Sound and Music in Three Dimensions: Bell Telephone Laboratories and the Spectacular Demonstration of Stereophony, Gascia Ouzounian

  • 3.15pm

  • Alison House, Atrium
    Nicolson Square
    EH8 9DF

Led by Gascia Ouzounian (University of Oxford)

During the First World War, new forms of technological warfare inspired new methods of acoustic defense: tracking the enemy by listening to it. Acoustic location technologies like the geophone, the double-trumpet sound locator, the Baillaud paraboloid and the Perren telesitemeter inspired new modes of “spatial hearing,” and gave birth to a new class of listener: the military auditor. Wartime research in acoustic defense would have far-reaching consequences. In particular it would resonate in post-war industrial research on stereo sound. In the United States, some of the same scientists involved in military acoustics research would invent some of the first systems for binaural and stereo transmission, recording, and reproduction after the war. They included Harvey Fletcher, head of Acoustical Research at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Fletcher first experimented in acoustics in the context of submarine detection during the war, and subsequently developed new techniques and technologies for binaural and stereo transmission and reproduction. These innovations, some of which entailed collaboration with the renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski, were publicized through a series of demonstrations in the United States in 1933-1940. Conceived much in the vein of nineteenth century spectacular science, these demonstrations of stereophony were given to audiences that ranged from several thousand to over five hundred thousand, audiences whose reactions ranged from delight to terror. Drawing on press reports, scientific literature, and company documents held today at the AT&T Archives and History Center, this talk considers the confluence of scientific, technological, and musical concerns in the early development of stereo at BTL, and explores a project that would influence Western art music traditions both in suggesting novel performance and recording practices, and in staging new alliances between music and science.


Gascia Ouzounian is Associate Professor of Music at the University of Oxford. As a musicologist and violinist she has interests in experimental and electronic music of the 20th century, music technologies, and urban sound. She is co-director of the research group Recomposing the City, which brings together sound artists, architects and urban designers in exploring new approaches towards the design and analysis of urban sound environments. She was recently awarded a €2 million Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council for the project 'Sonorous Cities: Towards a Sonic Urbanism' (2020-25). Ouzounian is the author of "Stereophonica: Sound and Space in Science, Technology, and the Arts" (forthcoming 2020 from The MIT Press).