encompassing manner, with due apologies for the Hegelian look that this lends to the text.) We must emphatically state at the outset that these three realms are not strictly demarcated from one another. Rather, they are dialectically united—reciprocally determinative, interpenetrating, and mutually presupposing, in ways that it is the task of a historical-materialist theory of music to spell out. In detailing, concretely and in extenso, the interrelatedness of Pitch, Tone, and Note as they subsist at a given “politico-historical conjuncture” or “articulation,”4 one would in effect describe an entire musical “form of life” (Lebensform), to borrow a Wittgensteinian term (Wittgenstein 1986, 8). Indeed, it could with some justice be said that a musical practice is nothing other than a network of agents and actions located at a historically and culturally specific confluence of Pitch, Tone, and Note.

Our main purpose is to make plausible the ideas (1) that there is an immanent developmental logic to the way that the domains of Pitch, Tone, and Note have changed over time (such that they have a history, properly so-called, and not merely a past); (2) that this trajectory of development is open to empirical investigation and to explanation anchored in the concrete features of human practices and institutions and their environing natural and social contexts (such that the history in question is a materialist history); and (3) that this developmental dynamic has had, and continues to have, numerous and appreciable consequences for “musicking”—that is, any and every manner of “contributing to the nature of the event that is a musical performance” (Small 1998, 9)—in the broadest possible sense of that purposefully broad word.

The way this task can be carried through, in our view, is by means of a Marxian organology, which is to say a materialist history of musical technology.5 We shall contend that it is principally by virtue of the directional and progressive historical development of technology, a deep-seated and non-contingent feature of the capitalist mode of production, that “the nature of the event that is a musical performance” gets caught up in the forward procession of history. By thematizing the societal acquisition of technological capabilities under conditions of the capitalistic generalization of the commodity form, we hope to make it seem credible that there is a certain directedness to the way that key aspects of the physical domain of sonic possibilities (Pitch), the historically determined “normative sensory imaginary” (Nolan and McBride 2015, 1073) (Tone), and conventional systems of sonic-musical symbolization and semiosis (Note) have changed over time. Prima facie, it may seem that a technocentric account of Pitch, Tone, and Note would be remote from the analytical and pedagogical concerns of music theory as it is nowadays understood and practiced. Quite to the contrary, we think, a Marxian approach to musical technology reveals much about the historical preconditions for the possibility of having this set of concerns in the first place (and thus about the preconditions for the possibility of modern music theory as such) and also about the ineliminably historical character of certain distinctively music-theoretical objects of concern (such as, for instance, musical works). Historical-materialist organological inquiry, that is to say, provides a means whereby the cultural practice of music theory might attain a judicious self-consciousness about itself as a historically situated human institution.

In the first portion of the paper, we touch on some of Marx’s own arguments concerning the “directional dynamic and trajectory of capitalist history” (Postone 1996, 320) and reflect on the applicability of those arguments to technological change within the realms of Pitch, Tone, and Note. In the second, we offer three case studies that attempt to cash the methodological checks we write in the first.

Toward a Marxian Organology

In a footnote to his discussion of machinofacture in the first volume of Capital, Marx notes that historical treatments of the industrial revolution had yet to achieve scientific rigor.

A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the 18th century are the work of a single individual…. Darwin has interested us in the history of nature’s technology … Does not the history of the productive organs of humanity, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? … Technology discloses humanity’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which humankind sustains its own life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of its social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.

(MECW, 35:375n2)6

In technology, Marx sees a clue for coming to understand how human life is perpetuated in and through an open-ended, metabolic interaction with nature. And, as Marx makes abundantly clear, by “life” he means more than the maintenance of a heartbeat. “Life” refers, instead, to the whole of our metabolism with nature as social animals, predicated as this communal self-sustenance is on the preservation of an elaborately fashioned social and institutional world. This social world is one that we are compelled to continuously reproduce if we are to sustain a recognizably human, and not merely mammalian, mode of existence. And it is a world in which the “life-process of society” must eventually be “treated as production by freely associated people … [and] consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan” (MECW, 35:90) if the species is to attain a fully human, and not merely recognizably human, mode of existence.

To the degree that music-making is a pervasive part of the reproduction of “life,” understood in Marx’s rich and valuative sense, the study of music is implicitly addressed by his programmatic statement about duly scientific (wissenschaftlich) inquiry into technology. What Marx says suggests that we ought to turn our gaze toward the music’s “productive organs” to see how they might “lay bare the mode of formation” of the social relations and mental conceptions proper to a definite form of musical life. The Marxian wager, then, is that technological, thus organological, inquiry can help pinpoint a mediating link between, on the one hand, specific embodied musical practices and, on the other hand, large-scale socioeconomic processes—notably, for Marx, value production and capital accumulation—that work themselves out in accordance with their own indwelling logic of developmental self-propulsion.

The use of organology to illuminate historical concretizations of Pitch, Tone, and Note necessitates an opening up of the concept of the musical instrument so that admittance to the category is extended to any enabling device whatsoever that enters into the production of music. “Instrument,” in this intentionally indiscriminate usage of the term, thus includes in its referential field many implements that don’t get “played” in the conventional sense, such as a score, a baton, a microphone, a sound mixer, a turntable, a metronome, a concert hall. “Instrument” can be stretched even further so as to cover what the radical economics literature dubs “paratechnical relations” (Giddens 1973, 233). These are defined as “patterns of social interaction in the material process of work which emanate from the ‘cooperative collectivity’ among the employees involved” (Welskopp 2002, 92). Musical paratechnical relations, accordingly, correspond to the totality of norms and conventions, tacit as well as explicit, unreflective as well as consciously applied, that organize the division of labor at the point of musical production.

Bukharin (1925) saw the modern symphony orchestra as a repository of paratechnical relations, relations he regarded as both symptomatic of a particular moment and level of economic development and as inseparable from the instrumental technologies employed by the ensemble:

The organization of persons is also directly connected with the bases of the social evolution. For instance, the distribution of the members of an orchestra is determined precisely as in the factory, by the instruments and groups of instruments; in other words, the arrangement and organization of these members is here conditioned by musical technique (in our restricted [technological] sense of the word) and, through it, based on the stage in social evolution, on the technique of material production as such. (191–192)

The claim that the makeup of the orchestra is “based on the stage of social evolution, on the technique of material production as such” is in accord with Bukharin’s view that musical practices in general reflect a “course of social evolution” (189) as it conducts itself within three precincts corresponding, to a close degree of approximation, to our realms of Pitch, Tone, and Note. The “natural and social object-realm” (Reuten 2014, 244) or “space of causes” that is Pitch is addressed by Buhkarin under the rubric of “the element of objective material things: … musical instruments and groups of musical instruments … [which] may be likened to combinations of machines and tools in factories” (Bukharin 1925, 189). The normative “space of reasons”7 in which “the object realm of experience [is] reconstructed in thought” (Smith 1990, 8)—Tone, in our lingo—comes into Bukharin’s consideration under the guise of “methods of uniting the various forms, principles of construction, what corresponds to style … theory of musical technique, theory of counterpoint, etc.” And Bukharin’s category of “symbols and tokens: systems of notation, musical scores” (Bukharin 1925, 190) may be likened to the discursive “public sphere” (Öffentlichkeit, Habermas 1964, 49) we call Note. In the most condensed terms: the overall technological level of society determines what kind and amount of instrumental forces can be placed at music’s disposal, and the socially available technical and paratechnical “instrumentarium” of the artform is either regulative or constitutive of—it either materially constrains and causally determines or, more strongly, grounds the essential nature of—Pitch, Tone, and Note as they appear historically. As Bukharin says, “human society in its technology constitutes an artificial system of organs which also are its direct, immediate and active adaptation to nature” (1925, 116). Some of these “artificial organs,” of course, are musical (indeed some are organs in the narrowly musical sense); and the properties of these musical organs exert a bearing on and are also subject to the determining influence of, the way music is physically instantiated (Pitch), normatively treated and conceptually carved up (Tone), and symbolically precipitated (Note).

This enlargement and stratification of the category of the instrument to include both “first-order” instruments (equipment and paraphernalia for musical production and performance, appurtenances of musical consumption, architectural contexts, as well as any technology that goes into producing aforesaid) and “higher-order” or “meta” instruments (all the techniques, traditions, routines, and “organization of persons” involved in any form or facet of musicking) comports nicely with the etymological roots of “instrument.” These lie in the Latin “instruere,” meaning both “to equip” and “to instruct.” A musical instrument, on our promiscuous interpretation of what it is to be one, can be both a physical tool of the trade (e.g. the conductor’s baton) as well as an inculcated form of organization (e.g. the discipline of the orchestra—imposed, in part, by the conductor’s baton). Since it seems desirable, for our explanatory purposes, to hang on to the fertile matter/manner ambiguity built into “instrument,” the Marxian term of art “forces of production” (Produktivkräfte), with its deliberate catholicity about the manifold technical and paratechnical powers and potentialities (Kräfte) that shape and provide impetus to the productive process, should at this point be introduced as a usefully vague piece of vocabulary.8

Forces of production are the main dramatis personae in the Marxian historical drama. Marx’s is an unabashedly progressivist approach to history: he thinks that the saga of modernity can be read as, first and foremost, a chronicle of constant and cumulative gains in the productivity of human labor, brought about by the singular manner in and extent to which capitalist exploitation and competition “spurs on the development of society’s productive forces” (MECW, 35:588). In the three volumes of Capital, Marx focuses on escalating industrial productivity, or growth in the ratio between units of industrial input to units of industrial output, as an additive, accelerative phenomenon that foundationally conditions social existence. In a nutshell, Marx finds that competition among capitalists incentivizes unremitting technical development. Firms innovate in order to dominate in the marketplace, and must seek to dominate in order to ensure survival in an eat-or-be-eaten struggle. Technologies that provide a competitive edge are inevitably (on pain of extinction) adopted by all firms contending with the innovator. This raises the average productive level of the economic sector in which the innovation occurs and prompts a renewed race for further innovation. Positive feedback loops of this sort are the theoretical crux of Marx’s historical progressivism. Forces of production reliably and measurably advance, Marx holds, relative to an abstract standard of productivity according to which the “productiveness of a machine” is “measured by the human labor-power it replaces.” Correlatively, “the productiveness of labor” performed with the aid of a machine is proportional to “the difference between the labor a machine costs,9 and the labor it saves” (MECW, 35:394).10 Famously and controversially, Marx singles out capitalism’s congenital propensity to replace humans with machines, in the sphere of production and in the name of productivity, as the motor force of modern history.11

References to music are infrequent in Marx’s writings, but when they do occur they show his cognizance of the fact that music cannot be disembedded from this evolutionary dynamic. In the Grundrisse (a.k.a. Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, 1857–61), Marx restates a point he makes in his youthful Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), to the effect that musical praxis itself is responsible for the human trait of musicality. 12 The Grundrisse adds the proviso that this issue (of the social determinants of individual sensibility) is orthogonal to the matter of whether a musical activity yields surplus value or not.13

Productive labor is only that which produces capital. Is it not crazy … that the piano-maker should be a productive worker but not the piano-player, although surely the piano would be a nonsensical thing [Unsinn] without the piano player? But this is exactly the case. The piano-maker reproduces capital; the pianist only exchanges his labor for revenue. But doesn’t the pianist produce music and satisfy our musical ear; doesn’t he also produce the latter to a certain degree? In fact, he does so; his labor produces something; but it is not thereby productive labor in the economic sense; as little productive as is the labor of the madman who produces delusions.

