Howard’s first programme traces early forms of musical notation, where simple accents were placed above words to show whether the tune went up or down. This leads him on to investigate the work of Guido, whose idea to draw a fixed-pitch line around which to organise these accents led to the musical stave as we know it today.
In this programme Howard travels to Florence to explain the events of around 1600, where the operatic form was taking shape. He notices that opera might never have got off the ground at all, as the first couple of attempts were very unpopular. But when Claudio Monteverdi arrived in Mantua to work for the Gonzaga family, he put this new form to spectacular use, writing Orfeo, the masterpiece to which we owe the existence of opera today.
This was easily the most challenging subject for Howard to explain to his viewers… a subject of which even the more musical amongst them may not be aware. And yet he could not possibly have omitted it from the series, as Equal Temperament, the tuning system by which notes are organised in Western Music, has shaped its history in such a way that enormous amounts of the world’s most beautiful music would not have been written without it. This is, perhaps, the Biggest of the Bangs.
Back to Florence, this time to look at the emergence of an instrument which quickly became the most popular, versatile, prevalent instrument the world has ever seen: the piano. But unlike the gradual way in which most other instruments came into being, one man in particular can be credited with giving us the piano as we know it today, with catapulting it forward from the also-rans: Bartolomeo Cristofori.
In the final programme in the series, Howard examines the invention of recorded sound, and the impact this has had upon music as we know it. He explains the way in which Edison first happened upon a way of recording sound whilst working on a method to improve the speed of telegraphy, looks at the recording machines to which this discovery led, and the effect which the consequential easy availability of music has had on the history and development of Western classical music.