There was a good reason for that. Back then, the only music people ever heard was “live.” Think about it: No radio. No TV in the background. No iPod. People took voice lessons and practiced their pianoforte because if they wanted a little music, they were going to have to make it.
Music is nothing new, of course. Humans probably started singing about the same time they started being humans, and the flute goes back at least 35,000 years. Royal courts and big cities have played host to performing musicians for millennia. Swedish soprano Jenny Lind created “Lind mania” among the public with her American tour in the 1850s that included well over 100 performances. Because if you didn’t hear her in person, you were never going to hear her at all. Ever.
Then in 1877, Thomas Alva Edison changed everything by inventing the first phonograph. To make his first successful recording — the first words on his 78 rpm record were an inauspicious “Mary had a little lamb” — he wrapped a thin piece of tin foil around a hand-cranked metal cylinder. Others soon discovered wax as a way of recording music on disposable cardboard tubes, and when Edison (who’d moved on to developing electric light) saw that, he became interested in sound again. He came up with a thicker cylinder that was all wax with a surface that could be shaved down and reused.
Suddenly, music could be recorded, purchased, and listened to at will — not only when someone played the pianoforte in the parlor.
By 1890, people had phonographs and were buying wax cylinders to listen to at home. Those cylinders held only about three minutes’ worth of music at most, though, which caused a big change in the length of musical compositions: they got shorter.
And the wax cylinder record wore out after it was played a few dozen times. But then the owner could shave the waxy surface and it could be used for a new recording.
This led to lateral-cut disc records, played on hand-cranked “gramophones,” and then records that people played on the new Victrola, and then celluloid (plastic discs) that were even stronger. As technology improved, records got bigger in diameter and held more songs, which again changed how some music was written and enjoyed. Records dominated home entertainment for decades; in fact, until digital compact discs came out in the 1980s.
In the 1940s, radio programs were still broadcasting live performances because the sound quality of recorded performances was so poor. Until, that is, Bing Crosby was so impressed by the sound quality of newly developed magnetic tape that he used it to pre-record his radio show. It was a first, and it changed how radio was done.
Soon enough, music was everywhere. Audio cassette tapes and the Sony Walkman (1979) let us take music along like never before. Then came CDs (1982), MP3s (mid-1990s), and, briefly, Napster (1999), all leading up to the iPod, which was first introduced in 2001. Imagine what Edison would have thought!
- Leslie Lang