The symphony orchestra and the Industrial Revolution

I heard Mozart’s 39th symphony in concert last night, and it occurred to me (once again) that I also was witnessing one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements.  Think about what went into the activity: each instrument, developed eventually to perfection and coordinated with the other instruments.  The system of tuning and the underlying principles of the music.  The acoustics of the music hall.  The sheet music on paper and the musical notation.  All of those features extremely well coordinated with the kind of compositional talent being produced in Central and Western Europe from say 1710 to 1920.  And by the mid-18th century most of the key features of this system were in place and by the early 19th century they were more or less perfected.

Sometimes I think of the Industrial Revolution as fundamentally a Cultural Revolution.  The first instantiation of this Cultural Revolution maybe was the rise of early Renaissance Art in Italy and in the Low Countries.  That too was based on a series of technological developments, including improved quality tempera paint, the development of oil painting, the resumption of bronze and marble techniques for sculpture, and the reintroduction of paper into Europe, which enabled artists’ sketches and drawings.

As with classical music, this unfolding of quality production was all based on extreme experimentation, a kind of scientific method, urbanization, and competing city-states.  There was also the rediscovery of knowledge from antiquity, and the importation or reimportation of science from China and the Arabic world, including the afore-mentioned knowledge of paper-making.

The creation of a book culture, and a culture of experimental science, could be cited as well.

Perhaps the only [sic] difference with the Industrial Revolution proper is that it came to sectors — energy, transport, and textiles — that boosted living standards immensely.  But arguably it was just another of a series of Cultural Revolutions that had their roots in late medieval times, with even classical music deriving ultimately from Franco-Flemish polyphony.  One of these Cultural Revolutions just happened to be Industrial.

Of course the earliest parts of Revolutions are often the best, as we’ve surpassed the steam engines of the 19th century but Mozart and Leonardo are still with us.


If only the symphony orchestra did not arise in the Age of Absolutism, leading to the natural comparison between England's Industrial Revolution in contrast to England's decidedly second class status when it came to the conditions apparently required for a symphony orchestra to arise in continental Europe. Which involved a strong church or a strong monarchy deciding what to pay for, regardless of any commercial considerations, as commerce was the not the point of why a symphony orchestra existed in Vienna in Mozart's time.

Admittedly, today, you can enjoy hearing a symphony orchestra at Schönbrunn Palace without requiring a royal invitation, so things do change over time.

But the idea that somehow, a symphony orchestra arose out of the same commercial considerations that prompted the Industrial Revolution, and thus the Industrial Revolution is fundamentally a Cultural Revolution seems to be way off his base, to be honest, at least when trying to conflate two very separate paths into a single narrative.

The culture of the Industrial Revolution pretty thoroughly replaced the absolutists and theocrats responsible for sponsoring the creation of symphony orchestras based on a desire to glorify themselves or their institutions.

The claim is about the technology for making this music, not about who listened. I don't think it's crazy to see a connection, an increase in the scale of co-ordination which was possible.

The technology required to fly three men to the moon had quite a bit in common with that required to let a hundred million men drive themselves to work. Neither of these were possible a century earlier.

'The claim is about the technology for making this music'

Austria, to give one concrete example, was not noted for its innovative approach to the Industrial Revolution during the time Mozart was alive.

'an increase in the scale of co-ordination which was possible'

Again, look at Vienna and its history - the scale of coordination was entirely due to its absolute monarchy. England, in contrast, was not actually doing much with symphony orchestras in the 1750. This may be why Prof. Cowen slides almost effortlessly from music to painting when talking about commercial activity - there is no question that painting was a much more commercial venture in a number of ways.

One can claim two things are alike, of course, but when it is actually possible to compare those two things, it becomes much harder to make various claims. And it further helps to bring in a third thing to make such comparisons even muddier.

Admittedly, Prof. Cowen's writing tends to wander here, in part because he is also likely aware of just how specious such writing might appear without the appropriate smudging to blur what is being said.

Personally, my assumption is somewhat based on the idea this is just an indirect plug for a book that Prof. Cowen wrote earlier. Because basically, music of the type he is referring to in the time frame he is mentioning was not primarily a commercial venture, but one based on absolutism allowing those at the top to do what they wished in terms of building the space to hold such orchestras, for example.

Music does not need much to be created and enjoyed - a symphony orchestra is a bit more complicated to create and enjoy, and it did not originate in the home of the Industrial Revolution.