(MECW, 28:231)14

This passage insists on the vital inseparability and co-determination of economic and extra-economic factors (the piano industry and the “musical ear,” respectively) and, importantly for our purposes, takes an unambiguous stance on where musicking and value production confront one another most substantively: the for-profit manufacture of musical instruments. Marx’s passing remark has great probative value for settling the question of what to regard as an authentically Marxian treatment of musical praxis (as delimited, we hold, by a certain historical triangulation of Pitch, Tone, and Note). Given that Marx’s position is that value production is the fundamental determinant of modernity’s historical trajectory, his explicit assertion that instrumental manufacture is the nexus where value production and musicking intersect implies that, by Marx’s lights, a properly historical-materialist treatment of Pitch, Tone, and Note in the modern era could be nothing other than an investigation of how these realms are conditioned by the capitalist manufacture of musical instruments.

By means of three historical vignettes that take up the second part of this chapter, we hope to instill the conviction that such an investigation is both feasible and promising, and to thereby remove at least one brick from the wall of opposition to Marxian historiography within music studies. The first, on Note, examines the origins of musical printing and the birth of the work concept. The second, on Tone, turns to the industrial manufacture of pianos and the rise of twelve-tone equal temperament. The third, on Pitch, probes the invention of sound synthesis.. These vignettes are meant to cast some well-known facts in a new light, by showing how specific developmental patterns of value production, as described by Marx, have made palpable interventions into musical practice. They are also meant to unearth some of the historical precedents and causal antecedents of the present-day conceptual terrain of modern music theory, and also to raise a few questions about the future means and ends of the work of music theorists.

Note and Intangible Property

Print and Privilege

In the summer of 1571, the monarch of France, Charles IX, conferred an authorial privilege on the composer Orlando di Lasso (1532–1594):

It has pleased the king to grant to Orlande de Lassus, master composer of music, both the privilege and permission to have printed, by such printer of this kingdom as suits him, music composed by him, revised by him and arranged in any way that he chooses; and also to have printed that music that he has not yet made public, so that for a period of ten years no other printer besides the one to whom the said Lassus has entrusted his copies and permission shall be able to undertake either to print or to sell any portion of it if consent has not been granted by one or the other, under threat of punishment contained in these letters.

(Oettinger 2004, 114)

Although Lasso’s prerogative represents neither the first granting of a printing monopoly nor the first precursor of formal statutory copyright, it is the first instance of “international” (proto-)copyright for a musician,15 since Lasso was employed in Munich when the French Crown bestowed the honor. It is also one of the earlier instances of patent copyright vested in the conceiver rather than the publisher of a work. It therefore represents a signal moment in the history of music’s transmutation into a form of authorial intellectual property, which is at the same time a history of the jurisprudential rearrangement and rationalization of the domain of Note.

Legal protections and privileges around proprietary content, enforced by state censorship,16 gave the likes of Lasso unexampled say-so over the fate of their mental creations. This new authorial control is symptomatic of an economic and conceptual metamorphosis that began in the early stages of capitalist modernity. In music, this metamorphosis altered the relations between composer, performer, and audience, which came to be mediated as never before by the privatization of intangibles: Charles IX’s edict gave Lasso legal title not to chattel goods, real estate, or metallic currency, but to a numinous “symbolic form that can be … copied” (Rigi 2014, 909)—in a word, to a piece of information. According to Jakob Rigi’s characterization, information in a political-economic context is “defined as forms of perception or cognition such as codes, concepts, formulas, data, design, images, software, language, etc., that can be … reproduced (Rigi 2014, 909). The economic rights to the music itself (“music composed by him”) that accrued to Lasso by dint of royal decree were rights to a reproducible abstractum. Implicit in the decree is a conception of music as a form of information-content that exists prior to and separately from the physical documents by which it is recorded and distributed, a form that is created or discovered by means of a composer’s act of mental inventiveness or excogitation, which act is regarded as sufficient grounds for an assertion of ownership. The type of control Lasso was afforded by his privilege, then, was control over how and whether his privately owned informational property could be copied or encoded—thus physicalized, materialized, or reified—and thereafter exchanged for money. It was control, one may say, over how tones could be turned into notes, and over how notes could be turned into banknotes.

The historians of copyright Benedict Atkinson and Brian Fitzgerald point out that the emergence of property rights that extend to the information disseminated in published texts (as distinct from the physical texts themselves) is part of a tectonic shift in European social norms. An “obligation-based” society, in which “individuals accepted their unchanging status, and fixed function, within the society,” and which “channelled the creative impulse into communal rather than individual expression” is supplanted by an “entitlement-based” society that “repudiates the idea of a fixed social order and substitutes, in place of social obligation, the individual freedom, in a contested environment, to accrue material benefit” (Atkinson and Fitzgerald 2014, 7). As entitlement-based society matures economically, the sources of “material benefit” over which free individuals can assert ownership become more numerous, and it comes to pass that, as Marx says, even “objects that in themselves are no commodities, such as conscience, honour, etc., are capable of being offered for sale by their holders, and of thus acquiring, through their price, the form of commodities” (MECW, 35:112). Where even conscience is vendible, authorial intellection cannot abide long in the public domain. This phenomenon is not unfamiliar to music scholars. In her monograph on the invention of compositional authorship in the first century of musical printing, for example, Kate van Orden stresses the normative, socially contingent nature of authorial entitlement—“authorship is a function of discourse rather than a status originating in the act of writing,” she reminds us (2013, 5)—and explains how the dominion that composers such as Josquin were able to assert over their mental products stemmed from changes in the cultural norms that governed creation and possession. But although nobody will deny that a new conception of musical authorship, as well as a legal scaffolding for it, in fact arose in the print era, music theorists and historians have been mostly reticent about the exact causal mechanisms that lie behind this change.

At least one such mechanism is literally mechanical: the technological contrivance of moveable type is among the principal instigators of the new cultural modality of private intellectual property. Succinctly, the widespread use of moveable type in the publishing industry motivated a reconceptualization of the in-principle compass of proprietary appropriation and legally recognized ownership. With the advent of for-profit, high-volume printing, an intellectual work, an opus, comes to be regarded as a thing ontologically distinct from, and both possessible and alienable independently of, the inscriptions that symbolically represented the work.17 And within an economic, legal, and ethical setting in which people “categorically recognize property in intangibles” (Atkinson and Fitzgerald 2014, 9), musical notes come to fulfill a new social function. Rather than (solely and simply) acting as an aid to learning or recollecting music, as a means of “assist[ing] musicians in forthcoming performances of a particular piece, or else memorializ[ing] a performance that has already taken place” (Steingo 2014, 84), musical inscriptions are called upon to “attest to” (ibid., 83), and provide a tangible, legible specification of, an intangible asset. For a society whose conception of authorship is conditioned by the commercial ethos of the print industry, notes are more than instructions or reminiscences; they are descriptions of or titles to personal property holdings. In short, capitalism redraws Note.

The Formal and Real Subsumption of Note

Marx holds that social norms in general are responsive to the development of the forces of production: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist” (MECW, 6:166). But he also perceives that, as a matter of historical fact, the formal social relations necessary for wage labor and value production were often firmly in place before any real transformation in productive technique took hold. He therefore distinguishes between what he calls “formal subsumption” and “real subsumption” of production by (or “under”) capital. In a process of formal subsumption, “capital … subsumes under itself a given, existing labor process, such as handicraft labor [or] the mode of agriculture corresponding to small-scale independent peasant farming” without also effecting a change “in the real way in which the labor process is carried on” (MECW, 24: 425–426). The point is pretty straightforward: land-owning, self-sufficient peasants can easily be turned into propertyless wage-laborers or sharecropper tenants—all you have to do is violently seize their land and forcibly compel them to pay rent, in cash or in kind—while still tilling the land exactly as they had since time immemorial.

The “dynamic capitalism that stimulated the growth of book trades” in the early modern era, and that engendered “a commensurate demand for abstract property rights” (Atkinson and Fitzgerald 2014, 9), was responsible for, first, the formal and, later, the real subsumption of textual production. In the mid-fifteenth century, the book merchant Vespasiano da Bisticci employed waged copyists to produce texts that he went on to sell to wealthy Florentine clients. In so doing, Bisticci reorganized traditional scribal production as wage labor generative of surplus value. In Marx’s terms, he oversaw a primal phase of formal subsumption in which “the labor process becomes the instrument of the valorisation process, of the process of capital’s self-valorisation” (MECW, 34:424). Bisticci’s venture is indicative of a continent-wide trend: in the Europe of Bisticci’s day, merchant capitalism begins to give way to a form of productive capitalism in which “the capitalist enters the process as its conductor, its director … for [whom] it is at the same time directly a process of the exploitation of alien labor” (MECW, 34:424). But for scribal laborers in an enterprise like Bisticci’s, the “real production process,” the nuts and bolts of the fabrication of texts, did not differ in the least from what went on in monastic scriptoria, where, under the same primitive division of labor, monks produced manuscript copies in a non-capitalist, unwaged milieu. Textual production was formally reorganized but not yet procedurally altered in Bisticci’s copyshop.

