Machines and the Musical Imagination (1900–1950)

Study Day

School of Music, University of Ottawa

5 October 2018


Drawing on historical, aesthetic, theoretical and sociocultural perspectives, this study day seeks to reconsider the place of machines in the musical imagination during the first half of the twentieth century, a period marked by the proliferation of mass technology that set the stage for the techno-scientific developments of the latter half of the century.

In the early twentieth century daily contact with machines led some artists and musicians to express elements of this influence in song texts and in the fictional world of musical theatre (ballet, operetta, and opera) which at this time had begun to treat subjects related to industrialisation and the relationship between machines and humans. Machines also influenced the imagination of composers; machines became both a subject that could be transposed into music and a compositional model that gave rise to new topoi and compositional techniques.

It would nonetheless be limiting to think that at this time all music inspired by machines used the same formulas or that certain formulas always constituted a musical portrait of machines. As such, when musicologists examine the relationship between machines and musical aesthetics it is essential to highlight the ways in which this relationship intersects with other aspects of modern life in the first half of the twentieth century, and in particular its relationship to sport or the aesthetics of primitivism which both share an anti-idealist stance that celebrates the body and materiality over that of the spirit and ideas.


The organizers invite proposals that explore lesser-known works or which prioritize links between the themes outlined in the three broad categories listed below:

1) Considerations about the specificity of the first half of the twentieth century 

  • The relationship of music and machines during this period as compared to that of other historical periods.
  • Writings by musicians, articles and debates in the press about the status of music, sound, and noise in relationship to machines.
  • The role of the avant-garde in representing the period in which they live as being influenced by machines, and the way that such ideas relate to musical composition.
  • Transformations in listening practices resulting from the industrial soundscapes that characterised urban life in the early-twentieth century.

2) Musical representations of machines

  • How are machines represented in music (new topoi, specific musical procedures, intersections with primitivism and sport, etc.)?
  • What rhetorical devices define music inspired by machines written between the beginning of the twentieth century and WWII and to what extent have these devices continued to influence musical composition today?
  • Reception and theory of “mechanical” musical characteristics and their links to other aspects of modern life, including that of primitivism.
  • The machine as a musical instrument (sirens, typewriters, etc.) in the early-twentieth century up until the emergence of musique concrete.
  • Technological nostalgia: music of today inspired by the mechanical technologies of the early twentieth century.

3) Music, machines and society

  • Machines as a theme or influence in popular music: songs, operetta, music-hall, etc.
  • Machines across the various artistic disciplines; networks of artists who were inspired by machines.
  • Music in the imaginary mechanical dystopia.
  • Musical works inspired by historical or mythological subjects that have been reinterpreted through a technological lens.
  • Music in technocritical discourse.

As a result of the scholarly attention which they have received over the past few years, and as a means to be better concentrate on the specific themes of the study day, the following subjects will be excluded from consideration:

  • Machines designed in relationship to music (recording, records, radio, mechanical musical reproduction machines, machines designed to help performers, etc.).
  • Synthetic sounds, new electric and electronic instruments
  • Theatrical machinery


Abstracts (in English or in French) should include a title, a proposal (300 words maximum), a biographical statement (150 words maximum) and should be sent to the organisers by e-mail before May 15, 2018.



Federico Lazzaro (flazzaro[at]

Christopher Moore (christopher.moore[at]


Program committee

Michel Duchesneau (Université de Montréal)

Jacinthe Harbec (Université de Sherbrooke)

Steven Huebner (McGill University)

Ken McLeod (University of Toronto)