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From the Gramophone to the iPod: How technology has changed music

On Family Fortunes, if the question cropped up to name the most famous musical figures in history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would not be far from the top of the list. However, unlike The Beatles and Co. that would occupy the slots surrounding the little pompadour prodigy, Mozart himself was never actually recorded. In fact, aside from a coterie of the European elite in his short 35 years between 1756 and 1791, nobody had ever heard the man himself play. Back in those days, the class system was the defining element of music, but technology would soon change that.

In the late 1850s, the first sound was captured in Paris by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. However, the sound that the inventor captured was not designed to be played back aloud. “The idea of somehow putting those signals back into the air never occurred to [Scott], nor did it occur to any human being on the planet until 1877,” says the audio historian David Giovannoni. 

That being said, Scott’s invention did indeed lay the groundwork for eventually recording music, which would change our lives forever with technology at the very heart of it. In fact, you can listen to Scott’s recording of the French folk song ‘Au Clair de la Lune’ (‘By the Light of the Moon’) from April 9, 1860, in the clip below.

It is notable as the first known recorded music, but unless you have a penchant for tracks that terrify you, it was clear that technology had a long way to go.

While that eerie hum from the past might sound strangely disturbing, it led to Thomas Edison creating a device that was actually capable of replaying captured sounds. Once again, even Edison’s invention needed work, but only a decade later Emile Berliner patented the very first vinyl record player – the Gramophone. Thereafter seven-inch singles would begin filtering into the houses and establishments of anyone who could afford a record player. 

This was the first dawn of popular music. For the first time, people could enjoy music from the comfort of their own homes with the simple drop of a stylus. Naturally, this had a profound impact on our music tastes. People began hearing new sounds and styles and the great mixing bowl of modern music began. Even the primitive lo-fi way in which the records were recorded had an impact. While the nuance of every little fine-tuned sound that producers sweat over today was lost by the rudimentary technology, soul and bravura had to be at the forefront. Thus, genres full of expression like the blues came to prominence.

Further mixing this steadily bubbling stew of music from all corners, was the invention of the radio. In 1920, Guglielmo Marconi broadcast a song recital by Dame Nellie Melba using a telephone transmitter that was heard in a range of different countries. Following this, songs became shorter and high society tended to mix with folky lower class styles to create music with more universal appeal to suit a growing audience. 

The next great leap forward for vinyl came when 45s first arrived over 70 years ago in 1949 as ‘Texarkana Baby’ by Eddy Arnold became the world’s first commercially released 45 RPM record. They changed music forever. Kids were able to snap them up for a handful of pocket change and could swap the newly portable rock ‘n’ roll vibes around until they were beaten up beyond recognition, by which time the next big single would be out anyway. 45s ensured that music was now exchangeable on the playground.

Less than a hundred years on from the biggest names in music remaining exclusive in grand concert halls, songs were now available for everyone. Old 78 RPMs had infused music with all sorts of eclectic influences and now, 45 RPMs were pushing it towards the youth culture reverie of rock ‘n’ roll. 

Around this same time, portable radios were also becoming widespread. Music was now everywhere. Of course, it has always been beloved, even Plato wrote, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything,” but never before could you take sonic gaiety out on the road with the simple twist of a knob. 

In this era, music change profoundly. Many of the hit songs from the mid-1950s were under two minutes long and legendary music producer Tony Visconti explains why, “The DJs could talk more, if you had a record that was well into three minutes it would be the kiss of death, they wouldn’t play it.” With music shortening, it became more commercial and essentially rockier. Elvis Presley and the likes were twisting their way into the global consciousness in a series of often sub-two-minute blasts. 

In a strange twist of fate, however, the insatiable appetite for music’s first commercial rock stars meant that LPs, which were first invented in 1948, gained popularity. Swapping 45s was all well and good, but nobody wanted to listen to the same Elvis song a thousand times over before school the next morning, they wanted to relish in his whole oeuvre in one steady hit. 

These longer records called for more introspection. After a while kids like Bob Dylan found the endless variations of ‘Rock around the Clock’ a little bit endless and vapid. LPs allowed for greater depth and diversity. Suddenly not every song that a commercial artist put to record had to be a radio hit. While it took the Motown hit parade a while to catch to this notion, the troubadours flocking to Greenwich Village were about to get arty with what you could do on a 42-minute LP. 

As John Cooper Clarke, the eponymous punk poet, explains in his memoir, “I love Bob Dylan but I hold him responsible for two bad ideas: a) the extended running time of the popular song and b) the lyric sheet.” In a very literal sense, he is correct on both counts. Ordinary LPs limited you to 21 minutes on each side so artists still had to remain relatively conventional when it came to song lengths.

