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Handheld music player in the 1890s?

Handheld music player in the 1890s?

Perusing this gallery of candid photos from 1890s Oslo, Norway, by Carl Størmer (1872-1957), again I found such a curious image, yet was unable to verify the existence of any portable music player back then.

According to Wikipedia,

Over several years starting in 1894 the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi built the first complete, commercially successful wireless telegraphy system based on airborne Hertzian waves (radio transmission).

That device looks awfully small, though; could it be a brush? Was brushing your hair in public without a mirror common then?

Are these things from 1928 movie The Circus by Charlie Chaplin and 1938 Dupont Massachusetts factory footage the same kind of device?

I was only able to find others with the same question: What are those things?


According to The Atlantic they are hearing aids, patented in 1924. So was Norway ahead of its time in technology, or behind in fashion? Neither; the 1890s photo most likely depicts an ear trumpet:


Music box

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Music box, also called musical box, mechanical musical instrument that is sounded when tuned metal prongs, or teeth, mounted in a line on a flat comb are made to vibrate by contact with a revolving cylinder or disc that is driven by a clockwork mechanism. As the cylinder or disc revolves, small pins or other projections mounted on its surface pluck the pointed ends of the metal teeth, causing them to vibrate and produce musical notes. The sequence of notes produced is determined by the arrangement of projections on the cylinder. The deeper the teeth are cut into the comb or flat plate, the lower their pitch when plucked. A watch spring and clockwork move the cylinder, and a fly regulator governs the rate. The music box was a popular household instrument from about 1810 until the early 20th century, when the player piano and the phonograph rendered it obsolete.

The music box was probably invented about 1770 in Switzerland. The earliest music boxes were small enough to be enclosed in a pocket watch, but they were gradually built in larger sizes and housed in rectangular wooden boxes. A typical large music box had a comb of 96 steel teeth plucked by pins on a brass cylinder 13 inches (330 mm) long, and the cylinder could be changed to allow different musical selections. Changing and storing the cylinders proved cumbersome, however, and so in the 1890s they were replaced by a large-diameter metal disc (shaped and revolved somewhat like a phonograph record) with projections or slots on its surface to pluck the teeth. The discs, which reached 2.5 feet (75 cm) in diameter, could be easily changed, and disc music boxes had displaced cylinder models in popularity by 1900. By 1910, however, music boxes had been largely replaced by the phonograph. The music box is one of several idiophones (instruments whose sounding parts are resonant solids) that are plucked rather than vibrated by percussion.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.


A History Of The Record Player

The history of record players begins with its invention and the man who seemingly invented everything.

When Was The Record Player Invented?

According to the history books, the record player was invented in 1877. Actually, it was a phonograph, and not a turntable, but it is considered the first record player. It was in 1887 that the gramophone was invented, which became the basis for the modern record player.

Who Invented The First Record Player?

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. This innovative device both played and recorded sound with the use of a tinfoil covered cardboard cylinder for playback.

Later on, Alexander Graham Bell added wax to the design, which would record waves of sound. This change in the design later resulted in the graphophone.

Emile Berliner And The Gramophone

Emile Berliner called his invention the gramophone, which he patented in 1887. This invention consisted of shellac and hard rubber. Later on, it would be made with vinyl.

This invention was later considered the basis of the record player we know and love. It was able to interpret grooves on flat discs instead of the cylinder that Edison used. At this point, the vinyl record became necessary.

An Improved Design

Emile Berliner’s major breakthroughs, the turntable, was mechanized and designed to spin the record with the help of a direct drive system or belt. As the record spins, a needle reads the grooves.

This needle is cone-shaped and hangs from a stretchy band of metal. It’s usually made out of a hard material, such as a diamond or sapphire.

The needle is set at one end of the tonearm which is located on the side of the turntable, parallel to the vinyl. The arm moves across the vinyl as the needle follows the grooves.

The needle picks up the vibrations as it moves around the grooves of sound and these vibrations travel through the metal band located at the end of the arm and to the wires of the cartridge at the end of the tonearm.

The coil, which is in a magnetic field, turns the vibrations into an electric signal which is then carried from the wires to the amp. These signals eventually turn into sound via the speakers, producing the music. For more detail, check out my article on how record players work.

Mass Production

In 1895, the first record player was mass produced. It was incredibly popular until the introduction of radio.

While the introduction of radio didn’t exactly make the record player obsolete, it did take away the spotlight for a period of several years. In the 1930s and the 1940s, turntables sold well, but they didn’t really become mainstream until approximately twenty years later.

The Rise Of The Record Player

In the 1960s and the 1970s, the turntable was back on the map with the release of the first model that provided stereo playback. This type of Hi-Fi sound hit the scene and caused thousands of people to purchase a turntable of their own. The automatic turntable was also a big hit in the 1960s.