Real subsumption, Marx tells us, occurs when the procedural nature of the production activity, and not just its underlying lattice of property relations, is itself transmogrified so as to conform to demands of profit maximization. Real subsumption “can be witnessed as the perfection of subsumption—capital thoroughly penetrates material reality and moves fluidly through this ground of its own being, shaping material adequate to its content, i.e. the production of surplus-value” (Russel 2015, 43). Gutenberg’s innovations within the press workshop in the 1450s are a paradigmatic case of a real subsumption of production in which “the instruments of labor are converted from tools into machines” and in which “implements of a handicraft” are incorporated into “a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations that were formerly done by the workman” (MECW, 35:374). The motive for the adoption of the printing press, or any other labor-saving device, is not that it is somehow intrinsically desirable to be able to make more books in less time; the motive is profit, which the capitalist, qua capitalist, is bound to regard as the be-all and end-all of production. “Like every other increase in the productiveness of labor, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities … In short, it is a means for producing surplus-value” (MECW, 35:374).

The development of mechanical methods for the bulk production of musical texts is a tributary to the mainstream of technological change that flowed from the book industry. Without denying the very real importance of Edisonian historical figures such as Petrucci and Attaignant, who were early standard bearers of techno-entrepreneurship in music, we should keep in mind that their technical contributions were (in a non-pejorative sense) highly derivative. Petrucci’s multiple-impression methods of printing music, and Attaignant’s single-impression method (which cut in half the length and expense of Petrucci’s system), are prototypical instances of what technological historian Nathan Rosenberg terms “technological convergence.” This refers to a

historical sequence in which the need to solve specific technical problems in the introduction of a new product or process in a single industry led to exploratory activity [elsewhere]; the solution to the problem, once achieved, was conceived to have immediate applications in producing other products to which it was closely related on a technical basis; and this solution was transmitted to … other industries. (1976, 18–19)

Adaptation of Gutenberg’s device for the printing of notes rather than letters “involved the extension to a new product of skills and machines not fundamentally different from those which had already been developed” (Rosenberg 1976, 26). Real subsumption in the productive domain of Note, therefore, occurs as a “transectorial migration” (Piatier 1988, 205) of technological improvements endogenous to the more lucrative and therefore (other things being equal) more technologically dynamic sector of literary bookmaking.18 Albeit there is no known historical evidence of a process of formal subsumption affecting specifically musical textual production that then propelled major technological advances originating within dedicated musical printing firms,19 nevertheless, Petrucci’s and Attaignant’s innovations, and those of countless less well-known technicians, are continuous with wider social currents of subsumption.

To sum up the steps of the historical sequence just outlined: capital’s subsumption of inscriptive production drives the improvement of “inscriptive technology” (Tomlinson 2007, 32); print technology foments the development and legal articulation of intellectual property norms; and the regime of intellectual property reconfigures Note by creating a normative environment in which musical symbols play the novel social role of delineating an immaterial but ownable entity, the musical “work.” Marx provides us with the theoretical resources, under the heading of “real subsumption,” for describing the non-contingent connection between the spread of capitalist social relations and the technologization of textual production. And it is intuitively obvious why the “work concept,” as discussed by Lydia Goehr (1992) and others, would be tethered to the masthead of intellectual property: musical works are all the more able to become valuable, venerated things in the popular aesthetic consciousness once their very existence is given legal sanction (in copyright codes) and economic tactility (in work-based revenue streams) in the print era. But what precisely gets us from the economic base of print technology to the legal superstructure of copyright laws?

In her magisterial history of the emergence of the print era in Western Europe, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), Elizabeth Eisenstein identifies “typographical fixity” as the key to understanding a cluster of cultural and ideological changes that coincided with the mechanization of printing. Typographical fixity, she argues, is a fallout of the comparatively easy multiplication of identical printed copies of a text enabled by the Gutenberg press and its technological successors. Textual representations of information take on a permanent, unchanging, authoritative form when a single textual configuration is exemplified by a great number of identical, interchangeable token texts. The “preservative powers of print,” unlike those of scribal production, make it so that a single sequence of textual characters can be “arrested and frozen” and thereby immunized from “textual drift.” Thus a technologically facilitated “change from a sequence of corrupted copies to a sequence of improved editions” irrevocably alters the status of written information (112). The printing press makes it possible to generate, through repeated printings, a functionally inextinguishable, indistinguishable supply of an exact textual configuration. And in circumstances where an exact typesetting can have this kind of stability, and where effective control over the stabilizing of it can be a source of monetary wealth and other forms of social power, there is a societal need to legally arbitrate contests over who controls what, and to statutorily define what the “what” is. This is how the work comes into its own as an ownable abstraction. “By 1500, legal fictions were already being devised to accommodate the patenting of inventions and the assignment of literary properties…. A literary ‘common’ became subject to ‘enclosure movements’ and possessive individualism began to characterize the attitude of writers to their work. The terms plagiarism and copyright did not exist for the minstrel. It was only after printing that they began to hold significance for the author” (Eisenstein 1979, 121). Typographical fixity, then, underwrites the origination of intellectual property norms.

Once again, and even more elliptically: the formal subsumption of textual production begets its real subsumption; real subsumption begets typographical fixity; typographical fixity begets intellectual property; intellectual property begets the work concept; and all of the above carves out a new set of social roles for musical notation. Once musical notation comes to possess the discursive function of denoting a form of disembodied wealth, which is made possible by the broad-based cultural espousal of the work as an intangible economic asset, the work concept gains a foothold (some would say a stranglehold) in art-receptive practices that it has yet to fully relinquish. What this entrenchment has entailed for musical practice has been thoroughly discussed by participants in the work-concept debate within musicology, though to the neglect, for the most part, of the phenomenon’s enabling economic preconditions.

It goes without saying that a readily reproducible, widely circulated, and generally available body of printed music is a sine qua non for both the existence and the character of music theory in its modern (post-Medieval) form. Not only has the mechanized manufacture of musical texts been the literal, material source of music theory’s defining objects of study (scores); score production has also inscribed the most essential ideological and conceptual boundaries within which that study has been enacted.20 In the most sweepingly epochal terms: if Marx is right, and if our adaptation of his ideas is apt, music theory’s passage from, very roughly, an a priori, dogmatic, and cosmological paradigm to, again very roughly, an empirical, inductive, and work-centered paradigm is not a transition whose rationale can be discovered by the researches of a self-sufficient Ideengeschichte. Instead, the rationale lies in the unfurling of an irreversible economic sequence, initiated and sustained by capitalist social relations, and in the resultant annexation of print production by capital as “self-expanding value” (MECW, 35:176). Accordingly, the fact that the principal unit of significance in most music-theoretical inquiry remains the musical work—an assumption so ubiquitous, and so entwined in the practical warp and woof of music theory as an institutionalized activity, that we may forget to see it as an explanandum that stands in need of an explanans—is a fact that can be understood adequately only if it is recognized as a cultural effect of an economic cause.

Tone and Genuine Manufacture

The material basis of key character

The belief that each of the twenty-four major and minor keys has distinctive affective properties is, by and large, absent from contemporary habits of musical reception. Prior to its swift descent into irrelevance in the industrial era, however, the doctrine was a stable fixture throughout more than a century of the history of Tone, the cognitive and sensory domain of musical awareness. During the long reign of the Affektenlehre (roughly 1600–1750), a musical work lived, moved, and had its being within a preordained emotional/expressive ambit laid down by the acoustical physiognomy of its key. Key, as a scalar “musical container” (Hyer 2001) that is structured in relation to a referential pitch class, is prior to any individuating thematic and harmonic characteristics of a piece. Thus is Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) able to declare that if a composition is in A minor, no matter what else may be true of it, it is ipso facto stamped with “pious womanliness and tenderness of character” (Steblin 1996, 115). Next door, in B[fl] minor, things are a little more serioso: “Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key” (Steblin 1996, 116–117) Nearly a century and a half before Schubart weighed in on the matter, Marc-Antoine Charpentier pigeonholed E minor as “effeminate, amorous, plaintive” (Steblin 1996, 33). And as late as the 1870s, Hermann von Helmholtz (1954, 551) could speak with a straight face about the “manly earnestness and deep religious feeling” of C major. “While there has never been a consensus on these associations,” Brian Hyer observes, “the material basis for these attributions was at one time quite real: because of inequalities in actual temperament, each mode acquired a unique intonation and thus its own distinctive ‘tone’, and the sense that each mode had its own musical characteristics was strong enough to persist even in circumstances in which equal temperament was abstractly assumed” (2001).

More precisely, the “material basis” of these semiotic linkages between key and affect—the basis in Pitch for certain cultural inclinations in the area of Tone, we might say—was the use of temperament schemes that were “circulating” (meaning that no keys were rendered unusable by egregiously wide or narrow intervals) but “non-equal,” (meaning that each key possessed a unique profile of interval sizes, owing to microtonal differences in the distance between scale degrees) and thus a noticeably different auditory “flavor.” While belief in highly particularized key-mood associations did not evaporate all at once—key quality has enjoyed a long, ghostly afterlife in the era of equal temperament21—it had no hope of surviving intact a period in which its material basis was systematically eroded.

Equal temperament’s culpability for the demise of key quality as a receptive category (i.e. as a facet of Tonal culture) is widely recognized, even if there is controversy surrounding when exactly the decline began and when it was a fait accompli. However there is insufficient appreciation for why and how the demise of key characteristics was accelerated and brought to consummation by the developmental dynamics of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century capitalist expansion. During the early stages of the First Industrial Revolution,22 advances in the mass manufacture of pianos transformed the august and ancient art of tuning into a form of “detail work” (MECW, 35:372), that is, a limited, repetitive, highly routinized operation done as part of a determinate sequence of productive moments within the factory.23 Tuning, formerly one among many aptitudes that the omnicompetent vollkommener Kapellmeister was expected to hone, is reconstituted as an “activity now confined in one groove, [which] assumes the form best adapted to the narrowed sphere of action” (MECW, 35:341). The manner of tuning that is “best adapted to” the piecewise, serial assembly of keyboards under a complex division of labor, historical sources suggest, turns out to be something approximating equal temperament. Briefly: the exigencies of the industrial division of labor create selection pressure that favors the implementation of equal temperament as an industry standard; and mass distribution to a mass market elevates this industry standard to a societal standard. Concurrently with the piano’s achievement of complete market penetration throughout the Western world in the nineteenth century, a flattened-out intonational topography—equal-tempered pitch-space—becomes the assumed sonic landscape of music per se.

