How We Listen: A Timeline of Audio Formats

Illustration for article titled How We Listen: A Timeline of Audio Formats

Humans have been writing music for at least as long as we've been recording history. It was storing it that took a little more time. Here are all the ways we've done it to date:

Illustration for article titled How We Listen: A Timeline of Audio Formats
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It wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that mass-produced recordings were available to the average person—the concept of buying music is amazingly new. (Or to some, ooooooold.) Just a century ago, the first records began to do for music what the Gutenberg press did for words. Before them, music was handed crudely from person to person; after, it could reach millions, untouched and unspoiled.

If we couldn't record music, the Beatles would have never left Liverpool. By the same token the Jonas Brothers would have never left Georgia or Disney World or the Old Testament or wherever the hell they came from. Talk about progress! There may be no accounting for taste, but you can thank these reproducible formats for the very existence of the notion of pop music.

Listening Test: It's music tech week at Gizmodo.

DISCUSSION

You need to put some context to this.

The "music industry" at the turn of the century (19th==>20th, I mean) was completely based on the sale of sheet music. People bought sheet music to take home and play on their piano (and sing along with). Most sheet music at the time included a piano arrangement as well as a four part arrangement for male voices (barbershop quartet).

The first recorded performances and distribution of the playback equipment to music stores wasn't for the purpose of selling recorded music, but to sell more sheet music to people.

The idea was that somebody could come into the music store and hear a recorded performance so that they could get an idea of what the piece sounded like before buying the sheet music for it.

At the time the recording equipment was very primitive and unable to accurately record and reproduce a very wide frequency range. Mostly, it was decent at handling the human voice; bands didn't really get recorded that well.

That's why there were nationally known professional barbershop quartets during the 1895-1920's era, such as the American Quartet and Peerless Quartet. They were the first types of groups recorded in this new media.

It wasn't until the invention of electrical (rather than mechanical) recording and amplification systems that you could truly get a decent recording of a wide range of frequencies, and it was the death knell for barbershop as pop music. The technology ushered in the era of the "crooner", and eventually big bands.

I highly recommend reading "Four Parts, No Waiting" by Dr. Gage Averill, for a complete background on what was happening at the time. It is an ethnomusicology treatise focusing on barbershop.