The Hip Hop Scene

In the 1980s and 1990s, hip hop DJs found a new way to use turntables by connecting audio mixers and using their hands to scratch the vinyl against the stylus in order to produce a totally new sound.

While some people use record players to play music at home, many DJs still use them with mixers to add a new layer of sound to their sets.

The Return Of The Turntable

After several years of CDs and digital music, hardcore audiophiles have brought vinyl back. Now, vinyl is once again being sold everywhere, including popular retail chains and your local music store. There are even new innovations, like the vertical record player.

Additionally, many big artists are now releasing their albums on vinyl, complete with beautiful cover work and free digital downloads with the purchase.

How Vinyl Records Came To Be

Vinyl records replaced the rubber discs produced by Berliner. These records were much easier to mass produce and their master copies could easily be copied by using lacquer on the cutting machine.

A record’s master copy will send the electrical signals to the cutting machine via a cutting head. The cutting head is what holds the needle and cuts the grooves into the lacquer that is wrapped around the middle of a disc.

The lacquer is sent to a company where it’s then covered in metal to make the final master copy. Basically, the master copy is a type of negative for a record that can be used each time the record is mass produced.

The metal copy of the record is used to make a stamper which is put onto a hydraulic press placed with vinyl between the plates. Steam is used to soften the vinyl, then it’s stamped and cooled using water, in order to finish the record.

The Modern Turntable

The recent boost in vinyl sales resulted in the need for bigger and better record players. Many casual music listeners and audiophiles continue to want to experience their music on records while also wanting a more modern touch and better functionality in their record players.

These features include Bluetooth connectivity, USB recording, speed options, aux and RCA connections, and more.

These days, reproductions of vintage models have become the next big thing. They look like vintage models on the outside, but have all the modern features on the inside.

Some of the best record players have built-in speakers, which make it possible to just plug in the unit and start listening to records, without the need to purchase an external preamp and additional speakers.

Many of the newer turntables models are priced much more affordably compared to the first models that were produced over one hundred and forty years ago.

These days, it’s totally possible to purchase a good quality model for under three hundred dollars. That is a major change considering that back when the gramophone was invented, only wealthy families were able to afford one for their home.


How The Walkman First Got Developed

Like many inventions, the Walkman was a solution to a problem. The co-founder of Sony, Masaru Ibuka, would use a Sony product called the TC-D5 cassette recorder to be able to listen to music while traveling. This bulking piece of electronics wasn’t the most conducive thing for carrying around and he asked executive deputy president Norio Ohga to design a smaller device that was only meant for playback. He also wanted it to have stereo sound to better enjoy his music and that it could be listened to on headphones.

The first prototype was built from a modified “Sony Pressman” which was a mono cassette recorder. The pressman also had a bit of an interesting name…


An Original Sony Pressman

The Walkman was finally put together and was made of a silver and blue metal case and was called “TPS-L2” (how are you coming on those TPS reports?) It would be considered the world’s first low cost portable stereo. It was originally released in Japan on July 1 1979 and sold for close to 40,000 yen.

At the time this was the equivalent of around $150.00 U.S dollars and if you adjust for inflation it was the equivalent of about $498.66. That’s a big chunk of change and I had no idea they went for that price. I guess if you think about the first versions of the iPod it went for around $399 and adjusted for 2018 would be the equivalent of around $518.00. So I guess the original Walkman was a steal!

It’s also similar to the introductory of another 80s classic, the NES, and how things like that always come in at a high price point to start. There’s some interesting backstory about the launch of the NES that I’ve written about that you’ll want to check out here.


Cassette Player

Cassette tape technology was introduced by Philips, a Netherlands-based electronics firm, in 1963. Though this technology was created for dictation purposes, Sony successfully marketed the cassette player as a personal music player. Sony introduced cassette tape technology to the public in the late 1960s. These players later were installed in car stereos, and they replaced 8-track systems. In 1979, Sony continued to dominate the music player market with the inception of the “Walkman," a portable cassette tape player. Cassette tape players dominated the music player market throughout the 1980s.


A twinkle in Jobs&rsquos eye

Apple&rsquos relationship with digital music started innocently enough, from seemingly unrelated events in 1999. That year, Steve Jobs discovered the latent potential of a long-dormant Apple-invented technology: FireWire. The serial bus standard enabled data to be transferred at alarming speeds compared to common standards of the time.

Apple realized that with FireWire, Mac users could transfer videos shot with digital camcorders (which already used the standard) and edit them on their computers. The next round of iMacs, Steve Jobs decided, would contain FireWire ports.

Apple approached creative app giant Adobe to author a simple, consumer-friendly movie editing application, but Adobe declined. That&rsquos when Apple decided to create iMovie and feature the Mac as the center of a &ldquodigital hub&rdquo strategy, where the Mac served as the nucleus of an ever-expanding digital media universe.

