Menace or Miracle? Recorded Music in the Late 19th Century

by Elisabeth Graham

Music, like many art forms, changes as the technology used to create and share it changes. Before the late 19th century, one could only consume music through live performances in the theater or through private performances at home. As the century drew to a close, the way people consumed music altered dramatically. Scientific innovations throughout this period brought a new interest in sound recording technology, and inevitably, the phonograph was born. The dawn of the phonograph marks the tensions between technology and the arts at the end of the 19th century.

Thomas Edison is accredited with creating the first phonograph in 1877, but he never intended for the machine to record music. As the burgeoning telephone made its way into the world, Edison attempted to create a machine that could better store recordings. Edison also longed to create a better device for recording these sounds (Laing 3). The late 19th century is well known for its advances in science and technology, and the creation of the phonograph is no exception. However, consumers proved to be skeptical about this machine from the beginning. Below, you can listen to “Around the World on the Phonograph,” one of the earliest recordings of Edison’s voice on the phonograph; after hearing it, there’s no wonder why Edison’s contemporaries remarked, “It sounds more like the devil every time” after hearing it (Laing 4).

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This image, courtesy of Rutgers University, shows Edison with his phonograph. Click here to access one of Edison’s earliest recordings on a wax cylinder.

 

Since Edison never intended for the phonograph to become a device for recorded music, how did this happen? Edison was not the only inventor on the sound recording scene; Emile Berliner — a German-born American inventor — saw the issues with Edison’s method of sound recording. Edison used wax cylinders to record sound, and this accounted for a very quiet playback volume and poor storage opportunities. Berliner created zinc disks and an alternative “gramophone” that allowed for a greater dynamic range — how loud or soft music gets — in recordings (Smart 426). Berliner’s disks were also much easier to reproduce, and so commercially reproducing music became a streamlined process rooted in the entertainment industry along (Morton 19). This reveals how music became a phenomenally successful musical endeavor.

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Frederick Strothmann’s accompanying illustrations in Sousa’s article all showcase ridiculous circumstances that arise from recorded music. Here, a young child marvels at an older man playing the piano “with his hands.” This reveals artist’s anxieties of younger generations losing the ability and drive to learn more about music.

As music became a more prevalent part of sound recording and sound consumption, artists quickly went on the defense to protect their craft. By 1896, Edison’s phonograph and Berliner’s gramophone became available — and affordable — for everyday Americans. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, this machine became an ordinary piece of technology in American homes (Thompson 138). But this did not thrill everyone. John Phillip Sousa, acclaimed American composer, wrote an article entitled “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Throughout the essay, Sousa highlights the myriad ways that recorded music will devastate the craft. Sousa writes:

Right here is the menace in machine-made music! . . . The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a [technique], it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling. (Sousa 280)

Sousa’s critique of “machine-made music” strikes at the conflict between technology and the arts. If technology’s key purpose is to make life easier, then that could make the laborious process of learning music largely irrelevant. This indicates 19th century attitudes towards change; it also reveals the anxiety over losing sight of humanity and the arts as technology gains momentum in popular culture.

Overall, the dawn of recorded music represents how the 19th century is witness to some of the first mixings of technology and the arts. While the recorded music allowed for more people to enjoy music at their own will and leisure, it also uprooted concerns about what this revolution meant for the future of music. From a 21st century vantage point, it is easy to say that recorded music allowed the music industry to persist and grow in unexpected and marvelous ways. Recorded music allowed for the creation of an extensive network of songwriters, but without it, who is to say what could have happened.

Works Cited

Edison, Thomas A. Around the World on the Phonograph. Edison yellow paraffine cylinder. Performed by Thomas Edison. 1888. West Orange. Recording. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/photosmultimedia/upload/EDIS-SRP-0155-06.mp3

Laing, Dave. “A Voice without a Face: Popular Music and the Phonograph in the 1890s.” Popular Music 10, no. 1 (1991): 1-9. http://www.jstor.org/stable/853005.

Morton, David. Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Smart, James R. “Emile Berliner and Nineteenth-Century Disc Recordings.” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 37, no. 3/4 (1980): 422-40. http://www.jstor.orgstable/29781870.


Sousa, John Phillip. “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Appleton’s Magazine 8, no.1-6 (1906): 
278-284. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/ptid=hvd.hnxveh;view=1up;seq=308.

Strothmann, Frederick. “There is a man in there playing the piano with his hands!” Illustration. 1906. New York.

Thompson, Emily. “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925.” The Musical Quarterly 79, no. 1 (1995): 131-71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/742520.

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