I'd argue that the Viennese were putting the advances of the time to use for different purposes. Better co-ordination made possible both the orchestras and the navies of 1750, and also made possible factories.

All of these were done on a scale not possible in 1550, which were done depended on who was in charge / whether they were landlocked / etc.

You have shifted the argument though - that greater wealth leads to greater opportunity is not a cultural argument at its base.

And neither the English nor the Scots were noted for their music, either in 1550 or 1750.

There are some things that are "human". The human ear, the mind, make music natural and the sequence of sounds and collaboration of instruments feeds a human need. This kind of thing is as natural as good cooking which feeds the human senses and appetite. Uneducated illiterate farmers have made their own instruments and created their own music. Certainly the classical music is more complex and refined but it is still a natural human need and function to create music. This is very different from creating a steam engine or automobile. The skill set is very different and more a result of centuries of effort by a few people doing things that are not natural to humans as music and food is.

Although surely socio-culturally a large part of what was happening in Mozart & Beethoven's day was music moving out of the aristocratic ballroom and into a more commercial environment. And thence, via the flowering of chamber music in the first half of the nineteenth century, into the bourgeois drawing room.

(Hope I'm responding to the right comment in this bizarre threading system)

Arguable the innovation of the industrial revolution was standardisation and mass production. Symphony orchestras seem to belong to me to the craftsmans era instead which proceeded the industrial revolution, maybe the highest form of that era for sure, but still of that era. Craftsman technology consist of manufacturing goods and services by means of highly trained individuals working on a bespoke basis from scratch. The genius of the industrial revolution was to enable complex goods to be made by people with little or no training.

Yep - church organs, to give one extremely concrete example, are not a mass production item.

And yes, the people making and playing musical instruments in that time period possessed a high degree of long term training. Or pure genius in the case of notable composers. None of these things are part of the culture of the Industrial Revolution, which was also about replacing human effort with steam power.

The cultural aspect of the Industrial Revolution was in extending the pleasures and comforts of the rich to the masses. The mass-production element and technological marvel in Tyler's example is that poor people can now listen to Mozart's 39th symphony just like rich patrons, but in their own homes.

Cowen was at a concert hall. I think he is speaking of his experience as analogous to having the same experience in a concert hall in the past.

I'm expanding upon his thoughts with an observation of my own. It's called "conversation."

excellent point -- e-comments are too often just "shouting" and wanting to score a point, rather than meaningful conversation.

That point about Prof. Cowen attending a concert is hard to miss, considering this is the first sentence - 'I heard Mozart’s 39th symphony in concert last night, and it occurred to me (once again) that I also was witnessing one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements.'

The achievement was the live orchestra performance. Something absolutely clear from what he wrote after that first sentence.

Yes. Specialization and scalabilty do not always travel together as they do in the pin factory.

"we’ve surpassed the steam engines of the 19th century but Mozart and Leonardo are still with us"

I tend to think of appreciation of classical music as similar to appreciation of steam trains, in terms of demography and relevance to the modern standards. But somehow european music from a couple hundred year stretch gets a large public subsidy.

And, commenting this sentence in another direction, we didn't really surpass the steam engine. It is still how we transfer heat into mechanical energy, which can then be transformed into electrical energy to be transported easily. Remember that the way a nuclear plant eventually produces electricity is by the use of steam engines, working with the boiling water heated by nuclear fission. If really we want to lower our carbon emissions fast, we will need a lot more steam engines.

Diesel electric trains - like pretty much all freight trains in the U.S. - are not steam engines, and they most certainly do surpass steam engines.

It's unusual to refer to steam turbines as 'steam engines'.

Gas turbines are producing an increasingly large amount of power in the US and other countries and they are certainly not steam engines. Maybe Joel is thinking about the steam engine basically being a heat engine?

He is talking about the fact that nuclear power plants still use steam.

Ah, you are right, folks. English not being my mother tongue, I made a confusion between steam engine and steam turbine. The main point remains : that this fundamental invention of the industrial revolution, how to use heat to make mechanical energy by heating water and using the power of the steam created, is still important for us.

Agreed. And the fact that the applications of the idea can be replaced with improved variants is a feature, not a bug. If Fermat's theorems can be generalized far beyond what Fermat could have imagined, that makes Fermat much more of a pioneer than Leonardo or Mozart, and Fermat's revolution far greater.