By the late 1990s, digital music had become big news. Illegal file sharing site Napster, in particular, shoved the issue in everyone&rsquos face. Despite the legal issues, it quickly became apparent to most in the tech industry that Internet-downloaded MP3s were the future of music distribution.

Around 2000, Apple realized it had a large hole in its upcoming digital hub strategy when it came to music. To fill that hole, Apple bought the rights to SoundJam MP, a popular Mac MP3 player application, and hired three of its creators to work at Apple. One of these men, Jeff Robbin, would head development of an Apple-branded digital music application.

Robbin&rsquos team simplified SoundJam and added CD-burning features to create iTunes, released in January 2001. As iMovie had done with FireWire-attached camcorders, the iTunes team naturally sought to allow users to transfer songs from iTunes to the portable MP3 players of the day. They had trouble.


Radio invention: Who’s really responsible?

Today, you’d struggle to find someone who hasn’t used or seen a radio in their lives. However, this wasn’t always the case. Before the 19 th century rolled around, there was no such thing as wireless communication.

Even when radio technology began to emerge in the late 1800s, it took years for the concept to go mainstream.

It’s perhaps the slow and complicated growth of the radio invention that it makes it so difficult to determine what year the radio was invented, and who should be credited for its arrival.

Though there are many arguments around the invention of the radio, most people agree that either Nikolai Tesla or Guglielmo Marconi that was responsible for the first radio invented.

In 1893, Nikolai Tesla, one of the world’s most famous inventors, demonstrated the first wireless radio in St Louis, Missouri.

However, Guglielmo Marconi frequently earns the title of “Father of Radio.” Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that Guglielmo was awarded the first patent for wireless telegraphy in England in 1896.

A year later, Tesla filed patents for his radio, which were granted in 1900. However, Marconi was the first person to transmit radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean.

Most people believe that the answer for the question: “When was the radio invented.” Comes down to your thoughts on the Tesla and Marconi debate. However, it also depends on which part of the radio’s invention you’re interested in.

The original roots of the radio invention go back to the early 1800s. A Danish physicist named Hans Orsted, laid the foundations for the science, by discovering the relativity between direct current and magnetic energy in 1819. This theory went on to form the basis for other inventions.

For instance, Andre-Marie Ampere invented “solenoid” technology to create magnetic fields. In 1831, Michael Faraday developed his theory, suggesting that a change in the magnetic field may have the potential to generate electromotive forces.

This theory of “inductance” played a significant part in the development of radio. In the same year, professor at Princeton, Joseph Henry began working on electromagnetic relay technology.

Long before radio, as we know it today, came about, James Clerk Maxwell, a physicist from Scotland, predicted its arrival. In 1886, Heinrich Rudolph Hertz went on to show that electric currents could be projected in the form of radio waves.

Some people even suggest that the first radio invented can be credited to a dentist named Mahlon Loomis. In 1866, this dentist demonstrated that wireless telegraphy worked.

As with most technologies, the questions of who created the radio, and what year was the radio first invented, is difficult to answer. It seems that many people were involved in the perception and development of radio as we know it today.

While Tesla might get credit for the concept of using radio for communication, the radio would never have become what it is now without Marconi.


As Sony's Walkman Turns 35, a Look Back at Its Inception

I magine you’re the co-founder of a global corporation, a Japanese electronics industry behemoth with virtually limitless resources at your disposal. But you live on planes, you like to listen to classical music during lengthy trans-Pacific trips, and you’re tired of schlepping your company’s bleeding edge bulky monaural-only player around.

So, because you can, you instruct your research and development wing to build a smaller, more portable version for your personal use. The year is 1978.

From that self-serving request — made over three decades ago by frustrated Sony co-chairman Masaru Ibuka and serviced by Sony’s tape recorder division with a device Ibuka liked so much he pushed to bring it to market — poured the world’s first portable audio empire. Sony’s Walkman, which turns 35 years old on July 1, 2014, went on to sell hundreds of millions of magnetic tape-reeling units, decades before Apple’s iPod ushered in the digital, solid state audio playback revolution.

Portable audio devices weren’t new when Sony’s first Walkman, the unsexy-sounding model “TPS-L2,” arrived on July 1, 1979. The world’s first portable audio player appeared two-and-a-half decades earlier in 1954: the Regency TR-1 — it had a more logical-looking model number, the TR being short for “transistor,” itself technology that was turning heads in the mid-1950s. It cost $49.95 when it launched, or $442 in today’s dollars. It played back radio audio, of course, weighed 12 ounces (with its 22.5-volt battery, which lasted 20 hours), was about the size of an inch-thick stack of index cards and didn’t fit in your pocket. But though Regency only sold about 150,000 TR-1 units, it’s recognized as the first device that got people out and listening to music on the go.

