Category Archives: Recording

Sound as Object

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

After World War II, audio recordings gradually replaced sheet music as the dominant means of distributing music to consumers. As a result, the musical centerpiece of the family home moved from the piano to the hi-fi system and, consequently, from active music-making to audition and record collecting. The LP (3313 rpm, long-playing, microgroove vinyl disc), introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, revolutionized the music industry. Along with changing habits of consumption, records transformed basic perceptions about music. Fleeting sounds became fixed objects.

Recordings had been around since Thomas Edison’s mechanical phonograph cylinder, patented in 1878. Within two decades, commercial recordings and distribution grew into an international industry. Popular titles at the beginning of the twentieth century sold millions of units. Gramophone records, which were easier to manufacture, ship, and store, hit the shelves around 1910, and subsequent advances in technology made audio recordings increasingly accessible. Still, sheet music—and the piano playing it depended on—remained king. The wholesale value of printed sheet music more than tripled between 1890 and 1909, when 25,000 songs were copyrighted in the U.S. Sheet music sales totaled 30 million copies in 1910. The popularity of printed music continued through the 1940s. An article in Variety on October 4, 1944 boasted “Sheet Music Bizz at 15-Year Crest.”

Sales declined precipitously as the 1940s moved into the 1950s. The days when hit songs were fueled by a combination of sheet music and, secondarily, record sales gave way to our recording-dominated era. A Variety article from November 21, 1953 captured the turning point: “Publishing Industry Alarmed by Pop Sheet Music Decline.”

The current ubiquity of recordings is the culmination of a centuries-long effort to mechanically reproduce sound—an evolution that began with musical notation and continued with programmable devices (hydro-powered organs, musical clocks, music boxes, player pianos, and the like). However, earlier inventions still required manual engagement and/or autonomous real-time devices/instruments. With recordings, sounds disembodied from their performance could be played back at any time. Music itself became the object.

Michel Chion details seven ways recording technology facilitated the objectification of music: (1) capturing ephemeral sound vibrations and converting them into a permanent medium; (2) facilitating telephony, or the retransmission of sounds at a distance from their original source; (3) enabling new ways of systematic acousmatization, or the ability to hear without seeing; (4) allowing sounds to be amplified and de-amplified through electronic manipulation, as opposed to the crescendo or decrescendo of live instruments; (5) affording phonofixation, or the fixing of sounds and reuse of fixed sounds in the recording studio; (6) paving the path toward phonogeneration, or the creation of sound “out of nothing” by way of synthesizers and computers; (7) giving engineers the ability to reshape sounds through editing, processing, and manipulation.

This last effect, in particular, contributes to Chion’s view of sounds converted into objects: “recording has been—above all from the moment that it enabled editing—the first means ever in history to treat sounds, fleeting things, as objects: that is to say, both in order to grasp them as objects of observation and in order to modify them—to act on their fixed traces.” Likewise, the listener’s control over recordings—through pausing, skipping forward, changing volume, using multiple devices, etc.—furthers the impression of music’s “thing-ness.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Gesture Toward the Infinite

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The gradual decrease in volume toward silence, known as the fade-out, was once a ubiquitous part of popular music. One of the earliest fade-outs took place during a 1918 concert of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The women’s choir sang in a room offstage for the concluding “Neptune” movement. As the piece neared its end, a door to the room was slowly closed. The contrivance was effective: the celestial chorus drifted into silence, conjuring the expansiveness of the cosmos and the remoteness of the gas giant—then thought to be the furthest planet from the Sun (an honor Neptune reclaimed in 2006 when Pluto was demoted to a “dwarf planet”).

A similarly “organic” fade-out is heard on an 1894 recording of the “Spirit of ’76,” during which a fife and drum band seem to get closer and then march away. The effect was achieved by carrying the phonograph toward and away from the sound’s source. With the advent of electrical recordings in the 1920s, engineers were able to decrease amplification, a process made easier with magnetic tape recordings beginning in the 1940s. The first pop hit to end with a fade was the R&B crossover song “Open the Door, Richard!” (1946), by saxophonist Jack McVea. The technique became commonplace between the 1950s and 80s. Each of Billboard’s top ten songs from 1985 ended with a fade-out.

