Queue the Roll: Taylorized Labor Practices and Music of the Machine Age

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Allison Wente


By the early twentieth century the machine aesthetic was a well-established and dominant interest. While this aesthetic has been examined in art and in literature, the representation of industrial labor practices and the role of the machine in musical compositions remain largely unexplored. In this article, I use labor theory to frame a discussion of a musical topic of the mechanical in various musical examples from the United States and Europe in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. Each example imitates, showcases, or features the sounds of the machine, and illuminates the ways in which industrialized labor influenced music. I organize the machine sounds into three categories: music written to sound like or imitate the machine, music written to highlight the skills of virtuoso performers while also showcasing what the machine can do, and music written specifically for machines. These categories encompass a wide variety of performing bodies, audiences, and spaces, evidencing the ubiquitous presence of the machine aesthetic in early twentieth-century music culture. As the discussion of the examples in each part will show, the prevalence of machine sounds in music indicates the widespread influence of industrialization and its culturally dominant ideology, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s system of scientific management.

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