Electricity and Keyboard Instruments. This lecture by Terry B. Ewell presents an overview of 20th century applications of electricity to keyboard instruments. Lecture 8 created for “Music, Technology, and Culture,” a course at Towson University. BDP #273.

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Just as keyboard instruments played central rolls in 19th century music, these instruments continued to be among the most popular instruments in the 20th century. As a result of electric power, these instruments adapted and were transformed.

You should recall the two most popular keyboard instruments in the 19th century: the grand piano and the organ.
You will see in a future video that applications of electricity to the pianos has been going on for centuries. We will, however, look at the most popular applications of electricity to this keyboard instrument.

Please notice that there is an important distinction between an electric piano and an electronic or digital piano. An electric piano has hammers and strings just like a grand piano. See the picture on the left. The sounds produced by the mechanical action are transformed by means of magnetic pickups into electrical signals that are then sent to a loudspeaker. An electronic or digital keyboard does not have actual hammers and strings. Instead the sounds are generated digitally.

The electric piano became more popular after the 1959 hit record by Ray Charles, “What’d I Say.” The popularity of this instrument reached its height during the 1970s. Here is a sample of the composition.

Another type of electric piano that was popular at the time was the Rhodes piano, which was also known as the Fender Rhodes piano. The piano was developed by Harold Rhodes after World War 2. This instrument was similar to the electric piano except instead of strings it had metal tines that were struck with hammers. Here you can see in the picture the metal tines inside that piano. The distinctive sound of the instrument was popular particularly in the 1970s. Here is a video featuring the instrument:

Well, we have addressed some important applications of electricity with the piano and now it is time to view important developments with the electric organ. When the organ was transformed by electricity, it became the dominant keyboard instrument in USA theatres in the first decades of the 20th century. Almost every movie theatre featured a theater organ, which is an electric organ for the accompaniment of silent movies.
The organs of the 18th and 19th centuries were in some ways a one-person orchestra, able to emulate sounds like flutes and trumpets. The electric organ of the 20th century provided even more varieties of sounds by emulating even more musical instruments such as percussion, which are drums and tambourines. Furthermore, the instrument could provide sound effects such as sleigh bells, train and boat whistles, car horns, sirens, and bird whistles. The most elaborate of these organs were incredible inventions of ingenuity.

Theater organs were far too expensive for individuals to own. Also, these organs were even too big and expensive for professional musicians to use in ensembles. Other electric organs, such as the Hammond organ, however, were employed in music groups instead. In addition, people owned these instruments for their own enjoyment. I remember my great grandfather, who was an amateur musician, owned an instrument like this in his home.
I have selected two videos for you to view that feature the electric theater organ. From the two videos I hope you gain an understanding of the versatility of this instrument and its importance for musical traditions in the USA in the early 20th century, particularly with silent movies.

The last video for this section is on the Hammond organ and will provide you with important information on this instrument.

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