This ideological response—or Tonal answer, so to speak—to new material realities is perhaps to be expected: if it is true, as Marx thinks, that “only music awakens in man the sense of music” (MECW, 3:301) then it should come as no surprise that omnipresent equal-tempered music-making machines would awaken, at the level of a whole culture, an equally equal-tempered sense of music. By the end of the nineteenth century, music, as heard and cognized by musickers whose faculty of listening was formed at and by the all but inescapable piano, naturally seemed to be, and seemed to naturally be, an equal-tempered affair. And the naturalization of equal temperament both impacted and was impacted by an ever-mutating compositional practice. Pianos inspired the creation of, and came to prominence partly because of their ability to meet the instrumental needs of, an evolving musical repertory that at first accepted, and later ceased even to notice, its confinement within the “ivory cage” (Code 2018) of the piano’s maximally regular tuning scheme. Thus does capitalism, through the intermediary of the piano, retune Tone.

Tuning as detail labor

The earliest pianos, like other instruments—and, for that matter, all commodities—were artisanal products, fashioned out of unprocessed raw materials by a master handicraftsman and subordinate apprentices and journeymen. But soon piano making—from its inception, a petit bourgeois capitalist enterprise, and therefore not a site of formal subsumption—had its real production process subsumed by “the first kind of genuine manufacture” (MECW,35:347). In “genuine manufacture,” specially trained laborers who exclusively perform one circumscribed task—“detail workmen” (Teilarbeitern) who perform “detail labor” (Sonderarbeiten)—use a slew of specialized tools (MECW, 35:347) to make identical, standardized components in large quantities. These parts are then put together into a finished product by laborers whose specialized function is assembly. Marx gives pocket-watch manufacture as an archetypal example of this form of production. “Formerly the individual work of a Nuremberg artificer, the watch has been transformed into the social product of an immense number of detail laborers, such as mainspring makers, dial makers, spiral spring makers, jewelled hole makers, ruby lever makers …” After rattling off thirty more specializations (some with fancy-sounding French titles that belie the undoubted toilsomeness of the task, such as “planteur d’échappement” or “finisseur de charnière”), Marx concludes: “last of all [there is] the repasseur, who fits together the whole watch and hands it over in a going state. Only a few parts of the watch pass through several hands; and all these membra disjecta come together for the first time in the hand that binds them into one mechanical whole” (MECW, 35:347–348). Marx could well have made the same point with the piano instead of the watch.24 More so than other musical instruments, the piano’s material constitution lent itself to industrial assembly. In his classic history of the instrument Arthur Loesser quips: “Any zealot for factory production would have cast a lecherous eye upon the pianoforte’s tens of identical wooden keys, its dozens of identical jacks and hammer-shanks, its greater dozens of identical tuning pins and hitch pins, and its yards of identically drawn wire. The pianoforte was the factory’s natural prey” (Loesser 1954, 233).

It is well established that piano construction fully assumes the character of genuine manufacture in the early-to-mid nineteenth century (Loesser 1954; Roell 1991). Equally uncontroversial is the claim that the “whip of competition” (Mandel 1992, 41) creates an exigent need to increase productivity with labor-saving measures, and that this economic imperative, which reaches full force under conditions of heightened capitalist rivalry in the nineteenth century, is the prime mover behind the “division of labor in manufacture” (MECW, 35:356). Marx takes this as read:

It is, in the first place, clear that a laborer who all his life performs one and the same simple operation, converts his whole body into the automatic, specialized implement of that operation. Consequently, he takes less time in doing it, than the artificer who performs a whole series of operations in succession. But the collective laborer, who constitutes the living mechanism of manufacture, is made up solely of such specialized detail laborers. Hence, in comparison with the independent handicraft, more is produced in a given time, or the productive power of labor is increased.

(MECW, 35:344)

Tuning is one musical “handicraft” that the division of labor in piano manufacture places within the remit of the wage-laboring detail workman. Previously, a Klavierstimmer who was not also, and primarily, a Klavierspieler would have seemed strange: “Prior to the advent of the piano, most musicians tuned their own instruments. This was a necessary part of owning one; to call someone in to tune a harpsichord would have been as preposterous an idea as calling someone in to tune a violin for a professional violinist” (Green 2006). Before keyboard instruments became part of the customary mise en scène of middle-class drawing rooms, ownership of them was for the most part restricted to either the professional stratum of keyboardists, for whom mastery of the art and science of tuning was a vocational prerequisite, or else wealthy aristocrats, who would likely have kept paid musicians on retainer, and would thus have had no reason to seek the professional services of a dedicated tuner (Green 2004). The spread of piano ownership and the ascendant vogue of amateur keyboard playing created an economic niche for the figure of the non-musician piano tuner, as Loesser (1954, 73) relates: “The spread of the instrument among the minimally musical led to the curious consequence that the tuner and the player were more and more rarely the same person. It is hard to imagine the most primitive player of a fiddle or guitar who did not know how to pull up his own strings to their proper pitch, but among clavier tinklers this incompetence became the rule. The complication of the tempered tuning may have added to the difficulty.” Green (2004) seconds this assessment, and : “Equal temperament took over from mean tone tuning, making all keys pleasant to play in rather than a restricted number, but was more difficult for the amateur to tune, and as more and more amateurs were beginning to own instruments, tuning was becoming a task carried out by professionals.”

However, it was not so much the advent of a private service of piano tuning, in which professional tuners made house calls to the private residences of piano owners, as much as the incorporation of the labor of piano tuning into the commodity production process itself, that would leave the deepest impression in Tonal consciousness. “Piano tuning was a recognized job in the piano factories by the beginning of the 19th century” and by 1838, the Broadwood firm, England’s most sizable piano concern, “had a relatively large tuning department of at least three men” (Green 2004). Later in the century, this temperamental workforce needed to expand exponentially:

The larger London piano houses produced many pianos, all of which needed to be strung, chipped up and then fine-tuned, and at the height of the 1850s and 60s boom there were between 60,000 and 100,000 pianos made in London alone, so a huge number of tunings was required in the factory alone, long before the instruments reached shops, showrooms and homes.

(Green 2004)

This upsurge in the amount of piano tuning taking place on the premises of piano factories meant that this labor needed to be carried out by wage workers who were obliged to complete an apprenticeship in just a few years (the standard at Broadwood’s was five), rather than by expert musicians, whose decades of expensive training would have translated into a prohibitive and pointless labor cost for the piano firm. This comparative deskilling of musical labor had the effect of making equal temperament (or the closest achievable approximation thereof) attractive as the default tuning scheme on the factory floor. Mark Lindley notes that Hummel’s Art of Playing the Pianoforte (Anweisung zum Piano-Forte Spiel, 1828)—published at approximately the same time Broadwood’s business was entering a phase of aggressive expansion—advocated forcefully for “ignoring the old, unequal temperaments on the grounds that they presented, particularly for the many novice tuners brought into the trade by the popularity of the piano, greater difficulties than equal temperament and that these difficulties were aggravated critically by the burden of tuning, on modern pianos, three heavy strings for each note instead of two thin ones as on older instruments” (Lindley 2001). So, while it is plausible, as Loesser and Green contend, that the difficulty of tuning in equal temperament created a market for professional tuners, since musical dilettantes were unable to satisfactorily tune their own instruments (other than in, perhaps, the simplest meantone systems), it is also true that the comparative ease of implementing (a rough-and-ready semblance of) equal temperament made this tuning scheme convenient to use at the locus of large-scale manufacture. In the factory, tuners—musically inexpert detail workers, whose limited, mostly on-the-job training could not possibly familiarize them with the mathematical esoterica of innumerable subtly different unequal temperament schemes—needed to tune a very great number of pianos, one after another, in exactly the same way. What was called for was a system that was both conceptually tractable and practically manageable for a worker of no great musical discernment working under the tyranny of efficiency. Equal temperament, as it was then understood, filled the bill.25 Hummel (1828, 69) seems to have intuited the nature of the case:

The complicated propositions [about how to tune keyboards] laid down by [Sorge, Fritzen, Marpurg, Kirnberger, Vogler, etc.], cannot be so easily put to practice, and we are compelled to adopt a system of temperament by which tuning is made much more easy and convenient … Many who profess to be tuners, can hardly be said to have an ear so acute, as to discriminate with the requisite nicety, the minute deviations in the different chords of the unequal temperaments proposed by the authors.

Hummel goes on to recommend a rather cursory procedure in which the keyboard is tuned by fifths that are all slightly narrowed. No pretense of scientific precision is detectable in his advice:

No one fifth must be tuned perfectly true … but each fifth must be tuned somewhat flatter than perfect … To afford the ear some guide respecting these flattened fifths, we may divide them into three species, into bad, good, and absolutely perfect. A fifth is bad when it sounds too flat with regard to the lower note. It is good, when not indeed absolutely perfect, but yet so nearly so as not to sound offensive to the ear. It is perfect, when it coincides in pitch with the fifth produced by the resonance of a deep bass note … If [every fifth] sounds good, neither too flat, nor too sharp, nor perfect, we may be assured that the temperament is correct. (1828, 70)

If this is more or less indicative of the accepted benchmark of accuracy in Hummel’s day for equal-tempered tuning, it is easy to see why it would be non-coincidental—and, moreover, not solely a response to autonomous changes in consumers’ aesthetic preferences—that equal temperament was adopted by piano manufacturers en masse: it didn’t take any extraordinary aptitude or training for tuners to get proficient at it, which spelled savings for employers; the tidy, symmetrical logic of the scheme made sense to promulgate as an industry standard in an era of industrial standardization; and the presence of an industry standard meant that veteran tuners did not need to be retrained if hired by a new firm (as would have been common during an expansion phase in the industry, when many new enterprises were setting up shop).26 Equal temperament became the official house style of Broadwood’s trend-setting outfit in the 1840s, just as the Victorian piano boom was getting into full swing, and just as the need to maximize productivity under conditions of more vigorous competition would have been felt more keenly, and would have sharply incentivized the streamlining and normalisation of tuning operations.

The adoption of equal temperament was not an “innovation” in the sense of a stupendous technical leap forward. The concept of equal temperament, the mathematics underlying it, and the practical possibility of implementing it with at least the coarse degree of precision that Hummel found tolerable, were all hundreds of years old. But, as the tuning historian Alexander J. Ellis wrote in 1885, “It is one thing to propose equal temperament, to calculate its ratios, and to have trial instruments approximately tuned in accordance with it, and another thing to use it commercially in all instruments sold. For pianos in England it did not become a trade usage till 1846, at about which time it was introduced into Broadwood’s” (Helmholtz 1954, 549).27 The primary reason equal temperament became a “trade usage,” we suggest, was the productive dynamic internal to the trade itself, and the need to innovate for efficiency’s sake, as opposed to the exogenous influence of consumer demand.

