History of recorded music

Have you ever wondered how music started being recorded? Today, there are many ways to record music – including simply using the recording feature on your phone. 


Music recording has evolved along with technology in waves over the centuries. Here is a brief history of sound recording: 



Ancient Christmas Carol in Galician-Portuguese.

Before Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention of the phonograph, people had no way of recording music except for musical notation. Thanks to musical notation (which dates back as far as 1400 BCE in ancient Babylonia, now Iraq), we have access to musical pieces written before 1877 – from Mozart and Bach to ancient Greek compositions. However, it was impossible to know exactly what they sounded like until.. 



In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which could record sound and play it back. Earlier inventions were able to record sound but not play it back, including the phonautograph. The first audio recording Edison made was himself reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. Those first recordings were made on tinfoil, and could only be played a couple of times. However, it was revolutionary for the time period. Soon, other inventors including Alexander Graham Bell and Emile Berliner were also experimenting with sound recording. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has about 400 of the earliest recordings ever made, from about 1878 to 1898, using materials like rubber, beeswax, glass, tin foil and brass. 


Acoustic Era (1877 to 1925) 

Part of a series of pictures depicting Frances Densmore at the Smithsonian Institution in 1916 during a recording session with Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology.

The first wave of sound recording technology was purely mechanical. Rather than using microphones or other instruments, instrumentalists, singers, and speakers would play/perform into a bell-shaped horn that gathered the soundwaves toward a thin film at the horn’s small end. The soundwaves would cause the film to vibrate, which moved a stylus that etched the soundwaves into a rotating disc of wax. To play back these recordings, a mechanical reproducing machine reversed the process. A needle was attached to a film known as a sound box or reproducer, which was attached to a tube called the tone arm. The needle running over a recorded disc would make the film vibrate and create soundwaves. 


Electrical Era (1925 – 1945)

In 1925, Bell Telephone Laboratories lead by Western Electric engineers Henry Harrison and Joseph Maxfield changed the game by inventing an electrical phonograph recording system that used Condenser Microphones to record. The microphone would connect to a tube amplifier which fed the amplified signal to an electromagnetic disc cutting head to produce records.  This new recording system expanded the range of frequencies that could be recorded and greatly improved how recordings sounded. Sound could now be captured, amplified, filtered, and balanced electronically. Records began to be mass-produced. Starting in 1927, sound started to be used in film. 


Magnetic Era  (1945–1975)

The tape recorder aboard Mariner 4 spacecraft, on a mission to Mars, used for data storage.

In 1930s Germany, a new form of recording – magnetic tape recording – was developed. It was used for broadcasting in Germany but was restricted to the country until the end of WWII, when Allied Forces obtained and distributed it. The use of magnetic tape meant that recorded programs were nearly indistinguishable from live ones – the sound quality was that much better. Magnetic tape was used for the development of the first hi-fi recordings for consumers, as well as multitrack tape recording. It made editing sound easier for sound and movie engineers. 

Magnetic tape recording made possible a range of new sound recording implements – including 12-inch LP discs and 7-inch singles, cartridge and compact cassette tapes, and cassette tape players. 


The Digital Era (1975–present)

Promotional CD single of the radio edit of the 1997 song “Let Down” by English rock band Radiohead./Capitol Records

The Digital Era has transformed the way we listen to music. Compact discs (CDs) were introduced during this timeframe, but by the beginning of the 20th century, they were rendered nearly redundant by the popularity of digital audio files. Commercial innovations like iTunes and Apple’s iPod made it easier to download and take music with you. Unfortunately, this internet-based method of distribution led to unlicensed distribution of audio files, causing headaches for copyright owners. Since the late 2000s, streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora have outpaced the download of digital music. 



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