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Robotics in Germany and Japan

Philosophical and Technical Perspectives


Edited By Michael Funk and Bernhard Irrgang

Germany and Japan are two of the worldwide leading countries in robotics research. Robotics as a key technology introduces technical as well as philosophical and cultural challenges. How can we use robots that have a human-like appearance in everyday life? Are there limits to technology? What are the cultural similarities and differences between Germany and Japan? These are some of the questions which are discussed in the book. Five chapters comprehend an intercultural and interdisciplinary framework including current research fields like Roboethics, Hermeneutics of Technologies, Technology Assessment, Robotics in Japanese Popular Culture and Music Robots. Contributions on cultural interrelations, technical visions and essays round out the content of this book.
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Mozart to Robot – Cultural Challenges of Musical Instruments

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Mozart to Robot – Cultural Challenges of Musical Instruments

Michael Funk & Jörg Jewanski

In this paper, emphasis is not on the enormous technical richness of mechanical musical instruments or music automates. Rather, the focus is on the cultural and social implications of new musical instruments: 1. What are the reasons for composers to develop musical pieces for mechanical instruments (like the musical clock or the player piano in the 18th- and 20th-centuries)? What are the characteristics of this music? 2. How could musical robots challenge composers, musicians and educators today?

The Composer´s View on Mechanical Instruments as seen in the Music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Conlon Nancarrow

With regard to mechanical musical instruments,1 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) can be seen as two chronologically and aesthetically representative composers. With respect to their musical work, two important instruments will be introduced in this section: the musical clock and the player piano. Both became popular in the 18th- and 19th-centuries and trace back to mechanical instruments like artificial singing birds, and automates with autonomous pipe organs – controlled by barrels and driven by water –, which had been developed in pre-Christian times.

The most important compositions for clock watches have been written by Mozart. For this instrument, a mechanical clockwork activates a barrel that causes pipe sounds at regular intervals, e.g. every full hour. Mozart wrote his compositions on traditional music paper, the transfer to the barrel was realized by someone else. The Köchel catalog lists five musical works for these instruments:

1. Adagio für (Kl. od.) eine Orgelwalze, KV 593a [Fragment of 9 bars, probably a draft to KV 594, undated]

2. Ein Stück für ein Orgelwerk in einer Uhr (December 1790), KV 594

3. Ein Orgel Stücke für eine Uhr (March 1791), KV 608

4. Andante, KV 615a [Fragment of 4 bars, probably a draft to KV 616, undated]

5. Ein Andante für eine kleine Walze in eine kleine Orgel (May 1791), KV 616 ← 135 | 136 →

Mozart composed this music for financial reasons, as he wrote to his wife in the following letter (Oct. 3rd 1790):

“I have now made up my mind to compose at once the Adagio for the watchmaker and then to slip a few ducats into the hand of my dear little wife. And this I have done; but as it is a kind of composition which I detest, I have unfortunately not been able to finish it. I compose a bit of it every day – but I have to break off now and then, as I get bored. [...] If it were for a large instrument and the work would sound like an organ piece, then I might get some fun out of it. But, as it is, the works consist solely of little pipes, which sound too high-pitched and too childish for my taste.” (Anderson 1938, pp. 1403-1404)

Tonal reasons spoiled Mozart´s enjoyment of composing mechanical music. Anyway, his wife got an audition with the count Joseph Deym von Stritez, who was planning a crypt with a coffin out of glass for a recently deceased field marshal. Because of the graceful atmosphere in the crypt, the count ordered a piece of funeral music for the mechanical clock from Mozart (Plath 1982, p. XXI). After Mozart´s intervention and because of the tonal reasons, the original small instrument was replaced by a bigger one.

No doubt, the music is of high quality: the Adagio KV 594 is characterized by an ABA-form with falling chromatic lines in F minor and motives of sighs in the beginning and end (evidently in the sense of funeral music), while the middle part in F major is shaped by fanfares and several motives in winged tempo. After this lively middle part, the contrast to the end part becomes stronger and the feeling of sorrow is enhanced. KV 608 with its fugato in four voices, many pseudo entries after the exposition and a modulation from F minor to F# minor became well known also as transcription for piano (four hands). Even Ludwig van Beethoven was drawing up his own copy of it (Dittrich 2005, pp. 555-557).

Nancarrow2 also wrote compositions on traditional music paper first but also transferred them personally to piano rolls in a time consuming process. The piano roll belongs to the player piano, a self-playing piano instrument, which is able to produce extreme rates and complexities of sound. No human pianist, not even the greatest virtuoso, could realize such fast music. A human pianist is able to play virtuous tone scales of ca. 15 tones per second, a player piano can reach up to 100. The number of simultaneous tones on the player piano is also exceeding the bodily and sensorimotor possibilities of human hands. Those tones also do not need to belong to an ambit of tenth, which is the range of a human hand.

