A confusing time, to be sure.
Back in the 19th century, it caused fights and joy too—as it forever transformed the face of music. Back in the mids, if you wanted to hear a song, you had only one option: You listened while someone played it, or else you played it yourself. That changed in when Thomas Edison unveiled his phonograph. This story is a selection from the January-February issue of Smithsonian magazine. The next obvious step was selling people recordings. At first, nearly everything. Early phonography was a crazy hodgepodge of material. Meanwhile, in the wake of the relatively recent Civil War, marching music was in vogue, so military bands recorded their works.
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Soon, though, hits emerged—and genres. One surprise hit was opera. For one thing, it got much, much shorter. Early wax cylinders—followed in by the shellac discs of the inventor Emile Berliner—could hold only two to three minutes of audio. But the live music of the 19th and early 20th centuries was typically much more drawn out: Symphonies could stretch to an hour.
The evolution of the turntable 1877 - 2017
As they headed into the studio, performers and composers ruthlessly edited their work down to size. When Stravinsky wrote his Serenade in A in , he created each movement to fit a three-minute side of a disc; two discs, four movements. Blues and country songs chopped their tunes to perhaps one verse and two choruses. How Technology Has Changed Music. Musicians played into a huge horn, with the sound waves driving a needle that etched the audio into the wax. It captured little low end or high end. So producers had to alter the instrumentation to fit the medium.
Jazz bands replaced their drums with cowbells and woodblocks, and the double bass with a tuba. The male tenor was one of the few sounds that wax cylinders reproduced fairly well. Recording was physically demanding. To capture quiet passages, singers or instrumentalists would often have to stick their face right into the recording horn. Louis Armstrong was famously placed 20 feet away for his solos. Plus, perfection suddenly mattered. It will show in the record, and so will every other microscopic accident.
Even as it changed the nature of performing, the phonograph altered how people heard music. Music fans could listen to a song over and over, picking out its nuances.
Previously, you might become very familiar with a song—with its tune, its structure. But you could never before become intimate with a particular performance. People started defining themselves by their genre: A curious new behavior emerged: Previously, music was most often highly social, with a family gathering together around a piano, or a group of people hearing a band in a bar.
But now you could immerse yourself in isolation. In , the writer Orlo Williams described how strange it would be to enter a room and find someone alone with a phonograph. Some social critics argued that recorded music was narcissistic and would erode our brains. Recordings, they argued, allowed them to focus on music with a greater depth and attention than ever before. Surely no more ideal circumstances could be imagined. Others worried it would kill off amateur musicianship. If we could listen to the greatest artists with the flick of a switch, why would anyone bother to learn an instrument themselves?
In reality, neither critic was right. Tapes had competition in the '60s and '70s from the eight-track cartridge, which became a staple in-car format for a while, but the enduring legacy of the cassette tape was to make recorded music portable for the first time thanks to the Sony Walkman.
An illustration of a vinyl album on top of yet more records. Nothing challenged the supremacy of vinyl records until the arrival of the compact disc. The digital optical disc, with a diameter of 12cm, first appeared in when Sony and Philips, who had been developing digital discs independently, chose to pool their resources.
Sony also developed the MiniDisc in the late '90s. But something much bigger was on the horizon. In , a German electrical engineering student was set a challenge to transmit music over digital phone lines. By the early '90s he had developed a lossy compressed audio file otherwise known as a MP3. After decoding software was leaked online at the end of the decade, file-sharing sites such as Napster appeared and music piracy was back on the agenda and threatening to cripple the recording industry.
The release of Apple's iPod legitimised the MP3 and digital downloads — now also served as lossless files — overtook physical sales in Illustrated line chart showing the rise in digital music consumption.
Even the dominance of digital downloads couldn't last. Internet radio apps such as Pandora and Last. Streaming services such as Tidal, Spotify and Apple Music meant listeners could discover and play almost any song ever recorded without the need for storage.
The twist in the tale of music formats, however, is that vinyl sales are now at their highest level since