Valves and Values: Another Story of Technological Transition

New technologies, as they begin to take hold, have always elicited fear and criticism of the changes they will bring. Such was the main message of two stories that passed through my Twitter feed last week. The first, by Tom Standage, was an op-ed piece in the New York Times on coffee houses as the new social networking platform of the 1600s. Standage recounts seventeenth-century worries that coffee houses were places of distractions that undermined productive work and mental concentration. Standage concludes:

There is always an adjustment period when new technologies appear. During this transitional phase, which can take several years, technologies are often criticized for disrupting existing ways of doing things. But the lesson of the coffeehouse is that modern fears about the dangers of social networking are overdone.

Rebekah Higgitt offered a follow-up in the Guardian, citing concerns dating back to the eighteenth century that technological innovations are speeding up the pace of life and endangering our well-being. “We were doomed (again),” she sums up: “There is nothing so old as warnings about modernity.”

These types of stories are valuable for demonstrating that technologies and social practices with which we feel comfortable – so comfortable we wouldn’t even think to question them – once were the subject of heated debate (I’ve told such a story myself for Auto-Tune). But these stories also do something concerning: they imply that our criticisms and concerns about new technologies will soon look just as silly as those of the past – that we can dismiss today’s fears because we’ve heard them all before. Framed this way, these stories use history to teach us to embrace the latest innovations, and to foreclose critical discussion of their effects and trade-offs.

The history of technological transitions has other lessons to offer, however. Let’s consider a musical case: the adoption of the valved horn.

The valved horn, familiar as the French horn, is now a standard member of the orchestra. But the valve mechanism employed in horns and other brass instruments was invented only in the 1810s (i.e. twenty years after Mozart’s death, and after Beethoven had composed most of his symphonies). Until then, all horns were made of coiled metal tubing without keys, and the length of this tubing determined the frequencies at which the the instrument would resonate. These frequencies were limited to the pitches of the harmonic series. In the key of C, these would be:

There were thus gaps between the available pitches, especially in the lower register. To get intermediate pitches required the technique of hand-stopping, which altered the tone of the instrument (though especially virtuosic horn-players were able to reduce the difference to near imperceptible).

Valves closed the gaps in the harmonic series, making it possible for horns to play the entire chromatic scale throughout their range. This would seem an obvious advantage – more notes, more musical possibilities. But like the coffee house, the valved horn prompted an abundance of worried commentary. The tone of the valved horn was considered inferior, the instrument lacked the singing quality of its predecessor, and horn players were losing the sensitivity and knowledge that came with learning to control the intonation and tone color of the valveless horn.  As one critic wrote in 1837:

What are we to do with all the stories we hear about valves and keys? They ruin the natural characteristic tone and make it so that soon we will have only yellow and red, with which we can no longer fittingly paint and shade….

Another in 1835 wrote:

I want to attempt to discuss the disadvantages of the general introduction of the valved horn in some detail…Sadly one cannot mistake the Zeitgeist in the introduction of this instrument…should we then keep no instrument that is actually created totally for singing?

And in 1865:

But in the future how would orchestral music (with string instruments) fare, if the good players of the natural horn became increasingly scarce?…a skilled horn player can be trained only if he uses the natural horn in his practice….Thus the worst decline threatens…

We might now chuckle at those who worried about the valved horn, and look upon those who fear the consequences of digital technologies for music as equally overdrawn in their concern. But the choice of valveless or valved horn was a matter of trade-offs – each was better for certain purposes, as this concert reviewer recognized in 1842:

It is undeniable that the natural tones of the natural horn far surpass the natural tones of the valved horn in fullness and tone quality, yet on the other hand, there is a perfect equality of all the whole and half steps on the valved horn that makes it possible to work in all scales with nearly equal success

The transition to the valved horn was thus not a matter of the inferior giving way to the superior, but of certain values – and certain people – winning out over others. The winners in this transition included those who patented valve technologies. The obvious losers were valveless-horn players, whose skills and knowledge were rendered increasingly irrelevant. Though many nineteenth-century commentators maintained that both valved and valveless horns were valuable and necessary, each for their purpose, by the twentieth century valveless horn-players were wanted neither for performance nor teaching positions.

In terms of values, the transition to the valved horn was a matter of the chromatic scale winning out over resonance. Here, especially, we can learn from early criticisms of the new technology. For while critics may voice particular fears that in retrospect appear unjustified or narrow-minded, their worries can also reveal the particular interests upon which a new technology is based – and which, once the technology has been adopted, come to seem natural, inevitable, invisible. When a fourth-grader is handed a French horn, she is handed the privileging of pitch over other musical dimensions – a preference for thinking about music as a matter of relations between pitches rather than relations between sounds and physical bodies. While valves expanded the capabilities of the horn in certain senses, it also reduced the uniqueness of its musical voice and perspective. As one mid nineteenth-century critic of the valved horn’s tone observed, getting at the dynamics of accommodation and erasure at play in the transition to the valved horn: “it appears that one wants to make all instruments play like keyboards.”

After falling into almost complete disuse for the first half of the twentieth century, valveless horns were revived by the historically informed performance movement which found for it a new value: fidelity to the composer’s original conception of his musical works. One may now thus compare, say, a performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony using today’s valved horns with one using horns of the early nineteenth century. This revival of the valveless horn made possible another development: composers are now finding the unique musical potentials of the instrument suited to their expressive purposes. Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto, completed in 2002, exploits the fact that valveless horns sound the overtone series native to their particular length. As Ligeti explains:

by providing each horn or group of horns with different fundamentals I was able to construct novel sound spectra from the resulting overtones. These harmonies, which had never been used before, sound “weird” in relation to harmonic spectra.

Musical values have shifted, making it clear that valved horns reflect one set of priorities – and that those who worried about the loss of valveless horns – their techniques and musical properties – were quite justified in doing so.

So yes, there is always an adjustment period when new technologies appear, and during the transitional phase technologies are often criticized for disrupting existing ways of doing things. But the lesson of the valved horn is that new technologies embed certain values and, once adopted, conceal alternatives – hence the retrospective bafflement at all that worry.