Material causes, ideal effects

The rest, as they say, is history: the preeminent firm’s tuning standard, which had an economic rationale, soon enough became the standard for the industry at large, and thus for the piano as such; and the standard for the piano, the preeminent instrument, soon enough became the standard for all instruments, and thus for music in general. Duffin (2007, 141) explains the spread of equal temperament ratios in the design of wind instruments in the nineteenth century as, likewise, a cost-cutting measure: “The need to manufacture so many instruments quickly for [a] new market forced musical instrument makers to cut corners—to streamline and simplify manufacturing techniques—so that the subtle tuning systems of several nineteenth-century instruments got replaced with basic [equal-tempered] systems. It was so much more convenient and cheaper to make instruments that way.”28 The invisible hand of the market, then, took up a tuning key; or, if you like: dollars determined cents. Admittedly, the introduction of equal temperament was hardly the most significant contributor to the gains in productivity that made pianos more affordable and thus more commonplace. It was mechanization (which, for obvious reasons, could only make a limited incursion into the realm of tuning) that conduced most to the cheapening of the instrument. Improvements in both the instrument itself and in the efficiency of its assembly came quickly over the course of the century, and by 1910, the high point of England’s second piano manufacturing renaissance, the nation could boast more than fifty piano manufacturing firms whose total output exceeded one hundred thousand instruments per year—all of them tuned on site to equal temperament.29

The inexpensive, indispensable piano provided a primary vehicle of amateur music making in the domicile, took a starring role on the public concert stage as this venue came into full flower across Europe, and became a mainstay of elite salon gatherings. Not only its affordable price, but the piano’s unique affordances, too, helped secure it a central place. In addition to serving as the most versatile accompanimental instrument, the piano offered the only means of reproducing and consuming orchestral and operatic repertoire that was otherwise accessible only in live concert. As the piano loomed larger in every aspect of nineteenth-century musical life, especially the musical life of the rising bourgeoisie, its intonational complexion gradually took on the guise of natural law rather than custom. “In tune” and “equal-tempered” verged on synonymy.30

Late-eighteenth-century composers did not assume an equal-tempered tonal space. Duffin (2007, 82) cites a passage in the first movement development of Haydn’s quartet op. 77 no. 2 (1799) in which Haydn instructs the cello, which is given a D[sh] followed by an E[fl], to play “l’istesso tuono.31 This is the exception that proves the rule, in the correct sense of that saying: the need for an explicit directive implies that contemporaneous musicians would have taken for granted the microtonal divergence of enharmonic notes. A century later, collective musical consciousness had so thoroughly internalized the soundscape of equal temperament that Haydn’s prescription would have seemed like a curious redundancy. (Tellingly, the indication is omitted from most modern editions.) One sign of the ascent of equal temperament in the intervening years is the increasingly utilitarian musical spelling used in tonally adventurous, later tonally ambiguous, and finally tonality-rejecting music. Notational choices about which of two enharmonic “equivalents”—an appellation that is merited only in an equal-tempered framework—to use started to be dictated purely by considerations of readability. This testifies to the final demise of antiquated intonational sensitivities that were obsolescent well before the fin-de-siècle. Decades prior, a staunchly equalitarian tonal sensibility was already giving outward signs of itself in the compositional use, and orthographic treatment, of equal divisions of the octave. For instance, the effect Liszt aims at in the opening of his Faust Symphony (1857)—a “dissonant prolongation” (Morgan 1976) of quasi-stable augmented triads that are not heard as byproducts of contrapuntal motion, but instead as resolutions of comparatively less stable major and minor triads—is flatly unintelligible and impracticable as a compositional goal outside of the conceptual schema (Tone), and corresponding intonational actuality (Pitch), of equal-tempered tonal space. And, needless to say, this goal is remote from the orthographic scruples that steered Haydn’s pen (Note).

All this to say that compositional ideology—the complementary counterpart, in the normative domain of Tone, to reception practice—reflexively tails, but also helps to crystalize and reinforce, the materialities of instrumental production. Enharmonic practice flourished in large part because of the spread of equal-tempered pianos, which facilitated experimentation in this direction, and the equal-tempered piano waxed in popularity partly because of its eminent fitness for producing the kind of enharmonic music that was increasingly “in the air.” As Mark Lindley (2001) states, “equal temperament … is virtually considered an inherent characteristic of the modern concert piano. Indeed the ideals of sonority in the acoustic design of the modern piano and in all but the more radical forms of modern pianism are as intimately bound to the acoustic qualities of equal temperament as any previous keyboard style ever was to its contemporary style of intonation.” This is a sound insight, and a true description of a musical zeitgeist. The key Marxian addendum is an admonition to remember that the zeitgeist is factually in error: equal temperament is emphatically not an inherent characteristic of the piano. It is an extraneous feature selected for by the dynamics of capitalist value production, which non-accidentally brought about the proletarianization of the labor of piano tuning. Inasmuch as the piano is to blame for “how equal temperament ruined harmony” (as the title of Duffin 2007 polemically puts it), so too is capitalism.

Pitch and Universal Labor

Luddites and Techno-Utopians

In 1906, John Philip Sousa used the pages of Appleton’s Magazine to bemoan the rise of “mechanical music.” In a philippic against the player piano and the phonograph, which were by then cutting into into the market for traditional instruments, Sousa claimed that the recent proliferation of “mechanical device[s] to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul” (1906, 278) heralded the end of progress in musical art. “The ingenuity of a phonograph’s mechanism,” he warned, “may incite the inventive genius to its improvement, but I could not imagine that a performance by it would ever inspire embryotic Mendelssohns, Beethovens, Mozarts, and Wagners to the acquirement of technical skill, or to the grasp of human possibilities in the art” (1906, 279). Sousa’s high-minded aesthetic worries about a decline in musical quality were wrapped up with bread-and-butter economic concerns. The evacuation of human mental and bodily effort from acts of musical sound production could not fail to have a corrosive effect on domestic music making, predicted Sousa. And a decline in the recreational cultivation of performative musicianship promised to bring about a corresponding contraction in opportunities for the musical professions (of which Sousa was a more than usually prosperous member): “Musical enterprises are given financial support [in the United States] as nowhere else in the universe … [Americans’] wide love for the art springs from the singing school, secular or sacred; from the village band, and from the study of those instruments that are nearest the people. There are more pianos, violins, guitars, mandolins, and banjos among the working classes of America than in all the rest of the world, and the presence of these instruments in the homes has given employment to enormous numbers of teachers” (280). If “machine-made music” were to spread unchecked, warned Sousa, “under such conditions the tide of amateurism cannot but recede” (281)—and with it, importantly for Sousa’s own pocketbook and class interest, the tide of professionalism.

What worried Sousa inspired hope in Rudhyar Chennevière (a.k.a. Dane Rudhyar), who announced in the Musical Quarterly in 1920 that

The ordinary pianola … marks the extremest limit of the antimusical which humanity has ever witnessed…. But with it there is a feeble glimmer of something in the distant horizon, something which may well be the far away annunciation of a new day. The machine which has slain music, perhaps, in the near future, may become the means of its redemption. (506)

Echoing an accelerationist political position now and then hinted at in Marx’s writings,32 Chennevière championed the expediting of musical mechanization as a means of overcoming social relations in which the “musical executant” (501) was reduced to the status of a “wage-earning proletarian” (506). The musical proletariat, he thought, had nothing to lose but the chains of its constrictive, inhuman paratechnical relations: “The players who make up our orchestras being already machines, in the majority of cases, let us courageously admit the fact; and in place of attempting to retard, let us accelerate the new departure” (507–508). In the brave new musical world envisioned by Chennevière, there was to be absolute technical mastery of Pitch—in other words, total and unqualified control over the physical production of sounds:

Let us create machines sensitive to the extent of vibrating at the slightest melodic inflection … let us create machines … which will thus be able to give us all sounds … which can give the exact number of vibrations desired … Instead of the orchestra the future, then, will disclose to us … great electrical instruments … which, without any question, will reveal to us a wealth of possible sonority beyond our present concepts … [and] illimitable combinations possible in number and proportion of harmonic means. (508)

But this is no far-fetched, Vernian science fiction. Chennevière specifically cites Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium, an actually existing device for delivering performances of electronically synthesized music across telephone wires, as an example of a new technology proper to musical production as it would transpire in a classless society.

Sousa’s anxiety and Chennevière’s hopefulness were both reactions to a historical reality: a new and profound “real development of the power of social production” (MECW, 28:158) was in the works, one that would destabilize long-standing relations of musical production. As the example of the Telharmonium dramatizes in bold relief, new technology was, all of a sudden, being called into existence ab nihilo by systematic research and development activities that were bankrolled, directly or indirectly, by capital-intensive, stock-issuing corporations. In music, newfangled, electrified apparatuses were brought to rolled out with a view to appropriating surplus value from enhanced forms of control over the physical production of sound. In essence, scientific labor, financed and overseen by capital, sets in motion a development toward absolute technical mastery over Pitch.

General labor

For Marx, as we have seen, one of capitalism’s distinguishing features is its incessant creation of new and more productive contexts for the performance of “collective” or “cooperative” labor (gemeinschafliche Arbeit). In collective labor, workers form a corporate entity that is internally differentiated (according to a division of labor), but unified by a common productive purpose. Collective labor is to be distinguished not only from the kind of labor it supplants, individual handicraft, but also from another form of labor that develops in tandem with it, namely, “universal labor” (allgemeine Arbeit).

A distinction should be made between universal labor and cooperative labor. Both kinds play their role in the process of production, both flow one into the other, but are also differentiated. Universal labor is all scientific labor, all discovery and all invention. This labor depends partly on the utilization of the labors of those who have gone before. Cooperative labor, on the other hand, is the direct cooperation of individuals.

(MECW, 37:106)

The universality of universal labor derives from the breadth of its applicability. The products of such labor—universal truths “of mechanics, of chemistry, and of the whole range of the natural sciences” (MECW, 37:464)—pertain not simply to the labor process peculiar to a specific commodity, but, more generally, to an entire sector of production, or to the entire multi-sector economy of a society, or to the entirety of social labor überhaupt. Universal labor is necessarily cumulative in character, since it rests upon the edifice of past scientific discoveries. In the nineteenth century and thereafter, massive amplification of the purview, sophistication, and prestige of systematized scientific experimentation (within the surrounding and enabling framework of advanced technocapitalism that stepped onto the historical stage in conjunction with steam-powered machinery) goes hand in hand with massive gains in the productivity of industrial labor.33 This is because labor-saving technological progress comes increasingly to depend upon “progress in the field of intellectual production, notably natural science and its practical application” (MECW, 37:85), and science comes to increasingly depend on the subsidization (through corporate taxes or direct investment) of big capital. As both science and capitalism evolve, it becomes more and more evident that they are locked in a mutually dependent embrace, and that “capitalism is the scientification of production” (Kurz 2014, 31).