+1 to both the comments (matt and Joël). I was somewhat triggered by that sentence.

Tyler doesn't mention the piano, which amongst all the instruments underwent the greatest (and fastest) technological transformation from about the time of Mozart to the mid 19th century (incorporating significant tester feedback from Beethoven). To this day, the piano strikes me as the most elegantly expressive user-interface ever created, the closest thing to a neuralink in existence. To a competent pianist, there is no necessary interference between idea and it's infinitely adjustable articulation in sound. That tone pitch is held constant and identified by keyboard frees the musician to focus on more ambitious uses of these basic elements. I have spent an order of magnitude more time and training at a computer, yet the interface between me and what I use it to make remains awkward and frequently painful.

You have to be highly trained to be able to effectively use a piano, and keep practicing a lot to be able to use it. This does not sound to me to be the most effective user interface ever made. It is a classic craftsman response, of course if you invest loads of time and effort into something you are going to rationalise it is worth a lot. But that is a perspective of the producer, not the consumer. The consumer would rather listen to a cheap MP3 on their way to work, than put up with the cost and inconvenience of attending a live piano recital.

Anecdotal note: my son studied the piano and was good enough to join the conservatory. When I see what he does with his Apple laptop running Ableton ( ) then this is a much more powerful and modern instrument than the piano. And with a more powerful user (MIDI-driven) interface. This laptop is equal to a whole orchestra and romantic church organ combined. He can still play the piano well, but he prefers the laptop.

Not the most effective, in an immediate sense (although any child can understand how to pick out a simple tune without instruction) but the most elegantly expressive, in the sense of the possibilities for which it allows, was what I claimed.

My point was not about technologies for listening to music, but technologies for producing music: writing rather than reading. Clearly for the pure consumer of a piece of music a digital recording is a more useful product.

Comparing other kinds of expert ‘writing’, e.g. novels, mathematics papers, even computer programs, my claim is that that the technologies for translating ideas from mind to object remain much more mediated and obstructively laborious.

Maybe I wasn't clear enough. Modern music / audio composition programs (like Ableton) are so infinitely powerful that life-composing music becomes possible. This can be combined with a whole universe of MIDI-coupled interfaces (controllers, keyboards, drum kits etc.). Making complex music can become as easy as computer programming, and it even looks the same on the Ableton interface. This is innovation and (compositional) productivity enhancement. Then add the infinite possibilities of sampling and synthesis. And finally there are many experiments in AI supported musical composition: This leaves the orchestra in the dust ... (Note: my son chose engineering instead of piano, and that was a wise choice I think)

An example from another field would be pen and ink, calligraphy, or brush technique compared to the ease of utilizing bezier curves in any modern illustrating program. The 'hand' of the master evaporates like smoke.

What is lost is what is gained? I mean to suggest a parity. Ease and accessibility both come at the price of lost rarification, exquisiteness, and subtlety. I've been going to symphony center in Chicago for years. I am constantly meeting other patrons who have their own favorite seats the house, based on acoustics. They are not poseurs. They hear things in that hall unknown in laptop-land.

I will never hear a castrati sing, we don't spend resources that way anymore. Change is inevitable, of course. The door closing on one world is the door opening on another. The lost world is not inferior, just different. The rarification shall return in new garb to surprise us.

We might say this is the beginning of musical industrialization. Even for the piano. I find these examples quite convincing:


Indian classical music, specifically Carnatic music is a culmination of agrarian revolution in Thanjavur district. Thyagaraja, India's Mozart had the critical set of facilities to compose his work.

Which facilities? And which revolution - irrigation networks constructed by Nayaks?

Couldn't this be said of many other cultures? The (courtly) music of Islam, China, India, Japan and Indonesia has the same confluence of instrumental, notational (sometimes in a highly organized oral transmission) and technological development. It's interesting to analyze the similarities and differences though. (Note: the tonal subtleties of Islamic and Indian music are comparable with the "wohl temperiert" research in the west. And not to motion the much more complex rhythmical subtleties of these musics.) (Note: and where does African music come into this? Classical African drum music, as taught by the "griots" has a huge tradition and is infinitely complex.)

If trying to make industrial revolution analogies, the difference is surely scale. Indian classical music has a few performers, with unique roles, trained in something that's almost a family. It doesn't have 30 violinists playing exactly the same notes on identical violins, all trained in a conservatory. (I don't know about your other examples.)

