The Quest for Volume
When I think about the variety of musical instruments among the world’s cultures, I can’t help but notice how one universal driving force behind the evolution of new musical technology has always been the search for louder sounds. The development of the modern piano—from its roots in earlier keyboard instruments including the harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano—is largely about how sturdier materials and construction techniques made possible a modern instrument with a full range of dynamics, from the most delicate pianissimo shimmer to a clangorous tolling of a low sforzando chord.
With these changes in the range of dynamics came accompanying variations of timbre—in the case of the piano, a more “struck” and metallic timbre replacing the “plucked” plain-wire strings of the older harpsichord. The modern convex violin bow gains volume and a more focused tone over the old baroque bows, but the entire playing technique of the instrument changed in the process: the baroque bow easily sustains chords found in the unaccompanied string works of Heinrich Biber and J.S. Bach, yet it’s very difficult to play fast bursts of single-line runs while crossing strings. So the modern violin bow actually inverts some of the challenges of the Bach partitas, making fast runs and roulades a relative breeze and rendering 4-voice fugal writing even more of a challenge.
The guitar is one of those instruments—steeped in folk music and large gatherings—that had a great need for a volume boost, with the twelve-stringed version of the instrument just one stop on the way to its inevitable amplification. As the most successfully and universally amplified instrument nowadays, the modern electric guitar can morph, chameleon-like, through an awe-inspiring terrain of timbres and effects. One of the results of amplification has been the development of an entirely separate technique and musical vocabulary for the solid-bodied electric instrument, to the point where a Fender Telecaster has about as much in common with a nylon stringed classical guitar as with a violin—a point that Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page would drive home quite literally while he bowed his guitar with a violin or cello bow during live shows. The capabilities of the modern amplified guitar are often better suited to the role of melody instrument (like a violin) than the guitar’s previously assigned role of strumming chords.
Of course the development of musical instruments is also about the quest for uniformity of production and increased accuracy, among other things; yet it strikes me that no other quality drove such radical change in the form and function of instruments as this urge to crank the amp up to eleven. That says a lot about us as a species—namely, that humans have an irrepressible desire to be heard and also to experience music at a sufficient dynamic that it can be felt in a visceral sense.