Magnetic tape appeared earlier still, back in 1930, courtesy German chemical engineering company BASF, though at this point the tape was wrapped around giant reels and hung on machines that were anything but portable (AEG showed off the first reel-to-reel commercial recorder in 1935, dubbed the “Magnetophon”). It took half a century — a period that witnessed the emergence of everything from 8-track players in the 1960s to semi-portable cassette-wielding “boombox” stereos in the 1970s — before Sony began toying with the notion of music-focused tape players small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

Even then, one of Sony’s first attempts at a high-end “portable” stereo music player was hardly mainstream: the TC-D5, released in 1978, was heavy and cost a fortune. It was the bulky TC-D5 that Sony’s Ibuka was hauling back and forth on all those lengthy business flights, and which prompted him in 1978 to ask Norio Ohga, Sony’s section manager of its tape recorder division, to have a go at creating a stereo version of Sony’s Pressman — a relatively small, monaural tape recorder Sony had begun selling in 1977 and targeted at members of the press.

Ohga took Ibuka’s request to Kozo Ohsone, the tape recorder business division’s general manager, who immediately began fiddling with a modified Pressman that wouldn’t record audio but instead offered stereo playback. The resulting device so pleased Ibuka after he tried it on a business trip that he went to then-Sony chairman Akio Morita, saying “Try this. Don’t you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?”

Morita did, and he thought the world would, too, immediately instructing his engineering team to begin work on a product “that will satisfy those young people who want to listen to music all day.” The device had to be ready by summer (to appeal to students on vacation) and ship at a price comparable to the Pressman’s.

After just four months in development, the device was ready. But what to call it? Sony’s Ibuka wanted “Walkman,” in accord with the company’s Pressman, but the company wasn’t so sure the name was right, at first marketing the device as the “Soundabout” in the U.S. (where it debuted slightly later in June of 1980) and with completely different names in other countries. Sony eventually settled on Ibuka’s function-angled moniker — the underlying principle was musical ambulation, after all — and so the Walkman was born, though it wasn’t an instant hit.

Sony produced 30,000 units at the device’s Japanese launch in 1979 — the TPS-L2 ran on two AA batteries and required headphones, since it had no speaker — and priced it at $150 (just under $500 in today’s dollars), but only sold a few thousand by the close of July. It took Sony representatives walking the streets of Tokyo with test units in hand, working the crowds and letting them try the Walkman for themselves, to generate interest that devoured all of Sony’s product stock by August’s close. And to address critics of the TPS-L2, who balked at the notion of its playback-only limitation, Sony quickly followed with a version of the Walkman it dubbed the TCS-300 that added the option to record as well.

The rest of the story you know: While cassette and later disc-based mobile media players have long since been supplanted by Apple’s iPod and the MP3-focused post-iPod listening era, the Walkman, through all its many feature iterations and media shifts to alternative formats like the MiniDisc (sold under the Walkman brand), has gone on to sell nearly 400 million units. By contrast, you have to add up all of Sony’s PlayStation game consoles and handhelds sold to date (the first PlayStation went on sale in late 1994) to slide past that figure.

This is somewhat less well-known — you’ll find this nowhere in Sony’s elaborate corporate self-history — but Sony got into a bit of legal trouble with the Walkman that it didn’t fully get out of until roughly a decade ago. That’s because of one Andreas Pavel, a German-Brazilian inventor who created a device way back in 1972 that he dubbed the “Stereobelt” (because you wore it like a belt). Pavel’s device was enough like the Walkman, and his patents filed well enough in advance, that Sony eventually had to pay him royalties on the Walkman’s sales, but then it only did so in certain countries and for select models.

But Pavel, described in this 2005 New York Times piece as “more interested in ideas and the arts than in commerce, cosmopolitan by nature and upbringing,” also wanted recognition for being the inventor of the “portable stereo,” so he pursued Sony, culminating in threats in the early 2000s to sue the company in every country Pavel had filed a patent. In 2003, Sony finally relented, settling out of court for an undisclosed amount, and Pavel won the right, once and for all, to call himself the inventor of the personal portable stereo player.

My own memories of the Walkman’s arrival are filtered through the haze of a pre-Internet-chronicled childhood. I was nine-going-on-10 when the Walkman debuted stateside, living in a remote Nebraska town with a population in the low thousands. (Alexander Payne exaggerates the details of small-town Nebraska life in his eponymous film, but gets the sedate pace and disconnected tone precisely right.) In 1980, my parents had a combo 8-track stereo and record player that looked like a sofa table and took at least two people to move. It had a giant lid to hide all its knobs and levers — a monument to technological unsightliness encapsulated by elegant woodwork. It was state-of-the-art where I lived, and my interface to music as the world was transitioning to mobile.