Because of three interrelated reasons, Nancarrow was composing for the player piano: First, already in his early traditional instrumental music, rhythm, meter and tempo started becoming more important for him than other parameters. His works in the 1930s and early 1940s are characterized by very high tempo and complex elaborated rhythm. The player piano was a technical opportunity ← 136 | 137 → to gain and follow these principles of composition in an uncompromising way, without taking care of the bodily capacities and limits of human musicians. For Nancarrow, the player piano provided nearly no limit to tempo and complex rhythms. The second reason was his dissatisfaction with performers, who did not work out the characteristics of his music adequately. The third reason resulted from political circumstances and Nancarrow´s artistic retreat from New York to Mexico City in 1940, where he lived till the end of his life and where he also had less contact to virtuous pianists.

After this, between 1949 and 1993, his main compositions (ca. 50, depending on the way of counting) had been developed as: “Studies for Player Piano.” This work is shaped by experimental musical stratification of different tempolayers: In NR 21, the high and low voice are speeded up and slowed down in reversed tempo. In NR 27, one voice provides a constant ostinato, while four others bear different tempo variations. In the late studies, dynamic glissandi emerge with fast sequences of trills or arpeggios upon the whole claviature (NR 40, 41 and 48), but also enormous complex pieces like a canon of twelve voices (NR 37). The aesthetic impression of this music is dominated by virtuous effects, but Nancarrow also used symmetric structures, proportions and number-relations while he even included elements of Jazz and Ragtime in his compositions.

Mozart and Nancarrow – two composers with two different approaches to mechanical instruments – stand in a significant tradition. Other major European composers in the 18th- and early 19th-century have developed music for musical watches (and similar instruments): Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (for a long time his music was mistaken for compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach), George Frideric Handel, Joseph Hadyn, Ludwig van Beethoven and Luigi Cherubini. Nancarrow had ancestors as well: Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, George Antheil and Henry Cowell, in whose tradition Nancarrow was working. In the following section, the focus is on current challenges of musical robots and some of their aesthetic and pedagogical implications and potentialities. What can we learn from Mozart, Nancarrow and also from Beethoven for the usage of musical robots today?

Musical Robots as Cultural Challenge for Musicians, Composers and Pedagogues

Academic interest in musical robots has recently been documented in the study “Musical Robots and Interactive Multimodal Systems” (Solis & Ng (eds.) 2011). Here one basic focus is not on musical scores or the biography of individual composers, but on gesture-studies (Solis & Ng 2011, p. 2) and “the role of physical gestures in human-machine interaction” that is related to enaction, embodied cognition and generally the notion of action in music(s) (Bevilacqua et al. 2011, p. 127). Musical gestures can be understood as “meaningful combination[s] ← 137 | 138 → of sound and movement” (Godøy & Leman 2010, p. ix). Studying gestures in general means interdisciplinary research.

“Consequently, the field has attracted researchers from a number of different disciplines such as anthropology, cognitive science, communication, neuroscience, psycholinguistics, primatology, psychology, robotics, sociology and semiotics, and the number of modern gesture studies has grown.” (Ishino & Stam 2011, p. 3)

The same can be said for musical gestures (Gritten & King 2011, pp. 1ff.; Jensenius et al. 2010, p. 28; Leman & Godøy 2010, p. 10).

“In the so-called embodied view of perception and cognition […] motor schemas are seen as basic for all cognition, not only auditory perception. This means that all perception and reasoning, even rather abstract thinking, is understood as related to images of action.” (Godøy 2011, p. 15)

This musicological statement correlates with current investigations in the cognitive sciences, where human cognition is seen as describable in terms of interaction with concrete social and technical environments (Noë 2004; Varela, Thompson & Rosch 1997), but also to philosophical theories of the human embodied mind and “Leiblichkeit” (Irrgang 2007; Irrgang 2009). The basis for human cognition, also in music, is body-movement. If we want to understand cultural and social implications of musical robots, then we need to understand our underlying meaningful human movements that are related to sound with or without robots. Musical gestures have a sensorimotor and a technological dimension as well. For Don Ihde, new musical instruments cause new embodied relations and technical mediations.

