German Radio and the Development of Electric Music in the 1920s and 1930s

German Radio and the Development of Electric Music in the 1920s and 1930s


Friedrich Trautwein playing his Trautonium, circa 1933

I am currently working on a book-length study of the role of scientific instrument makers, physicists, and later electrical engineers in shaping musical aesthetics from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century. It is a continuation of my early work, Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians, and Instrument Makers in Nineteenth-Century Germany (MIT Press, 2006). Specifically, while at the MPIWG, I shall investigate how German radio was responsible for the creation of a new musical aesthetic in the 1920s and 1930s. Electric music began to appear in Germany during the 1920s. Two Berlin institutions in particular were critical to the development of this new musical genre. The first was the Heinrich Hertz Institute for Research on Oscillations, established in 1928. Its founding director was a professor of electrical engineering renowned for his work on electronic filters, Karl Willy Wagner, who was assisted in its creation by Gustav Engelbert Leithäuser, a specialist in radio technology. The HHI had three areas of focus: acoustics (particularly the noise in major cities), telegraphy, and high frequency technology. This of course included telephone and radio research. German radio broadcasting was key to both producing the requisite technology and financially supporting the creation of electric musical instruments. The second Berlin institution was the Staatlich-akademische Hochschule für Musik, now the Universität der Künste. On May 3, 1928, the Rundfunkversuchstelle was opened as a part of the Hochschule. Its goal was to research the technical and musical possibilities associated with the new medium of radio broadcasting. This including funding research on new electric musical instruments, including Friedrich Trautwein’s trautonium of the 1930s, which became one of the most important electric musical instruments of the period. Trautwein, who held degrees in physics and engineering, was a professor at the Hochschule and worked at the Rundfunkversuchstelle. While conceiving and designing his trautonium, he collaborated actively with the musician Oskar Sala and the composers Paul Hindemith and Georg Schünemann.

Related Publications

Jackson, M. W. (2006). Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians and Instrument Makers in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jackson, M. W. (2015). Die Geschichte des Kammertone oder: Woher klint der Chor eine Töne. In Berliner Cappella (Hrsg.), Gemeinsam Klingen: Festschrift zum 50-jährigen Berliner Capella (pp.37-39). Berlin: Berliner Cappella.

Jackson, M. W., Hui, A., Kursell, J. (Eds.). (2013). Music, Sound, and the Laboratory from 1750 to 1980. Osiris 28. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Jackson, M. W. (2010). Measuring Musical Virtuosity: Physicists, Physiologists, and the Pianist's Touch in the Nineteenth Century. Journal of the American Liszt Society,  61-62, 13-40.

Jackson, M. W. (2011). From Physical Instruments of Measurement to Musical Instruments of Aesthetics. In Pinch, T. & Bijsterveld, K. (Eds.) The Sound Studies Handbook (pp. 201-223). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jackson, M. W. (2011). Standardisierung und Subversion der musikalischen Ästhetik: musikalische und physikalische Instrumente in der Musik des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts. In D. Gethmann (Ed.), Klangmaschinen zwischen Experiment und Medientechnik (pp. 21-33). Bielefeld: Transkript.

Jackson, M. W. (2008). Musik und Physik: Eine interdisziplinäre Kulturgeschichte. Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte, 31, 94-112.

Jackson, M. W. (2006). Physics and Music in Nineteenth-Century Prussia: Wilhelm Eduard Weber and Precision Measurement. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 31, 307-322.

Jackson, M. W. (2004). Physics, Machines and Musical Pedagogy in Nineteenth-Century Germany. History of Science, 42(4), 371-418.