Marx was well aware of this. But he did not expressly forecast the extent to which formal scientific investigation and methodical technological development would become primary loci of what Marx calls “capital accumulation and reproduction on an extended scale” (MECW, 36:vi) in the twentieth century. As Robert Kurz (2014, 35) states, “the systematic social organization of the process of science and of its technological application and the substructure of qualifications that it requires (schools, specialist schools, the expansion of the universities, the foundation of polytechnics, the amalgamation of science and large-scale capital) only got under way gradually,” and were just beginning to make their economic importance felt when Marx died in 1883. A highly symptomatic instance of “the amalgamation of science and large-scale capital” in music is the Telharmonium extolled by Chennevière, which Thaddeus Cahill designed roughly a decade after Marx’s death. Along with W. Duddell’s Singing Arc (1899) and Melvin Severy’s Choralcello (1903), the Telharmonium belongs to the first generation of electric pitch synthesizers. Cahill’s instrument utilized an ingenious “tone wheel,” basically a cog with evenly spaced teeth that rotates next to an electromagnetic receiver. As the teeth pass by the receiver, they induce a current in the receiver’s coil whose frequency is proportional to the speed of the cog’s rotation. This current causes a sine tone to be output by a loudspeaker. The same loudspeaker also accepts inputs from other receivers, which means that a fundamental frequency can be combined with select upper partials in order to create sounds with complex timbres. Electrical signals created by a performance on the Telharmonium (whose console contained a double manual keyboard) could be transmitted over telephone lines to speakers at remote locations.

Cahill’s research proceeded from Helmholtz’s demonstration, a few decades earlier, that it is possible to analytically decompose complex sounds into aggregations of simple waveforms. It also built upon the most up-to-date discoveries in electromagnetism.34 The quintessentially universal labor of Cahill and his predecessors was a condition for the possibility of a new kind of musical labor. Cahill’s Telharmonium created an equipment-centered action context in which a “sound engineer” (a later coinage) could create desired tone-qualities “from scratch,” by additively combining the simplest individual acoustical constituents of composite sounds. These mechanically manufactured sounds were “synthetic,” both in the sense that they were put together in a bottom-up, part-to-whole, simple-to-complex fashion, and also in the sense that they were meant to serve as an artificial substitute for an already sought-after natural thing (“acoustical” sound), much as was the case with the synthetic dyes that were being formulated, patented, and manufactured at exactly that time (indigo was synthesized in 1880 and commercially viable by 1897). This must be appreciated for the drastic rupture in the history of Pitch that it is. The invention of the Telharmonium marks a historical turning point after which musical sound—which was strongly associated with the irrational and ineffable in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European imagination—becomes acquiescent to thoroughgoing rationalization, precise quantification, and the “victory of man over the forces of nature” (MECW, 35:444). This was thanks to the unaccustomed way in which musical instruments, like “locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc.” now came to act as “organs of man’s will over Nature, or of man’s activity in Nature” (MECW, 29:92). Had he lived to see the Telharmonium, Marx would have been the first to recognize that such instruments “show the degree to which society’s general science … has become an immediate productive force, and hence the degree to which the conditions of the social life process itself have been brought under the control of the universal intellect and remolded according to it” (MECW, 29:92). With the intrusion of universal scientific labor into the arena of music, the manipulation of Pitch—control over the material basis of sound production—becomes yet another moment of the productive circuit where “human muscles are replaced, for the purpose of driving the machine, by a mechanical motive power” (MECW, 35:463).35 By harnessing electrical motive power, the Telharmonium dissevers the manipulation of Pitch not only from tactile engagement with the corps sonore itself—instead one’s proximate contact is with an electronic user interface—but additionally from the expenditure of all but the slightest muscular effort. The manipulation of Pitch thus becomes a matter of the operator’s physically effortless, interface-mediated management of the flow of electronic information. One could not ask for a more clear-cut case of “the implements of labor, in the form of machinery, necessitat[ing] the substitution of natural forces for human force, and the conscious application of science, instead of rule of thumb” (MECW, 35:389).36

Economic motivations

Contemporary accounts lauded Cahill’s instrument for the verisimilitude with which it replicated sounds of a variety of acoustical instruments. Whether or not this praise was warranted, it was in line with the inventor’s explicit goal, which was to create a machine that would allow a single performer to do the work of an entire symphony orchestra. An enthusiastic contemporary report about the Telharmonium mentions this labor-replacing capacity en passant: “When a large number of generators and keyboards are installed, as they doubtless will be in due time, there is no reason why the Telharmonium, as the invention is called, should not give the subscribers all the pleasures of a full symphony orchestra whenever they wish to enjoy them” (Scientific American 1906, 210). This offhand remark gets straight the the heart of the matter: the entire raison d’être of the Telharmonium was its promise to deliver an already saleable “use value”37 (the pleasures of a full symphony orchestra) at a fraction of the then-current labor cost. Cahill proposed to make a capitalistic frontal assault on the live music industry by electrifying Pitch.

In 1895, two years before Cahill built the first demonstration model of the Telharmonium, O. T. Crosby and F. C. Todd, venture capitalists (as we would now say) from Washington D.C., established the New York Electric Music Company to fund the research and development of the instrument.38 They controlled the project’s fate, determined what other small enterprises to conglomerate with, and set the strategy for how to raise more startup capital. In written appeals to potential investors, it was argued that demand for telephonic music, as a replacement for live music, was potentially vast. In New York City alone, the company claimed, 37.5 million dollars a year was spent on the services of live musicians (whose wages averaged 5 dollars a day). Another million was spent on mechanical music: pianolas, orchestrions, and the like. The sales of Victor Talking Machines was said to be 7.5 million units. This list of cyclopean figures suggests the size of the company’s ambitions. It intended the Telharmonium, whose sound production mechanism occupied the entire basement of a concert hall, to insinuate itself in the telecommunications network of the modern city, much like the telephone system whose method of sound relay the Telharmonium appropriated and whose existing infrastructure it piggy-backed on. Initially, the New York Electric Music Company’s ambitious and aggressive courting of investors showed impressive results. In all, 426,000 dollars (ca. 12 million dollars in 2018) in capital stock were issued, and the Telharmonium that was finally installed in Telharmonic Hall in midtown Manhattan was valued at 200,000 dollars (ca. 5.6 million dollars in 2018).39 The birth of sound synthesis technology, this shows, was a tremendously capital-intensive affair, one that is emblematic of capital’s ruthless subsumption of general (scientific) labor in the late nineteenth century and after.

As fate would have it, the capital invested in the New York Electric Music Company did not yield a return. Cahill clashed with the telephone utility over disruptions in service caused by the huge amount of electricity required to run the Telharmonium and by resultant interference with telephone circuits. This required a cessation of operations from which the firm never recovered. An initial popularity that the Telharmonium enjoyed as a concert instrument—audiences were at first titillated by its ethereal strains and, somewhat paradoxically, flocked to Telharmonium Hall, at 32nd Street and Broadway, to hear the instrument live—didn’t last. The company couldn’t recruit and maintain enough subscribers to come anywhere close to recouperating its giant initial outlay. Two subsequent attempts at restructuring the company were non-starters. Even if they hadn’t been, radio technology, which was just around the corner, would certainly have rendered the Telharmoniums limited home-delivery/subscription business model obsolete. After Cahill filed for bankruptcy, he had the Telharmonium dismantled and sold for scrap.

Although the Telharmonium was a financial flop, it is impossible to exaggerate the importance for Pitch of the trend it launched and epitomized: viz., the “scientification” of sound production, stimulated by burgeoning levels of capital being funneled into research and innovation, specifically in the area of “electronics … as the basis not only on which new industries were produced out of thin air, but also on which applied natural sciences for the first time ceased to be merely the technological foundation and general prerequisite of industrial labor processes, and became the driving force of the immediate labor process itself” (Kurz 2014, 36). Directly downstream from Cahill’s breakthrough is the wondrous arsenal of (now primarily digital) sound synthesis capabilities that have wholly reworked our “instrumental rationality” (in both senses) in regards to Pitch. In the 1970s, it became possible to display audio waveforms on a digital storage oscilloscope, and to reshape sound waves—in a sense that is barely, if at all, metaphorical—with the aid of a video display terminal. This gave rise to both a new form of control over the physicality of sound (Pitch) and a new mode of presentation of the object of control (Note). By the 1980s, due to the improvement and price depreciation of microprocessors, most of the applications of analogue equipment (e.g. multi-track recording) could be carried out with digital equipment on hardware platforms that lay within the budget of the general consumer. The democratization and diversification of these accoutrements of sound production (Pitch), most of which employ a non-traditional manner of graphically presenting sonic parameters (Note), instigated a remarkable attenuation of the social importance and economic relevance of Western forms of musical literacy. This has problematized the normative status of the intoned, determinately pitched, discrete sound as the primary musical “building block” (Tone). Many commercial styles that grew up in tandem with synthesis technologies, such as electronic dance music and hip-hop, would be grossly misportrayed by the image of a “composer” creating “works” by making decisions about relationships between individual, individually denominated pitches. In the 1990s and thereafter, the introduction of “digital audio workstation” (DAW) software for the personal computer accentuated and accelerated the aforementioned trends. User-friendly audio production software has rendered recorded sounds infinitely and easily modifiable, so much so that anyone who has basic computer literacy can have virtually untrammeled control over the manipulation of sonic raw material. In the music industry, the ramifications for labor productivity are mind-boggling: one person with a laptop and a microphone can do what previously would have required tens or hundreds of musicians, a small army of technicians, and a sizable piece of real estate. “Hence all powers of labor are transposed into powers of capital; the productive power of labor into fixed capital (posited as external to labor and as existing independently of it as object [sachlich]) … whose most adequate form is machinery” (MECW,29:87).40

To date, music theory as an academic discipline has been curiously standoffish toward sound production technology.41 One might reasonably expect the major determinants of the contemporary soundworld—computerized sounds—to be privileged recipients of theoretical attention. It is possible that this disconnect between theory and (at this point, fully global and transcultural) technological praxis happens because music theory behaves, in certain respects, as an institutional bulwark against purportedly negative repercussions of the technological developments described above. These include the eclipse of staff notation, the departure from the general auditory culture of ingrained familiarity with common-practice tonal syntax and contrapuntal norms, and the loss of the impulse toward a romantic attitude of pious aesthetic reverence. It is unclear at the moment of writing whether recent technoliterate scholarship that grapples with the ineluctable instrumental mediation of musical activity (the “new organology” of the last decade, e.g. Tresch and Dolan 2013; Rehding 2016) will furnish the conceptual resources for a methodological glasnost in the field of music theory, and also whether such an opening-up, if pursued to its logical conclusion, would be distinguishable from the dissolution of music theory as a separate and self-enclosed research paradigm.