When I got my first Walkman — I don’t recall the exact year, though I’m sure it wasn’t the first model — it was a revelation, a means of listening to music when and where I wanted to, of breaking up weekend family car trips (every car trip’s forever when you’re a kid and an hour in any direction from a major city), of liberating the music I was listening to at the time (a great many John Williams film soundtracks courtesy my uncle, who’d make me cassette copies of his own recordings) from the confines of living rooms, or the aural and control compromises of automobile stereos.

I’m not sure I cared about or even fully understood Sony’s role in portable stereo-dom growing up in the 1980s, and Sony or no, a device like the Walkman (just as the iPod after it) was probably inevitable. But credit where credit’s due: Sony’s Walkman is emblematic of what it meant to be a music connoisseur during the cassette tape’s glory days, where keeping the music in transition from your living room to your car stereo to on your person after driving to a park for a stroll or jog was as simple as hitting a button (EJECT), slipping the tiny tape-spooled piece of plastic from one magnetic door to another, and pushing PLAY.


Handheld music player in the 1890s? - History

Scott Joplin's piano roll of Maple Leaf Rag (1916)

THE EXPLOSIVE POPULARITY of the Maple Leaf Rag, like so many other seminal events in American history, was founded on fortuitous circumstance. The club that inspired the song functioned for only a year and a half. Scott Joplin, the composer, spent only a few years of his life in Sedalia before he moved on to St. Louis and New York. The music publisher met Joplin only by chance one story has it that he liked the music he heard one day when he stopped off for a beer.

It was in all ways an unlikely combination. And yet it happened - with the result that later this month, Sedalia, Missouri, will be throwing a party to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its most famous export: Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag.

Joplin wasn't the only composer of ragtime in the 1890s, or even the first one. The new music, which blended march tempos, minstrel-show songs, and the "ragged" or syncopated rhythms, was percolating throughout the Midwest wherever African-American musicians gathered. St. Louis and Chicago, with its World's Fair, were magnets for musicians experimenting with new styles.

But Joplin was the decisive ragtime composer, the one whose musical imagination gave ragtime its finest expression. And in the Maple Leaf Rag (named for a short-lived Sedalia social club), he gave the genre its iconic masterpiece. It was also ragtime's biggest hit. The phenomenal success of the Maple Leaf Rag sparked a nationwide ragtime craze. Hundreds and hundreds of rags were published. One entrepreneur even opened a chain of ragtime instruction schools, including a branch in Honolulu. Just as with jazz, rock 'n' roll, and rap, there were those who fulminated against the new trend ("The counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison"). But the tide turned quickly. By 1905 even the President's daughter could be a ragtime fan:

Miss Roosevelt came up [at a White House reception] and said, "Oh, Mr. Santelmann, do play the Maple Leaf Rag for me. . . . " The Maple Leaf Rag?" he gasped in astonishment. "Indeed, Miss Roosevelt, I've never heard of such a composition, and I'm sure it is not in our library." "Now, now, Mr. Santelmann," laughed Alice, "Don't tell me that. The band boys have played it for me time and again when Mr. Smith or Mr. Vanpoucke was conducting, and I'll wager they all know it without the music."
- Recalled by a member of the Marine Band

And ragtime could have been like other fads in popular culture: famous for 15 minutes. But instead, Joplin's goal of creating works that would be both popular and "art" music seems to echo through American music: in the careers of Gershwin, Ellington, Bernstein, Mingus, Sondheim, and many others. And 100 years later, as some of the following suggests, ragtime continues to revive and reappear, not only in the musical world, but in literature, film, and theater.

1868 Scott Joplin is born in North Texas, the son of a former slave.

1899 Publication of the Maple Leaf Rag. Sales are slow at first, but then it becomes a nationwide best-seller. Music publishers churn out hundreds of rags to capitalize on the trend. A typical one will feature crude stereotypes of African-Americans on the cover and forgettable formulaic music on the inside.

In the midst of all this, Joplin will insist on the excellence and restraint of what will become known as "classic ragtime" - as Stark's advertisements put it, "as high-class as Chopin."

1903 The first recording of Maple Leaf Rag is made, in Minneapolis. No copies are known to survive.

1907 Joplin moves to New York. He composes pieces such as Solace, Pineapple Rag, and Wall Street Rag, and his most ambitious work, the opera Treemonisha.

1907 In Paris, Claude Debussy writes his rag-inflected Golliwog's Cakewalk. (The cakewalk was one of the ancestors of the rag.) Other modernists who will help themselves to ragged rhythms are Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, and Paul Hindemith.

1911 Irving Berlin writes "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Did he steal the melody from Joplin? According to one tradition, yes but ragtime scholars are unable to verify it.