“By this [embodied relations] I mean that the human or humans producing the music, do so through material artifacts or instruments. […] Going into this practice, of course, there can be a learning, the development of special techniques, higher and higher skills of sound and music making, the development of styles, schools of musical traditions and instrumental developments. […] Early instruments tended to be fairly simple even if widely varied, and I want to say, such simpler instruments also tended to demand highly skilled bodily movement.” (Ihde 2007, p. 255)

Recording-technologies, amplifiers or processes of digitalization are some major aspects of new cultural and musical applications since the 20th-century (for more details: Ihde 2007, pp. 227-264 and also Leman 2008, pp. 137-184). Music robots could be the next step at the beginning of the 21st century. Robots will not replace musicians or composers, but they could provide a new perspective from which humans view themselves and their cultural environment within technically mediated social interactions. Robots are still tools, but tools that could shape “the development of special techniques, higher and higher skills of sound and music making, the development of styles, schools of musical traditions.” In this context, Kia Ng differentiates between three categories of new musical interfaces: “Imitation of acoustic instruments,” “Augmented Instruments” and “Alternative Controllers” (Ng 2011, pp. 107-108). The third category ← 138 | 139 → is related to “new interfaces that are not based on traditional instrumental paradigms […] [and] are original controllers which require learning new skills” (Ng 2011, p. 108). The aspect of learning new skills raises pedagogical questions. But there are also misunderstandings between classical music teachers and people that are open-minded to use new instruments like robots. Kia Ng summarizes this from the perspective of musical education:

“Pedagogical applications are rare and of experimental nature, which can be explained partly by the community gap between music practitioners using such technologies and traditional music teachers.” (Ng 2011, p. 108)

Musical robots also cause challenges for musical education, but they cannot replace music teachers. They still remain tools, but they may become an enriching addition as did keyboards or CD-players, which can be found in nearly every class room or school today.

The basic point, for musicians as well as for pedagogues, students or composers, is that human knowing is primarily shaped by tacit and sensory remembering, which includes movement, perception and its interpretation. Godøy argues that

“projecting images of sound-action relationships from past musical and environmental sonic experiences onto new musical instruments could be seen as a case of anthropomorphic, know-to-unknown, projection, and as a matter of basic functioning of our mental apparatus, what we see as a motormimetic element in music perception […].” (Godøy 2011, p. 15)

We interpret new instruments and sounds always in the horizon of movements and perceptions that we have already been used to. So our experiences with common instruments shape the way in which we start to develop new skills, sounds or musical aesthetic. As already indicated in the first section, Conlon Nancarrow is one example for that, because his first steps in composition he had done in terms of classical composition work for human instrumentalists. In the horizon of these experiences and the related pre-knowledge, he started his main work oriented towards the player piano in the early 1940s. Today, the same could happen with musical robots. On the one hand, these new instruments can challenge composers aesthetically, or at least they may provide some pragmatic jobs (as was the case for Mozart with regard to his works for the musical watch). On the other hand, and here we evidently come close to the basic aspect of motormimetic interaction, music robots can challenge musicians that are directly technically interacting with those instruments.3 But once again, those robots cannot replace human knowing of musicians, educators or composers.4 ← 139 | 140 →

Beneath the surface of those observations lurks a philosophical hypothesis: musical aesthetic is not only a matter of musical scores and harmonic theories, but moreover also a question of concrete technical praxis that also depends on the possibilities of musical instruments.5 In this context we may understand musical robots as useful tools for music education, the development of new styles or musical (youth) cultures. In the end what happened to electronic music, the first synthesizers and so on could repeat itself. Musical robots can also cause new bodily, motor-mimetic and sensory perspectives for human gestural expressions. Creativity in this case does not depend on the robot, but on what humans are starting to do with it.

“Nevertheless, social interaction still is one of the most important factors in music performance (e.g. interaction between performers, between performers and conductor, between performers and audience).” (Camurri & Volpe 2011, p. 61)

Music robots cannot replace emotional social interaction. But they can be part of a new way in which we start reading and expressing our social emotions and the related musical aesthetic. In the end, this is not really something new. With respect to Ludwig van Beethoven and his challenge in handling the limited claviature of his pianos we can see that technical potentials, but also technical limits can shape aesthetic expression.