Conclusion

We have seen how selected features of Pitch, Tone, and Note are plausibly construed as robustly historical, in that they are “the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production” (MECW, 6:486). From the point of view of the present, the past of Pitch, Tone, and Note evinces non-randomness, insofar as technological milestones within these domains of musical practice lie along a historical path that is paved by the developmental dynamics of capitalism.

Transformations continue. Copyright laws are metamorphosing—mostly in the direction of frightening draconianism—as a reflex response to the metamorphosis of digital information distribution technology, which has rendered recorded and notated music infinitely reproducible and shareable at zero cost (Rigi 2014). Intellectual enclosure (in the form of an intellectual property rights movement) is being ramped up in order to preserve the commodity status and salability of essentially costless digital data exchange. The overwhelming majority of pianos sold today are digital; they sound more and more like the real thing—in a sense, they now are the real thing—and they never need tuning, in the factory or anywhere else. And perhaps the most socially relevant usefor the keyboardnow is not as a self-standing instrument but as an appendage to the most important instrument in contemporary musical life, by far—the personal computer. PCs already allow for a manipulation of sonic material that is just this side of godlike, and furtherance of their capacities for audio synthesis and editing, musical data compression and storage, music production, and music information retrieval can be expected to keep pace with improvements in microprocessor and data transmission technology generally. The rapid velocity of contemporary technological change, the essentially capitalistic nature of this change, and the drastic encroachments it continues to make into our shared musical environment make a Marxian organology of Pitch, Tone, and Note timely, even urgent.

Acknowledgments

We would like to offer special thanks to Alex Rehding and Steve Rings, the editors of this volume, for their help with this chapter. Their abundant commentary on and criticism of several earlier drafts had a transformative effect on the project.

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Notes:

(1) O’Callaghan (2007) contains an account of the ontology of sounds that works carefully through the kinds of tricky questions posed in the previous paragraph.

(2) Here we deliberately eschew the subjectivist leanings of many characterizations of pitch that show up in the scientific literature, for instance: “Pitch is defined as that subjective quality of a note which enables one to place it on the musical scale” (MacKenzie 1964, 112); “Pitch is that attribute of auditory sensation in terms of which sounds may be ordered on a scale extending from low to high” (American National Standards Institute 1994, 34); “Pitch is the perceptual correlate of periodicity in sounds” (McDermott and Oxenham 2008, 452). The broader sense of pitch that we wish to exploit, and from which the musical sense derives, has to do with the general phenomenon of level or degree or magnitude, and, by extension, with susceptibility to measurement and quantification. Thus does one speak of the pitch of an aircraft (its angle of rotation about a transverse axis), the pitch of a roof (the angle it subtends at its intersection with the ceiling), the pitch of a saw or gear (the distance between its regularly spaced teeth), and so on.

(3) As this chapter unfolds it will become obvious, if it isn’t already, that our category of (uppercase “P”) Pitch—the whole province of sonic materiality writ large—encompasses many phenomena that have little or nothing to do with (lowercase “p”) pitch (and likewise, mutatis mutandis, for the categories of Tone and Note). This may call to mind Hegel’s habit, primarily in the Phenomenology, of using specific historical moments (the Enlightenment, the “Absolute Freedom and Terror” of the French Revolution, the “Enthusiasm” (Schwärmerei) typical of German romanticism) as metaphorical representatives of quite general intellectual postures and philosophical positions.

(4) For a survey of these Althusserian terms, see Koivisto and Lahtinen (2010).

(5) We favor “Marxian,” as opposed to “Marxist,” as a modifier for “organology.” The former adjective is usually reserved for concepts, ideas, explanatory models, arguments, and sociological hypotheses that can be found in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. “Marxist” has a much more flexible application, and is associated in the popular consciousness with a host of political projects and theoretical developments that postdate, and that in certain cases have only a tenuous relationship to, Marx’s actual texts.

(6) Citations of Marx are from the digitized English edition of Marx’s and Engel’s complete works, Marx & Engels Collected Works, 50 vols. (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2010), herein abbreviated as MECW.

(7) The common philosophical distinction between a space of reasons and a space of causes was introduced by Wilfrid Sellars (1956). Observe, however, that Tone, as we conceive of it, is not merely a sphere of rationality but also a sphere of embodiment, and includes within its orbit not just a space of reasons, but also a “fundamentally animal space of affect, desire, need, and feeling” (Sachs 2015, 20).

(8) In the Marxian lingo, the “mode of production” is said to be comprised of the “forces of production” and the “relations of production.” This can give the impression that forces of production—enabling implements and capacities that figure in the productive process—have nothing to do with relations between human beings. But, self-evidently, the division of labor at the point of production is both a productive force (hence the term “labor force”) and a productive relation (as part of a system of formal and informal liaisons and social ligatures between and among those engaged in production). Marx typically uses “relations of production” to refer to such social phenomena as capitalists’ legal entitlement, enforced by state power, to the commodities produced at their behest, as well as workers’ correlative alienation from the fruits of their labor, both of which fall under the concept of “property relations.” “Forces of production,” by contrast, usually denotes machines used to make commodities. But what Marx ultimately adduces is not an exclusive disjunction between, but a dialectical conjunction of, forces and relations: “A certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of cooperation, or social stage, and this mode of cooperation is itself a ‘productive force’” (MECW, 5:43).

(9) Marx’s “labor theory of value,” which (to simplify greatly) equates how much a thing is worth with how much labor it takes to make it, leads him to speak of “the labor a machine costs.”

(10) Note, however, that “improvements” of this sort do not guarantee greater social wellbeing. Advancement in the efficient production of nuclear warheads is no different from advancement in the efficient production of vaccines, from the point of view of abstract productivity.

(11) In coarse outline, since it is not our main concern: Marx argues that a system-wide increase in productivity leads to a system-wide decline in the rate of profit, which leads to economic crisis, which can create the conditions for the revolutionary self-organization of the laboring and otherwise wage-dependent classes.

(12) “Just as only music awakens in man the sense of music, and just as the most beautiful music has no sense for the unmusical ear—is no object for it, because my object can only be the confirmation of one of my essential powers—it can therefore only exist for me insofar as my essential power exists for itself as a subjective capacity; because the meaning of an object for me goes only so far as my sense goes (has only a meaning for a sense corresponding to that object)—for this reason the senses of the social man differ from those of the non-social man. Only through the objectively unfolded richness of man’s essential being is the richness of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye for beauty of form—in short, senses capable of human gratification, senses affirming themselves as essential powers of man) either cultivated or brought into being … The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present” (MECW, 3:301–302).

(13) Briefly: according to Marx’s theory of exploitation, workers who expend their labor-power for capitalists produce an amount of value that is greater than that required to set their labor in motion. This difference in value magnitude, surplus value, is appropriated by the capitalist as profit.

(14) It is worth taking the opportunity to quote some of Marx’s other similar remarks about music, since they are obscure and are not likely to be encountered by music theorists otherwise: “It may seem strange that the doctor who prescribes pills is not a productive laborer, but the apothecary who makes them up is. Similarly the instrument maker who makes the fiddle, but not the musician who plays it. But that would only show that ‘productive laborers’ produce products which have no purpose except to serve as means of production for unproductive laborers” (MECW, 31:82). “Use value has only value for use, and its existence for use is only its existence as an object for consumption, its existence in consumption. Drinking champagne, although this may produce a ‘hangover,’ is as little productive consumption as listening to music, although this may leave behind a ‘memory.’ If the music is good and if the listener understands music, the consumption of music is more sublime than the consumption of champagne, although the production of the latter is a ‘productive labor’ and the production of the former is not” (MECW, 31:195). “A singer who sells her songs on her own account is an unproductive worker. But the same singer, engaged by an impresario, who has her sing in order to make money, is a productive worker. For she produces capital” (MECW, 34:136). “A singer who sings like a bird is an unproductive worker. If she sells her singing for money, she is to that extent a wage laborer of a commodity dealer. But the same singer, when engaged by an entrepreneur who has her sing in order to make money, is a productive worker, for she directly produces capital” (MECW, 34:448). See Lindley (2010) for a fascinating discussion of Marx’s and Engels’s views on music.

(15) We use the term “copyright” loosely to mean any conferral of exclusive economic rights on creators of works (authors), or on those who produce or manage the dissemination of products that embody works (such as publishers), which conferral has the practical effect of causing abstractions (ideas, formulas, etc.) to function as a form of property subject to an individual’s (or corporation’s) sole control. The first statutes that explicitly defined such a property form were the national copyright codes passed in in the United Kingdom in 1710.

(16) Lasso’s “privilege,” as the edict states, is in actuality a “threat of punishment,” a rule about what others are forbidden to do lest they face monetary penalties and other coercive measures.

(17) Richard Taruskin asserts that (2010, 542) “the production of printed music books, and the new music-economy thus ushered in, was a crucial stage in the conceptualizing of a ‘piece’ or ‘work’ of music as an objectively existing thing—a tangible, concrete entity that can be placed in one’s hands in exchange for money; that can be handled and transported; that can be seen as well as heard…. This ‘thingifying’ of music (or reification, to use the professional philosopher’s word for it), leading to its commodification and the creation of commercial middlemen for its dissemination—this was the long-range result of literacy, and the vehicle of its triumph.” Taruskin’s claim is puzzling, since handmade manuscripts, just like printed music books, can be (and were) “placed in one’s hand in exchange for money,” “handled and transported,” and “seen as well as heard.” What music publishing “thingifies,” in our view, is not the score as a “tangible concrete entity” (written music was always tangible and concrete), but rather “the music itself” as a non-tangible, but nevertheless ownable and saleable (pseudo-)object.