1917 Joplin's last years are not happy ones. He continues to grow as a composer, but is dogged by the symptoms of the syphilis that will kill him, and frustrated by his inability to secure a production of Treemonisha. A year before his death. Joplin makes a piano roll of Maple Leaf Rag. A unique document, but his health is failing and the playing is full of mistakes. Joplin dies in 1917, at 49.

Listen - Joplin's piano roll of Maple Leaf Rag
(RealAudio 3.0: For audio help, see How to Listen.)

1918 Young pianists like James P. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton are studying and performing Joplin's works, but introduce elements of rhythmic drive, showmanship, and improvisation. New styles are being created: stride piano, and jazz, which will eclipse ragtime as a popular trend.

1950 Authors Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis interview surviving veterans of the golden age of ragtime, including Joplin's widow Lottie, and write an important book, They All Played Ragtime.

1970s In the '50s and '60s, ragtime leads a fringe existence. It spawns the occasional novelty hit. It can be heard in Gay '90s-style saloons, and for some reason, Shakey's pizza parlors. But quietly, here and there, change is stirring. In small numbers, musicians - many of them classical composers and academics by day - are beginning to look at ragtime in fresh ways. Composers like William Bolcom and William Albright write new rags. Joshua Rifkin, a musicologist and expert on baroque music, makes a recording of Joplin rags for the Nonesuch label. In contrast to the "honky-tonk" style that most people associate with ragtime, Rifkin's performances are elegant, wistful, slow. The record becomes a best-seller. Gunther Schuller rediscovers the arrangements used by bandsmen in Joplin's day (the "Red Back Book"): it too is a best-seller. Joplin becomes the dominant composer on the classical charts. The great ragtime revival of the 1970s is underway. Soon, ragtime shows up everywhere, from recitals to TV commercials.

Listen - Solace, by Joshua Rifkin
1973 Film director George Roy Hill overhears the record his teenage son is playing in his room. It's Schuller's "Red Back Book." Hill decides to use the music in his movie, The Sting. Even though Schuller, and Joplin, are mentioned in the film's credits, thousands of movie-goers have the impression that Joplin's Entertainer is actually a piece called "Theme from 'The Sting'," by Marvin Hamlisch.

1975 E. L. Doctorow publishes his novel, "Ragtime," which investigates themes of race, class, and injustice. It melds historical characters like Houdini and Stanford White with fictional ones, including a Joplin-like musician named Coalhouse Walker. In the same year, Treemonisha is produced on Broadway.

1976 Joplin, now more widely recognized than he ever was in his life, is awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in music.

1981 The movie version of Doctorow's Ragtime appears, with a score by Randy Newman and a cameo appearance by James Cagney.

1998 Ragtime: The Musical, based on Doctorow, opens on Broadway. It wins four Tony awards.


How the Phonograph Changed Music Forever

These days music is increasingly free—in just about every sense of the word.

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Right now, if you decided you wanted to hear, say, “Uptown Funk,” you could be listening to it in seconds. It’s up free on YouTube, streamable on Spotify or buyable for about two bucks on iTunes. The days of scavenging in record stores and slowly, expensively building a music library are over. It’s also become easier than ever to make music. Every Mac ships with a copy of GarageBand, software powerful enough to let anyone record an album.

Are these trends a good thing—for musicians, for us, for the world of audible art?

Now the arguments begin. Some cultural critics say our new world has liberated music, creating listeners with broader taste than ever before. Others worry that finding music is too frictionless, and that without having to scrimp and save to buy an album, we care less about music: No pain, no gain. “If you own all the music ever recorded in the entire history of the world,” asked the novelist Nick Hornby in a column for Billboard, “then who are you?”

Artists fight over digital music too. Many say it impoverishes them, as the relatively fat royalties of radio and CD give way to laughably tiny micropayments from streaming companies, where a band might get mere thousandths of a penny from their label when a fan streams its song. Other artists disagree, arguing that giving away your music for free online makes it easier to build a global fan base avid for actually giving you money.

A confusing time, to be sure. But it’s certainly no more confusing than the upheaval that greeted a much older music technology: the phonograph. Back in the 19th century, it caused fights and joy too—as it forever transformed the face of music.

It’s almost hard to reconstruct how different music was before the phonograph. Back in the mid-1800s, if you wanted to hear a song, you had only one option: live. You listened while someone played it, or else you played it yourself.

That changed in 1877 when Thomas Edison unveiled his phonograph. It wasn’t the first such device to record and play back audio, but it was the first generally reliable one: scratchy and nearly inaudible by modern standards, but it worked. Edison envisioned a welter of uses, including for business, “to make Dolls speak sing cry” or to record “the last words of dying persons.” But in 1878 he made a prediction: “The phonograph will undoubtedly be liberally devoted to music.”