"notational (sometimes in a highly organized oral transmission)": I'd have thought that oral transmission is plain different from the use of musical notation.

On the basis that an orchestra is an exercise in cooperation like the evolution city states, we are now seeing change back the other way. Hyper-rich individuals taking over the role of governments in fields such as space exploration, public and private transport, and large scale health projects. Someone with enough money can consider a project that the majority of experts (and hence a government) would consider impractical and yet bring it to fruition.

You just might have this reversed - orchestras came about due to hyper rich individuals who were the leaders of the state or church.

And the absolute monarchs cared nothing about the majority of experts when looking to have their will followed. Of course, they also did not care about the people they ruled either, so at least in that sense, they do resemble the hyper rich of today. But then, the ultra wealthy have always been different, throughout human history.

Does it follow that shifting to an information economy and away from an industrial economy will mean much slower cultural development? We will be able to store and listen to classical music but won't be able to build the musical instruments necessary to play great classical music.

I'm reminded of Ruskin, some time in iirc the 1820s or 30s, describing a ship of the line as the most complex thing ever made and operated by man. By that time he was probably mistaken by comparison with Lancashire cotton mills, but a decade or two earlier he might have been right.

How odd to suppose that Leonardo is in remotely the same league as Mozart. Golly he's over-rated, Leonardo.

The general point, however, is well made: hats off, Cowen old boy.

Ask yourself: is the sound in a concert hall better or worse than a very good acoustically balanced stereo system in your living room, or some high end earphones.
Is it the music quality or the companionship. Or signaling.

The sound in a concert hall is better. A stereo system has fewer sources of projection. However, the real question is "Is the performance better?" If Tyler heard the Washington symphony, than no.

You really are asking the difference between live music and recorded music.


The Industrial Revolution is the only event that matters in history

Sure, how could words like these even begin to compare to the Industrial Revolution - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

Because the Industrial Revolution wasn't just a seedy advertising flyer.

+1 rekt.

If I recall correctly, Alvin Toffler talked about Symphony music as Music Factory.

Lovely piece. There is so much about us of which to be in awe. But why would the learned professor “sic” himself in the penultimate paragraph? Was that sentence a quote? Groveling plebe minds seek to understand.

Can anybody name some specific knowledge that was rediscovered during the Renaissance? It seems like there was a fad for Neoplatonic and hermeticism, but what is something from
Antiquity that was true and lost and then recovered?


"Of course the earliest parts of Revolutions are often the best, as we’ve surpassed the steam engines of the 19th century but Mozart and Leonardo are still with us."

But engines are still here.

You should send this idea to Deirdre McCloskey. Maybe she could write three 500 page books on it.

Sounds like Spengler

That's somewhat the McCloskey view, right?

She just don't call it "cultural" to not be confused with "culture" in a deep way like in the Max Weber* view. Its more rhetorics and high culture, the Bourgeoisie got a good PR.

*Also, Its funny that now Catholic Germans (like Bavaria) is more rich than the Protestant Germans (like Lower Saxony)

Cheers to everyman with his hammer.

I enjoy reading and thinking through posts which reveal a lot about the theorist.

Someone at that symphony was bored and thinking about something else they'd be doing rather than signaling their cultivation. Someone else was resonating and floating without thinking. Tyler the Creator, of economic/philosophical theory, did what he does.

Now take your insight, and move it to the computer revolution. There's no doubt that it's transforming our culture, as the MAGA guys have something they hate. What parts of today's art, brought in by modern technology, will be great and remembered for a long time? Maybe it's something we'll create with deepfake once we stop having misgivings about it?

Not that China's Cultural Revolution was remotely similar, but it was likewise followed by an industrial revolution. To relate these two revolutions causally would be an interesting exercise. For the moment we insist on Deng Xiaoping as a sort of firewall between the Cultural Revolution and the industrial revolution

"each instrument, developed eventually to perfection" - It may have seemed so in the era of Dr Pangloss. But clarinets, at least, are still well short of perfection.

>as we’ve surpassed the steam engines of the 19th century but
>Mozart and Leonardo are still with us.

Arguably, the difference is even more extreme. Tour the great cathedrals of Europe; the contemporary artwork is invariably crappy, at least in comparison to the Renaissance stuff.

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