However, with record production costs falling, for the first time musicians could put out double LPs and still make a profit. With Blonde on Blonde, Dylan put out what is considered to be the first double LP featuring only self-penned songs, one of which was the masterful ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ which took up the entirety of side four. Soon enough band’s like Pink Floyd were releasing 23-minute songs like ‘Echoes’ without raising an eyebrow. 

Thereafter, while recording technology changed massively, the way we consumed music remained the same…for a while. The next giant leap arrived with the Sony Walkman and, shortly after, the Compact Disc. The impact of both was enormous. People were listening to more music than ever, not just because you could catch it on the go, but radio stations could switch between tracks with the press of a button. With more music being played, tastes became more eclectic, but it could be argued that albums suffered.

Now that audiences could skip a song with the press of a button and, subsequently, album tracks arguably received less effort from artists and studios. Recordings, likewise, became more unscrupulous with the invention of the Walkman, giving way to grungier genres. If kids were going to be listening to tracks while skateboarding on a constantly skipping and jumping beleaguered CD, then why sweat over high-ends and equalisers? Bands like Pavement and Nirvana epitomised this Walkman sound. 

Alas, this notion of technology impacting albums became even more profound with the invention of the iPod. Many records were reduced down to just a few songs as kids scrambled to get their favourite tracks uploaded onto an iPod before someone phoning their mother would knock the dial-up broadband off. A generation of youngsters were now in it for the hit singles and the rest often simply represented minutes wasted watching a buffering line make its way slowly across the screen, only to eat up vital megabytes on your finite portable music library. 

Currently, it would seem we have reached the point whereby technology means all of the above exists at once. When everything moved online there was no longer any need to conform to that which surrounded you or to seek out a niche of your own. The internet came along and blurred the milieu of culture-defining microcosms and dispersed them into the insignificant macrocosm of the world wide web.

The impact of technology on music is now blurred. While Spotify means just about every single song in history is a few seconds away, the skip button is even closer. The rule of keeping songs short and poppy no doubt still applies for genres that demand radio play. And yet, at the very same time, the current vinyl revival craze has disavowed the notion of hits and fodder for many music lovers. With this vinyl resurgence concept albums like Arctic Monkeys major hit of Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino are once again in the charts. Lord knows how the hologram will impact us.

See a timeline of major turning points, below.

1860

The first-ever song is captured

In the late 1850s, the first sound was captured in Paris by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville.

However, the sound that the inventor captured was not designed to be played back aloud.

Thomas Edison changes history

Thomas Edison pioneers sound replaying technology, creating a device that was actually capable of replaying captured sounds.

1879
1887

Emile Berliner and the Gramophone

Emile Berliner patented the very first vinyl record player – the Gramophone. Thereafter seven-inch singles would begin filtering into the houses and more.

The Guglielmo Marconi broadcast

Guglielmo Marconi broadcast a song recital by Dame Nellie Melba using a telephone transmitter that was heard in a range of different countries.

1920
1948

12 inch LPs are invented

The appetite for music’s first commercial rock stars meant that LPs, which were first invented in 1948, gained popularity and LPs allowed for greater depth and diversity.

Eddy Arnold and the 45 RPM record

The next great leap forward for vinyl came when 45s first arrived over 70 years ago in 1949 as ‘Texarkana Baby’ by Eddy Arnold became the world’s first commercially released 45 RPM record. They changed music forever.

1949
1950s

The portable radio rise

Portable radios were becoming widespread and now music was now everywhere.

In this era, music change profoundly. Many of the hit songs from the mid-1950s were under two minutes long and the industry became a fast moving one.

Bob Dylan changes the game

In 1966 Bob Dylan released the first double LP Blonde on Blonde.

With this album, Dylan put out what is considered to be the first double LP featuring only self-penned songs. Soon enough band’s like Pink Floyd were releasing 23-minute songs like ‘Echoes’ without raising an eyebrow.

1966
1979

Enter the Walkman

The next giant leap arrived with the Sony Walkman.

The impact of the Walkman was enormous. People were listening to more music than ever but, now, they could do it on the go too.

The arrival of CDs

As the Compact Disc entered the frame, the world of the radio came face to face with its first major threat.

Now, for the first major time, people could chose what music they wanted and, more importantly, skip through tracks at the click of a button.

1979
2001

The first iPod is released

The notion of technology impacting albums became even more profound with the invention of the iPod.

From this moment on, the concept of album was under threat as kids flicked through their favourite singles, dissecting LPS and curating early forms of playlists.

Spotify is launched

The impact of technology on music is now blurred. While Spotify means just about every single song in history is a few seconds away, the skip button is even closer.

However, such is the impact for fast music, artists now find themselves in an endless battle to be sufficiently paid for their work, a dangerous cycle that has yet to find a solution.

2006

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