Beethoven and the Limited Claviature

In the history of European classical music(s) many examples can be found for the many ways in which musical instruments can shape aesthetic aspects of compositions and musical scores. One prominent example seems to be Johann Sebastian Bach and “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” But also by reference to Ludwig van Beethoven´s piano sonatas, the relation between the technical equipment of pianos and the compositions can be demonstrated. He had to take care of the range of the instruments at his time: the ambitus of the claviature and the low quality of the highest tones often constrained divergences from his (probably) original intentions (Bruckmann 1993, pp. 10-13). According to Bee-thoven´s friends it was for this reason that he composed many piano works in direct technical and bodily-sensory interaction while he was improvising with the instrument, and not while he was sitting away from the piano or behind an isolated desk (Bruckmann 1993, p. 13). From a philosophical and aesthetic point of view, it is amazing to realize that those limits of former pianos did not only cause second best solutions but also tonal improvement as it can be illustrated with respect to Opus 31, No. 2, 1. Movement. While in bars 59-62 Beethoven developed the descant in octaves, for the corresponding part in bars 189-192, he was forced by the limitation of the keyboard to remain in the position and ← 140 | 141 → achieve a gradation by harmonic means, which is even more intense than developing in octaves (Bruckmann 1993, p. 49).

What does this say about musical robots? If robots are not able to reproduce all intentions of composers or musicians that are interacting with them, this could lead to new unintended enhancement of musical sounds and aesthetic meanings. This depends from the creativity of humans, not from the robots themselves. In the horizons of musical traditions, educations and bodily pre-knowledge, Beethoven made something out of the piano; the piano was limited but did not tell him what he should do. With musical robots it is just the same.


Composing for the musical clock was more a pragmatic need and a banal job for Mozart rather than a great musical fruition. Besides the musical clock the player piano also has a prominent stand in the history of pre-robotic mechanical instruments. In the 20th-century, Nancarrow developed a major work for the mechanical piano. But his enthusiasm was strongly driven by rhythmic and high-tempo possibilities of this instrument that overbids even the most virtuous human pianists. Nancarrow´s history illustrates how the potentials of mechanical music instruments can shape aesthetic ideas and realizations of complex musical scores in a fruitful way. On the other hand, with respect to Beethoven and his limited claviatures, it can also be illustrated how technical limits may not only produce second best solutions but also creative and unexpected improvement of musical ideas. The interrelations between composers and musical instruments are diverse and reach from pragmatic job reasons over new potentials up to unexpected upgrades. This is also true for the current and future use of musical robots. Cultural challenges of musical robots are not only related to composers but to many ways of musical interactions like musicians that are improvising with robots or pedagogues that use robots as another tool for musical education. Musical robots will not replace humans but they can become a part of new musical lifestyles, youth cultures or aesthetic meanings. To enlighten this field of possibilities, gesture oriented studies, which investigate the relations between meaningful body movements and sound, has become the focus of current interdisciplinary research. Aesthetics is not only a matter of musical scores or abstract ideas, but more often embedded in and related to technical practice. If musical robots become part of these practices, they may shape our gestural movements, perceptions and meanings as well as the musical aesthetics and musical lifestyle of composers, musicians, educators or students. ← 141 | 142 →


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Bevilacqua, F., N. Schnell, N. Rasamimanana, B. Zamborlin & F. Guédy 2011: “Online Gesture Analysis and Control of Audio Processing.” In: Solis, J. & K. Ng (eds.) 2011: Musical Robots and Interactive Multimodal Systems, Berlin & Heidelberg, pp. 127-142.

Bruckmann, F. 1993: Zusammenhänge zwischen Klavierbau und Klavierkomposition im Schaffen Beethovens. 2., verb. Auflage, Köln-Rheinkassel.

Buchner, A. 1992: Mechanische Musikinstrumente, Hanau/Main.

Camurri, A. & G. Volpe 2011: “Multimodal Analysis of Expressive Gesture in Musical Performance.” In: Solis, J. & K. Ng (eds.) 2011: Musical Robots and Interactive Multimodal Systems, Berlin & Heidelberg, pp. 47-66.

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Funk, M. & M. Coeckelbergh 2013: “Is Gesture Knowledge? A Philosophical Approach to the Epistemology of Musical Gestures.” In: De Preester, H. (ed.) 2013: Moving Imagination – Explorations of Gesture and Inner Movement in the Arts, Amsterdam & Philadelphia, pp. 113-131.

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1 An overview of mechanical music instruments can be found in: Buchner 1992; Hocker 1996 (with huge bibliography); Ord-Hume 2001.

2 The next passages are following the descriptions in Hocker 2002; Fürst-Heidtmann 2004; Herzfeld 2007.

3 See also the chapter “Understanding the Feasibility and Applicability of the Musician-Humanoid Interaction Research: A Study of the Impression of the Musical Interaction” (Jorge Solis & Atsuo Takaneshi) in this book.

4 See also the chapter “Humanoid Robots and Human Knowing” (Michael Funk) in this book.

5 For a more detailed overview with respect to the current discussions in musical sciences and philosophy see also Funk & Coeckelbergh 2013.