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This story is a selection from the January-February issue of Smithsonian magazine

He was right. Within a few years, entrepreneurs began putting phonograph recordings—mostly on wax cylinders—into “coin-in-slot” machines on city streets, where passersby could listen to several minutes of audio: jokes, monologues, songs. They were an instant hit one machine in Missouri hauled in $100 in a week. The next obvious step was selling people recordings. But of what?

At first, nearly everything. Early phonography was a crazy hodgepodge of material. “It was all over the place,” says Jonathan Sterne, a professor of communication studies at McGill University who wrote The Audible Past. “It would have been vaudeville stars, people laughing, people telling jokes and artistic whistling.” An example was “Uncle Josh Weathersby’s Visit to New York,” a skit that poked fun at urban mores by having a country hick visit the big city. Meanwhile, in the wake of the relatively recent Civil War, marching music was in vogue, so military bands recorded their works.

Soon, though, hits emerged—and genres. In 1920, the song “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith sold one million copies in six months, a monster hit that helped create blues as a category. Jazz followed, and “hillbilly” music, too. If people were going to buy music, producers realized, they’d want some predictability, so music had to slot into a known form. One surprise hit was opera. In 1903, in an attempt to eradicate the phonograph’s working-class vaudeville associations, the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded the European tenor Enrico Caruso—so successfully that labels began frantically cranking out copies. “Why has this great interest and enthusiasm for Opera so suddenly developed?” asked one journalist in 1917 in National Music Monthly. “Almost every layman will answer with the two words, ‘the phonograph.’”

But the nature of a “song” also began to change.

For one thing, it got much, much shorter. Early wax cylinders—followed in 1895 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. As they headed into the studio, performers and composers ruthlessly edited their work down to size. When Stravinsky wrote his Serenade in A in 1925, he created each movement to fit a three-minute side of a disc two discs, four movements. The works of violinist Fritz Kreisler were “put together with a watch in the hand,” as his friend Carl Flesch joked. Blues and country songs chopped their tunes to perhaps one verse and two choruses.

“The three-minute pop song is basically an invention of the phonograph,” says Mark Katz, a professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music.

What’s more, the early phonograph had terrible sound fidelity. Microphones weren’t commonly in use yet, so recording was a completely mechanical process: 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. Violins turned into “a pathetic and ghostly murmur,” as one critic sniffed high female voices sounded awful. 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. Klezmer bands completely dropped the tsimbl, a dulcimer-like instrument whose gentle tones couldn’t move the needle. (Caruso’s enormous success was partly due to the quirks of the medium: 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. But when a loud or high passage came along, “a singer would have to jump back when hitting a high C, because it’s too powerful, and the needle would jump out of the groove,” says Susan Schmidt Horning, author of Chasing Sound and a professor of history at St. John’s University. (Louis Armstrong was famously placed 20 feet away for his solos.) “I got plenty of exercise,” joked the opera singer Rosa Ponselle. If a song had many instruments, musicians often had to cluster together in front of the cone, so tightly packed that they could accidentally smack an instrument into someone else’s face.

Plus, perfection suddenly mattered. “On the vaudeville stage a false note or a slight slip in your pronunciation makes no difference,” as the hit singer Ada Jones noted in 1917, whereas “on the phonograph stage the slightest error is not admissible.” As a result, the phonograph rewarded a new type of musical talent. You didn’t need to be the most charismatic or passionate performer onstage, or have the greatest virtuosity—but you did need to be able to regularly pull off a “clean take.” These demands produced unique stress. “It is something of an ordeal,” admitted the violinist Maud Powell. “Does your finger touch by accident two strings of your fiddle when they should touch but one? It will show in the record, and so will every other microscopic accident.” Plus, there was no audience from which to draw energy. Many performers froze up with “phonograph fright.”

Even as it changed the nature of performing, the phonograph altered how people heard music. It was the beginnings of “on demand” listening: “The music you want, whenever you want it,” as one phonograph ad boasted. Music fans could listen to a song over and over, picking out its nuances.

“This is a very different relationship to music,” as Sterne notes. 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: Someone was a “blues” person, an “opera” listener. “What you want is your kind of music,” as another advertisement intoned. “Your friends can have their kind.” Pundits began to warn of “gramomania,” a growing obsession with buying and collecting records that would lead one to ignore one’s family. “Has the gramophone enthusiast any room or time in his life for a wife?” one journalist joked.

A curious new behavior emerged: listening to music alone. 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 1923, the writer Orlo Williams described how strange it would be to enter a room and find someone alone with a phonograph. “You would think it odd, would you not?” he noted. “You would endeavor to dissemble your surprise: you would look twice to see whether some other person were not hidden in some corner of the room.”