The fade-out initially served a practical aim. In the 1940s and 50s, engineers often used the device to shorten songs that exceeded radio’s “three-minute rule,” or to fit them on one side of a vinyl single. The 1960s saw the fade-out as a creative avenue, especially in psychedelic and electronic music. The ending of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” (1968) fades over four minutes of repeated choruses. Other artists, like Stevie Wonder, used fade-outs to cut loose with ad-lib lyrics and extended jam sessions.

David Huron, an expert in music cognition, appreciates the fade-out as something beyond a practical solution or creative outlet. Commenting on Holst’s “Neptune” in his book, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, Huron notes: “With a fade-out, music manages to delay closure indefinitely. The ‘end’ is predictable, even though the music doesn’t ‘stop.’ The ‘stop’ gesture is replaced by a gesture toward the ‘infinite.’”

The fade-out, with its impression of unresolved infiniteness, fell out of favor during the 1990s. (The only recent hit featuring the device is Robin Thicke’s retro homage “Blurred Lines,” 2013.) Popular music historian William Weir connects the decline to the development of the Need for Closure Scale (1993) and psychology’s wider embrace of the concept of closure—a goal better achieved when a song concludes with a “cold ending.” Weir concedes that this explanation may be a stretch, pointing to the rise of iPods and DJs, which have created a “skip culture” (using songwriter/producer Itaal Shur’s term), where we are accustomed to skipping from song to song before they end. Why bother with the last few seconds if nobody ever hears them? Yet, even then, we experience a kind of infinity: the never-ending medley.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Accuracy and Soul

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I may say that in the studio accuracy is more readily manageable than ‘soul.’” This statement appears in master pianist Alfred Brendel’s 1983 essay, “A Case for Live Recordings.” Brendel, who played his last concert in 2008 at age 78, is no stranger to the recording studio, and appreciates its technological advantages. However, he opines that studio perfection is merely mechanical, not musical. More is lost than gained when the tension and risk of the concert hall is replaced with the purification of numerous takes.

Brendel notes several differences between live concerts and studio recordings. The live performer has one chance to convince the audience; the studio allows multiple playthroughs. The concert is only experienced once; the recording is repeatable. The concert performer imagines, plays, projects, and listens all at once; the studio player can hear it again and react accordingly. The concert atmosphere is raw and often nerve-racking; the studio allows for loosening up. The concert involves audience-performer interaction; the recording is made in virtual solitude. The live performance includes unscripted coughs and chirps; the studio offers manicured silence. The concert has a physical presence; the recording is a disembodied sound. The concert does not value absolute perfection; the studio is “ruled by the aesthetics of compulsive cleanness.”

Although both sides of the dichotomy have pluses and minuses, Brendel contends that the controlled studio environment adversely impacts listening habits and performance approaches. Pristine recordings condition listeners to expect technical precision, even in the unfiltered concert setting. Performers try to replicate what fans have heard over and over on the recordings. As Brendel puts it: “[A] concert has a different message and a different way of delivering it. Now that we listeners to records and studio troglodytes have learned so much from studio recordings, it seems time to turn back and learn from concerts once again.”

He recommends live recordings as a middle ground between the unfettered electricity of the concert hall and the artificial sterility of the studio. Specifically, he prefers live recordings that come about by chance and without the artist’s knowledge (but sold later with the artist’s permission). This oft-neglected “stepchild” stands between the one-shot concert, which takes place on a certain day in front of a particular audience, and the recording, which can be heard anywhere at any time, paused, and played again. The live recording is portable and fossilized, yet it captures the spontaneity of the performance and the presence of an audience. The quality may suffer compared to a studio version, but the aura of being there is worth the imperfections.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.