(18) Owing to the economic peripherality of musical text production, and also to idiosyncratic economic characteristics of musical scores (which in some cases, like that of certain orchestral and opera scores, can generate more earnings when the copyright holder rents out a small number of copies, rather than attempting to sell a large number of copies), the individual scribal production of musical texts persists for centuries after it becomes defunct in the book sector.

(19) “No evidence has been uncovered … of any copying shops that specialized in music. Music scribes were attached to courts and chapels, such as those at Mechelen or Ferrara; the music they copied was often widely circulated and much used, but their activity is distinct from [capitalist] processes of publication” (Boorman, Selfridge-Field, and Krummel 2001).

(20) It is necessary to speak in the past tense here, since digitization has, over the last two decades, upended former schemes of distribution of printed and recorded music, rendering the physical production of scores and recordings nearly obsolete.

(21) As James O. Young (1991, 235) notes, “critics still frequently talk of dark and joyful keys.”

(22) Landes (1969) and other economic historians discriminate two separate industrial revolutions: a spate of mostly British technological innovations in the use of cotton, iron, and steam between 1780 and 1860, and a more global efflorescence in the last quarter of the nineteenth century of technologies that made use of steel, chemicals, and electricity.

(23) Marx traces the increasing, and increasingly injurious, specialization imposed upon detail workers to processes of real subsumption: “While simple cooperation leaves the mode of working by the individual for the most part unchanged, manufacture thoroughly revolutionizes it, and seizes labor power by its very roots. It converts the laborer into a crippled monstrosity, by forcing his detail dexterity at the expense of a world of productive capabilities and instincts; just as in the States of Laplata they butcher a whole beast for the sake of his hide or his tallow. Not only is the detail work distributed to the different individuals, but the individual himself is made the automatic motor of fraction operation” (MECW, 35:365–366).

(24) Marx uses piano manufacture to illustrate the distinction between “productive” labor, which creates surplus value for a capitalist, and “unproductive” labor, which does not. “The workman employed by a piano maker is a productive laborer. His labor not only replaces the wages that he consumes, but in the product, the piano, the commodity that the piano maker sells, there is a surplus value over and above the value of the wages. But assume on the contrary that I buy all the materials required for a piano (or for all it matters the laborer himself may possess them), and that instead of buying the piano in a shop I have it made for me in my house. The workman who makes the piano is now an unproductive laborer, because his labor is exchanged directly against my revenue” (MECW, 31: 16)

(25) Jorgensen (1977 and 1991) maintains that equal temperament was not a practical reality until the second decade of the twentieth century, since no precise method for tuning in equal temperament appeared in print before then. Sturm (2010b) convincingly dismantles Jorgensen’s thesis. “Much of Jorgenson’s argument about the impossibility of equal temperament before the twentieth century is based on a very narrow definition of equal temperament, where any deviation of as much as one cent in the temperament is enough to make it something different…. Jorgensen assumed that minor deviations from ‘precise’ equal temperament are significant, and that procedures other than those of the twentieth century could not achieve such precision. Both assumptions are subject to question” (20). Sturm suggests that it is an error to fixate, as Jorgensen does, on trivial physical differences in Pitch to the neglect of more germane normative and social facts about Tone: “Practically speaking there was little evidence that tuners were doing other than attempting to tune equal temperament to the best of their ability, using methods that, while some were not very precise in their instructions, were all clearly aimed at creating an equal temperament with all keys sounding alike” (20).

(26) We can get an idea about levels of training and compensation from an 1891 article in The Musical Courier (1891, 752). “The pay in the factories for tuning pianos averages $18 or$20 a week … Moreover, there is evening work outside which is so much extra for the tuner employed in the factory. A piano can be tuned in an hour and a half at any time in the evening that is convenient after resting from the day’s work, and the tuner receives for it $1.50 … It is not necessary for a piano tuner to be a fine musician … On fair average, in order to get piano tuning down fine, it would require about two years to become proficient, but some can acquire excellence in this line in six months.” By comparison, the weekly wage of a skilled carpenter in New York in 1890 was around$20 (United States Bureau of Labor 1900, 766).

(27) On the continent, equal temperament seems to have met with approbation earlier than it did in England. In Germany, in particular, “the movement toward equal temperament was becoming quite strong by 1750.” Daniel Gottlob Türk’s Klavierschule, from 1789, is one of a host of German-language theoretical documents of the period that makes mention of the popularity of equal temperament on keyboard instruments (Sturm 2010a, 26). Our claim is not that equal temperament was nowhere to be found before capital’s subsumption of tuning, nor that there were no musical reasons to prefer it. The claim is that the economic event of subsumption (of the labor of tuning) coincides with a point of inflection in European intonational norms, after which non-equal temperament goes into rapid decline.

(28) Duffin does not provide an explanation of why it would be more convenient or less expensive to manufacture wind instruments in equal temperament rather than in any other scheme, nor does the source he cites to corroborate his claim, Powell (2002). On the face of it, it is hard to see why the choice of temperament would appreciably affect the cost of manufacturing flutes, since differences in temperament on that instrument come down to small differences in where the toneholes would be drilled, which would presumably have little or no effect on production price. Duffin’s thought may be that for a flute to play equally well, and with the same intonational profile, in all keys, but without using the evenly-spaced semitones of equal temperament, requires a cumbersome mechanism that permits a division of the octave into more than twelve notes, as on split-key keyboard instruments. This sort of contraption would undoubtedly be more expensive to produce than a run-of-the-mill equally tempered instrument. But this assumes a scenario in which a feature of equal temperament—absence of individuating key quality, equivalent usability of all keys—is antecedently sought. In the case of the piano, as we have tried to demonstrate, there appear to be economic factors over and above a standing preference for the virtues of equal temperament—to wit, the need for large numbers of instruments to be tuned, assembly-line style, in a factory environment—that create selection pressure in favor of equal temperament.

(29) Wing (1897, 15) says that the figure of 100,000 instruments annually was reached by the American piano industry by 1897.

(30) Powell (2002, 149) provides examples of mid- and late-nineteenth century writers on music who use “perfect intonation” and “equal temperament” interchangeably.

(31) The notes in question are in mm. 92–93, in the first movement’s development section. E♭ is [$1^$] within a 12-measure tonicization of E♭ minor. But E♭’s status as local tonic is called into question when it is elaborated by its chromatic upper neighbor, F♭. This half-step motion gives the impression that E♭ is about to be treated as [$5^$] of A♭ minor. Instead, E♭ is respelled as D♯, and is then used as the leading tone within a fully diminished seventh chord that tonicizes E minor. The reason the cello’s D♯ must initially be “the same tone” as the preceding E♭ in the violins is simple to deduce: a slight change in intonation (which would be noticeable, given that the cello plays the note unaccompanied) would either sound like a mistake (since someone listening without the score would be unaware of the respelling) or else spoil the harmonic punchline. For although the unaccompanied neighboring motion between E♭ and F♭ is respelled with D♯ and E already in 93–94, the listener should be none the wiser until m. 95, when the real auditory surprise arrives: F♯, C, and A as members of the D♯ fully diminished seventh chord.

(32) “But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive…. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade” (MECW, 6:465).

(33) “In the first half of the nineteenth century—that is, relatively late in the overall development of the bourgeoisie since the Renaissance—when capitalism first really began to develop by means of steam-powered machinery, this historical leap in the development of productivity was not yet in any way the result of a systematic relationship between science and production. The decisive innovations were initially still made by empirical practitioners (such as the engineer-industrialist and inventor of the spinning frame Arkwright) and not by scientists, and these innovations were made not on the basis of the socialized organization of science and technology, but individually” (Kurz 2014, 35). The “state and social organization of the process of science and its direct connection to material production” (36) becomes a core feature of capital accumulation beginning in the late nineteenth century.

(34) Electrodynamism is crucial in the Telharmonium not only for the induction of currents that are homologous to, and that cause the connected speaker to emit, various sine waves, but also for controlling the consistent rotation speed of the tone-wheel.

(35) Marx is here referring to steam and water power, not electrical power. The first volume of Capital appeared in 1867, several years before the electric motor reached a commercially viable form, and more than a decade before electrodynamism became prevalent in industry.

(36) Our account of the Telharmonium as a tool that enables a new manner of sonic construction—a brand new type of musical action-type, brought into being by a new form of technological mediation—is indebted to the stimulating history of the instrument found in Théberge (1997, chap. 3).

(37) “Use value” is Marx’s vague term for whatever it is about something that makes people willing to accept it in exchange for something else (e.g. money). Marx uses a musical example to illustrate the elusive, protean nature of use values: “Some services or use values, the results of certain activities or kinds of labor, are incorporated in commodities; others, however, leave behind no tangible result as distinct from the persons themselves: or they do not result in a salable commodity. E.g. the service a singer performs for me satisfies my aesthetic needs, but what I enjoy exists only in an action inseparable from the singer himself, and once his work, singing, has come to an end, my enjoyment is also at an end; I enjoy the activity itself—its reverberation in my ear” (MECW, 34:139–40).

(38) Much of what is known about the history of the New York Electric Company comes from musicologist Stoddard Lincoln (1972), the son of Edwin Stoddard Lincoln, an electrical engineering pioneer who came into possession of much of the original documentation concerning the Telharmonium (Weidenaar 1995, 313).

(39) These inflation statistics, which are based on the Consumer Price Index, are of questionable value for giving a sense of the size of large capital investments (which are advanced to purchase capital goods, not consumer goods) from the period. For comparison’s sake: in 1876, Thomas Edison’s entire laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ, which accommodated sixty employees and was considered to be the most impressive research facility in the United States, cost $2,500 to build and contained$40,000 of machines and equipment. In other words, the Telharmonium was outrageously well funded by contemporary standards.

(40) In Marx’s work, “fixed capital” refers to assets such as machines and buildings that depreciate slowly and transfer their value to commodities gradually. Fixed capital is a fractional part of “constant capital,” which refers to the total cost of means of production (including raw materials). “Variable capital,” the mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive counterpart of constant capital, refers to the wage bill (the money capitalists give to workers). One of Marx’s main tenets is that as capitalism goes from cradle to grave, the average ratio of constant capital to variable capital grows, as human labor is displaced by mechanization and automation.

(41) One notable exception is the music-theoretical subdiscipline of tuning and temperament studies, where, in a swing of the historical pendulum, digital audio technology has stimulated renewed experimentation with non-equal and non-twelve-note tuning systems.