Tag Archives: Records

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. 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 Biz 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.

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Practical Creativity

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Creativity is conventionally defined as the use of imagination for the purpose of  achieving something novel. The Romantics understood it as a supernal gift bestowed upon a select and superior few. In the present day, “creative genius” is generously recognized in almost anyone involved in an artistic or quasi-artistic pursuit. Whether framed as a rarified possession or a universal property, creativity is made out to be a disembodied quality, appearing in a flash of insight and removed from everyday matters. Forgotten in all of this is the utilitarian proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

This saying reverberates throughout music history. The acoustic demands and tolerances of a music-making venue—forest, cave, hut, chapel, cathedral, club, concert hall, amphitheater, stadium, living room—have done more to shape musical styles, instruments and ensemble configurations than any other single factor. Technological advances in the 1920s gave us the 10-inch 78 rpm gramophone disc, which played for just three minutes on each side and forced songwriters to invent the three-minute popular song form—still the industry norm. Architects of worship music often keep track of changing tastes of the general public, adjusting devotional sounds accordingly in hopes of filling the pews. Even jazz improvisation had a practical beginning. People wanted to continue dancing after the melodies were exhausted, so the musicians accommodated them by jamming over chord changes to stretch out their playing.

These and countless other musical developments were born of necessity. Their inspiration was more contextual than spiritual, more pragmatic than epiphanic. Like everything else, musical innovation is motivated by and responsive to perpetual forces: cause and effect, need and satiation, transition and mutation, problems and solutions. It is, then, better to think of creativity as an adaptive awareness than as something emerging from mythical nothingness.

Music is a living art. It is guided by evolutionary pressures. The survival of music in any of its myriad genres and forms requires that elements be modified and redirected to fit the social, physical and acoustic environment. When conditions are relatively static, music undergoes few and subtle alterations. When circumstances shift, musical creativity shifts along with them. These adaptive traits—technical, instrumental, presentational and other—are further tweaked as settings continue to morph. With the passage of time, and the technological advancements, trends and counter-trends that come along with it, some of these features persist and are absorbed into new mixtures, while others are rejected and replaced with new adaptations. And so it goes, down through the ages.

Need creates an opening for artistic maneuvering. Thus, at the risk of over-simplification, we might re-define creativity as the practical confrontation with necessity.

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

The Three-Minute Rule

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Most popular songs heard on the radio run about three minutes. This convention has roots in the 1920s, when the 10-inch 78 rpm gramophone disc was the industry norm. The crude groove cutting and thick needle limited each side of a disc to roughly three minutes. This engineering constraint forced songwriters and musicians to compress their creative expression into three-minute singles. The habit persisted despite the introduction of microgroove recording (LP, or 33⅓ rpm) in the 1950s and the possibility of longer durations. Even in our boundless world of digital technology, the three-minute song remains the archetype.

To be sure, there are successful exceptions to the three-minute rule, such as Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” which run between six and nine minutes. But there is something universally satisfying about the radio standard.

This owes to a mixture of conditioning and natural inclination. From the beginning, three-minute songs proved to be both practical and highly profitable. Radio stations earned money by airing advertisements, and shorter songs meant more space for commercials. Producers also turned a better profit from short songs than long recordings, which were more expensive to press. As a result, listeners were fed a steady diet of time-restricted tunes, and were culturally trained to expect and derive pleasure from them.

It is also thought that the three-minute length caters perfectly to the attention span of young people, the primary consumers of popular music. The duration fits comfortably within their threshold of patience, which averages five minutes or so. And most people’s capacity to concentrate on music does not increase much after youth, save for those accustomed to drawn-out classical works, jazz improvisations and other expanded forms.

Moreover, three minutes seems an optimal timeframe for the delivery of music’s emotional and informational content. Anything more risks dissolving into tedium. Of course, there are short pieces that bore quickly and longer pieces that retain interest. But, as a general rule, our tolerance for musical intake peaks at the radio play limit.

Igor Stravinsky is quoted as saying, “Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” The comment was directed at his compositional colleagues and forbearers, and could be applied to a few of his works as well. Yet it is not exclusive to the orchestral realm. Many pieces in many genres could benefit from some trimming. And we do not need Stravinsky’s knowledge or experience to recognize when endings come too late. A combination of musical exposure and musical intuition signals whether a piece has overstepped its temporal maximum. It is the same instinct that attracts us to three-minute songs.

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