Some social critics argued that recorded music was narcissistic and would erode our brains. “Mental muscles become flabby through a constant flow of recorded popular music,” as Alice Clark Cook fretted while listening, your mind lapsed into “a complete and comfortable vacuum.” Phonograph fans hotly disagreed. Recordings, they argued, allowed them to focus on music with a greater depth and attention than ever before. “All the unpleasant externals are removed: The interpreter has been disposed of the audience has been disposed of the uncomfortable concert hall has been disposed of,” wrote one. “You are alone with the composer and his music. 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? “Once the talking machine is in a home, the child won’t practice,” complained the bandleader John Philip Sousa. But others wryly pointed out that this could be a blessing—they’d be spared “the agonies of Susie’s and Jane’s parlor concerts,” as a journalist joked. In reality, neither critic was right. During the first two decades of the phonograph—from 1890 to 1910—the number of music teachers and performers per capita in the U.S. rose by 25 percent, as Katz found. The phonograph inspired more and more people to pick up instruments.

This was particularly true of jazz, an art form that was arguably invented by the phonograph. Previously, musicians learned a new form by hearing it live. But with jazz, new artists often reported learning the complex new genre by buying jazz records—then replaying them over and over, studying songs until they’d mastered them. They’d also do something uniquely modern: slowing the record down to pick apart a complex riff.

“Jazz musicians would sit there going over something again and again and again,” says William Howland Kenney, author of Recorded Music in American Life. “The vinyl was their education.”

Records weren’t terribly profitable for artists at first. Indeed musicians were often egregiously ripped off—particularly black ones.

In the early days, white artists often sang “coon songs” in the voice of blacks, lampooning their lives in a sort of acoustic blackface. Arthur Collins, a white man, produced records ranging from “The Preacher and the Bear”—sung in the voice of a terrified black man chased up a tree by a bear—to “Down in Monkeyville.” When black artists eventually made it into the studio, the labels marketed their songs in a segregated series of “race records” (or, as the early label executive Ralph Peer called it, “the [n-word] stuff”). Even in jazz, an art form heavily innovated by black musicians, some of the first recorded artists were white, such as Paul Whiteman and his orchestra.

Financial arrangements were not much better. Black artists were given a flat fee and no share in sales royalties—the label owned the song and the recording outright. The only exceptions were a small handful of breakout artists like Bessie Smith, who made about $20,000 off her work, though this was probably only about 25 percent of what the copyright was worth. One single of hers—“Downhearted Blues”—sold 780,000 copies in 1923, producing $156,000 for Columbia Records.

When “hillybilly” music took off, the poor white Southern musicians who created that genre fared slightly better, but not much. Indeed, Ralph Peer suspected that they were so thrilled to be recorded that he probably could pay them zero. He kept artists in the dark about how much money the labels were bringing in. “You don’t want to figure out how much these people might earn and then give it to them because then they would have no incentive to keep working,” he said. When radio came along, it made the financial situation even worse: By law, radio was allowed to buy a record and play it on the air without paying the label or artist a penny the only ones who got royalties were composers and publishers. It would take decades of fights to establish copyright rules that required radio to pay up.

Last fall, Spotify listeners logged on to discover all of Taylor Swift’s music was gone. She’d pulled it all out. Why? Because, as she argued in a Wall Street Journal article, streaming services pay artists too little: less than a penny per play. “Music is art, and art is important and rare,” she said. “Valuable things should be paid for.” Then in the spring, she hit back at Apple, which launched its own streaming service by offering customers three free months—during which time artists wouldn’t be paid at all. In an open letter to Apple online, Swift lacerated Apple, and the company backed down.

Technology, it seems, is once again rattling and upending the music industry. Not all artists are as opposed as Swift is to the transformation. Some point out an upside: Maybe you can’t make much by selling digital tracks, but you can quickly amass a global audience—very hard to do in the 20th century—and tour everywhere. Indeed, digital music is, ironically, bringing back the primacy of live shows: The live-music touring market in the U.S. grew an average of 4.7 percent per year for the last five years, and it brings in $25 billion per year in revenue, according to IBISWorld.

It’s also changing the way we listen. Nick Hornby may worry that young people aren’t committed to their music because it costs them less, but Aram Sinnreich, a professor of communications at American University, thinks they’ve simply become more catholic in their interests. Because it’s so easy to sample widely, they no longer identify as a fan of a single genre.

“In the age of the iPod, and the age of Pandora, and the age of Spotify, we’ve seen the average college student go from being a hard-core ‘rock fan’ or a hard-core ‘hip-hop fan’ to being a connoisseur of a lot of different genres, and a casual fan of dozens more,” he says. “It’s very rare to come across someone of college age or younger who’s only invested in one or two styles of music,” and they’re less likely to judge people on their musical taste.

One thing is true: While the recording medium may constantly change, one thing won’t—our love of listening to it. It’s been a constant since Edison first produced his scratchy recordings on tinfoil. Even he seems to have intuited the power of that invention. Edison was once asked, of your thousand-fold patents, which is your favorite invention? “I like the phonograph best,” he replied.


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