Techno Pop: The Sound of Technology in Pop Music

  • Tutor: Dr Jez Wells
  • Level: C/4 (1st year students), I/5 (2nd year students), H/6 (3rd year students)

Aims and content

Much pop music created in the era of recording has explored the possibilities offered by current technology in its sound, form and/or its subject matter. de Bono (de Bono, E., Technology Today, Routledge, 1971) observes that “technology is an impression ... the closer you get to it the more it is not there”. From this viewpoint pop music is simply something which represents and overtly utilises the machines, instruments and techniques ‘of the day’ for the production, capture and reproduction of audio. A knowledge of these machines and techniques offers a demystification of this ‘technology’ along with a fuller understanding of the context in which this music was produced and how styles have developed. This project explores the connection between the changing sound of pop music and the technology available for its production

Content:

There will be a series of case studies, each of which will either

(a) provide a detailed focus on a single notable work, for example:

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
  • Night Dubbing – Imagination
  • A Secret Wish/Wishful Thinking – Propaganda
  • Slave to the Rhythm – Grace Jones
  • The Mix – Kraftwerk
  • Jazz From Hell – Frank Zappa
  • Long Distance – Onra
  • In Decay – Com Truise                      

(b) examine the history and development of particular techniques or devices along with example works, such as

  • Delay-based processing
  • Analogue synthesis
  • Extreme compression
  • Sampling and Sequencing
  • Pitch shifting and tuning control of voice
  • Reproduction formats and equipment

or (c) the development of an artist or style, for example

  • Wendy Carlos from analogue to digital
  • Joni Mitchell and guitar technology
  • Kraftwerk: voices of men and machines
  • ABC to ZTT: the early work of Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson
  • Madonna’s personnel and sound
  • Synth-pop: 80s beginnings, 00s revival
  • House: from the 303 to granular synthesis

These case studies will be developed by lectures (history, theoretical basis of techniques), listening seminars (analysis of works, demonstrations of techniques and equipment) and workshops (recreation/emulation of techniques using actual or related equipment).

Assessment

  • Option 1: Seminar (20%, 30 minutes with audio examples) and essay (80%, 4000 words) presenting an extended case study on a topic chosen by the student but agreed by course staff. This should present the historical and technological context of the topic, a description of the techniques/equipment discussed and their impact. The coverage of techniques/equipment should include illustrative audio examples produced for the case study, along with details of how they were created.
  • Option 2: Recorded/rendered composition (60%, maximum 10 minutes), accompanying essay (30%, 2000 words) and replay seminar (10%, 15 minutes). A pastiche of a technologically-orientated style or work of the student’s own choice but agreed by course staff. The essay should describe the era/style/artist referred to in the composition and state, in terms of technique and equipment, how these references have been achieved.

Reading and listening

This is dependent upon the case studies selected but an indicative list based on some of those is:

  • Warner, Timothy. Pop Music – Technology and Creativity. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.
  • Kureishi, Hanif, and Savage, Jon, eds. The Faber Book of Pop. London: Faber, 1995.
  • Pinch, Trevor and Trocco, Frank. Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Cambridge, Massachusets: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Whitesell, Lloyd. The Music of Joni Mitchell. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2008.
  • Bussy, Pascal. Man, Machine and Music. London: SAF Publishing, 2004.
  • McLeod, Kembrew, and DiCola, Peter. Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • Roads, Curtis. The Computer Music Tutorial. Cambridge, Massachusets: MIT Press, 1996.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the taught part of this project all students should:

  • understand how technology can influence, and be influenced by, popular music,
  • be able to use listening and research to imitate techniques and sounds using either ‘authentic’ equipment or developing equivalents with contemporary tools,
  • be better able to identify particular styles and eras of popular music through the ‘technology’ which they hear in recordings,
  • (Option 1) be able to develop new case studies which relate the development of popular styles or works to particular stages in the development of music technology,
  • (Option 2) be able to incorporate a particular technological state (i.e. area and era) into an original composition and realise its capture and/or rendering.

First years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes A1-A7, A10

Second years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes B1-B7, B10

Third years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes C1-C7, C10