Tag Archives: Thomas Edison

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.

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Music Shapes the World

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As he grew older, Tomas Edison (1847-1931) became increasingly fascinated with the alleged mystical powers of sound and music. Inspired by the spiritualism and paranormal craze of the decades surrounding the turn of last century, Edison announced in 1920 that he was developing a machine that could communicate with the dead. He reasoned that if a spirit world actually existed, an extremely sensitive device was needed to converse with it. A little closer to reality, Edison conducted a series of Mood Change Parties, in which participants listened to recordings and filled out charts documenting their responses. The goal was to link mood changes—worried to carefree, nervous to composed, etc.—with corresponding musical stimuli.

One of these “parties” took place in a Yale University psychology class. As a newspaper described it, it aimed “toward alleviating neurotic conditions, with a view of discovering psychological antidotes for depressed conditions of mind whether due to fatigue or disappointment.” Similar experiments were conducted at other Ivy League schools, giving an air of legitimacy to the proceedings despite company documents showing little serious interest in the project’s scientific merits or lack thereof. Not surprisingly, both the séance device and the Mood Change Parties were, more than anything, elaborate marketing ploys.

Whatever the motives, the machine designed for the deceased and the parties intended for the living grew from Edison’s awareness that sound could manipulate the psychological atmosphere. Pseudoscientific claims aside, it is clear that certain tone patterns used in certain environments can cause us to feel as if something otherworldly is occurring (hence the effect of science fiction film scores). Likewise, a group of people with common cultural backgrounds (such as Yale students in the 1920s) usually have shared reactions to changes in tone sequences—the differences being only in degree.

In both cases, too, sound-triggered transformations are perceived not just in the internal realm of emotions, but also in the surrounding environment. The room itself is felt to shift from heavy to light, tense to relaxed, sterile to active, etc. But these are really psychological shifts. From a philosophical standpoint, this adds support to the notion that the mind shapes the world around us. Before we can begin to apply rational thought, subconscious processes organize data coming to us through our senses, and largely determine what it is we are experiencing. Musical sounds strike us on such an all-consuming and mind-altering level that the emotions stirred interiorly tend to influence how we perceive the exterior world.

In Edison’s experiments, this was demonstrated both in the presumed way that aural changes could create an ambience conducive to communicating with the dead, and the more realistic idea that the mood of a party—not just those in attendance—could change in accordance with listening selections. In this modest sense, music can be said to shape the world around us.

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

Sound in Wax

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The earliest wax cylinder phonographs—the first commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound—were entirely mechanical. They were hand-cranked and needed no electrical power. All that was required was a lathe, a waxy surface, a sharp point for a stylus, and a resonating table. To impress sound waves onto wax, the voice or instrument was positioned closely to the large end of a horn. The vibrations moved a needle, which carved a groove on the rotating wax. According to Walter Murch, an acclaimed film editor and sound designer, everything used in these early machines was available to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. But it took until the middle of the nineteenth century, and the genius of Thomas Edison and his team, to execute the recording process.

Why did it take so long to capture sound? Musician David Byrne has informally speculated that maybe it didn’t. Perhaps someone in antiquity invented a similar device and later abandoned it; or perhaps the device itself was simply demolished in the ruins of history. While conceivable on a technological level, this hypothesis is unlikely considering the prevailing ethos of the ancient world. The ephemerality of sound was part of its attraction: it was momentary, mysterious, transient and transcendent. As this fleetingness was highly valued, there was little or no inclination to record. Murch puts it this way: “Poetically, the beauty of music and the human voice was used as a symbol of all that’s evanescent. So the idea that you could trap it in any physical medium never occurred to [them] . . .”

This contrasts with the rush to develop written systems that enshrined language. The ancients recognized that certain things should be documented, like governmental records, priestly decrees, royal chronicles, philosophical treatises, etc. What these shared in common was a silent beginning: they were soundless thoughts committed to paper (or papyrus or parchment or tablets or wood). Writing gave concrete form to facts and concepts that, while often referencing observable phenomena, had no tangibility of their own. In contrast, sound was understood as being completely formed. It was received sensually, experienced kinesthetically, and processed emotionally. It existed in the moment it was made.

It is worth noting that Edison first thought of wax cylinder recorders as dictation machines. They were to record the owners’ ideas and messages and, ideally, preserve the great speeches of the day. This limited purpose reflected the limitations of the early devices: they were too crude and imprecise to capture the nuances of musical performance. True, music recording and playback were in Edison’s long-term plan, and they became major functions as the machines advanced. But it is feasible to consider that Edison’s initial goal of preserving dictation was—and arguably still is—a worthier and more practical goal than detaining music.

Musicians commonly lament that they are slaves to their own recordings. The version that appears on an album is the version that fans want to hear, and deviations are typically received as imperfections, inaccuracies or unwanted departures from the “authoritative” source.  Some improvising musicians even feel obliged to give their audiences note-for-note reproductions of recorded solos. This is not to negate the enormous benefits and incalculable cultural impact of musical recordings. Our understanding of music as a diverse human enterprise owes mightily to the proliferation of recorded sounds, and musical creativity thrives when there is access to other music. But something of music’s temporality is lost in recording. Imprinting sound in wax or digital audio creates the illusion of permanence.

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