University of Wisconsin–Madison

History of Science Brown Bag

Event Image - Old Machine

“Engineers, Scientists, Musicians, and the Trautonium in Berlin in the 1930s”

Myles Jackson
Gallatin Research Excellence Professor,
New York University

Friday, November 17, 2017
12:00 – 1:00
Curti Lounge (Rm. 5233 humanities Bldg.)


Radio and electrical engineers, physicists, and physiologists working on the synthesis and broadcasting of speech and music provided musicians with a new palate of musical tones. And they all spoke of how science and technology enabled an aesthetic of precision that was part and parcel of the new music of the age. Given the political climate in Germany after the rise of fascism, one might have thought that the Nazis would dismiss all aspects of this new musical genre as being “degenerate.” In actuality, the contrary proved to be case, as the trautonium and its various instantiations were promoted during the Third Reich. In addition to the new timbres created by radio and electrical devices, musicians also borrowed techniques used by natural scientists. The avant-garde composer Paul Hindemith’s turntablism, as we now call it, originated with his work at the Berlin Rundfunkversuchstelle with physiologists and physicists, who had used the technique of altering the speed of a gramophone in order to research the properties of acoustical formants present in speech sounds and musical instruments. While music, engineering, and science were by now separate professions and domains of knowledge- certainly more so than they had been a century earlier, the boundaries between them were still at times porous as collaborations flourished, and they sought each other out to create new musical instruments, sounds, and aesthetics.