Music Technology: History & Development

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  • 0:04 Music Technology,…
  • 0:40 Origin of Recording & Playback
  • 1:28 Bringing Music into the Home
  • 2:14 History of Recording &…
  • 4:30 Music Technology Innovations
  • 7:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rachel Matz

Rachel teaches acting and voice. She has an MFA in Acting and an MBA in Business Administration.

Discover the history of technology in music. Learn about the beginnings of recording and playback, along with current studio technology, and find out how computers and the internet have changed music forever.

Music Technology, Innovation, & Art

When we think of technology, innovation and creativity come to mind, and we see the technology in every industry from the corporate world to medicine to education. Music is no different. If we imagine the invention of musical instruments, we see a pattern of technology that evolved from instruments originally made of perishable materials to flutes made of bone and, in 2600 to 2500 BCE, to lyres and harps. Now, we have synthesizers, electric guitars, and keyboards. Music has a rich history of technology, as well as artistry.

Origin of Recording & Playback

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which gave us the ability to record and playback the human voice using a wax cylinder, and the gramophone, created in 1888, by Emile Berliner, which replaced the cylinder with a disc. Although we attribute Alexander Graham Bell for enhancing the microphone for telephone usage, Edison's carbon button microphone, also invented in 1877, became the primary microphone for the telephone and the basis for recording microphones. In 1910, Nathaniel Baldwin created the first pair of headphones, or radio earphones, with copper wires and a headband worn by a phone operator. Thus, with a phonograph and gramophone, a microphone, and headphones, the beginning of a recording studio is born.

Bringing Music into the Home

Designed for home use by the Victor Talking Machine Company, the Victrola entered the scene in 1906 as an updated phonograph with an amplification horn in a wood cabinet under the turntable, and the volume could be controlled by opening the cabinet doors. The Victrola was acoustic rather than electric in design, yet in 1925, Bell Laboratories introduced electricity into amplification. In the 1920s, commercial radios, produced by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), broadcast music and news into the home through AM radio and, later, through FM radio. When RCA bought Victor in 1929, the RCA Victor company was formed, and RCA Victor produced the vinyl record.

History of Recording & Playback

Originally, music was recorded and played back on analog formats starting with the cylinder, disc, and then the vinyl record. Analog is the recording of constant vibrations corresponding to sound waves, and carved into records or written onto magnetic tape. Analog recording is known for richer sound quality, but digital recording is less expensive and more accessible.

Here's the evolution of analog formats:

  • 1928: Invention of vinyl records for pre-recorded radio rotating at 33 1/3 rpm
  • 1935: Magnetic tape used on a reel-to-reel Magnetophonon tape recorder
  • 1948: The long-play vinyl record (LP) used in 12 (33 1/3 rpm) and 7 (78 rpm) inch sizes for record players, turntables, and jukeboxes
  • 1964: Cassette tapes for cassette players and, later, the popular Walkman
  • 1966: 8-track tape cartridges for 8-track players
  • 1982: The compact disc (CD), played in CD players and computers, bridged analog and digital by capturing analog sound with converted digital data

But, obviously, things didn't just stop developing in 1982 with the CD. Launched in 1987, music professionals used digital audio tape (DAT) for recording and duplicating purposes. Even though the sound quality was exceptional, DATs didn't gain public distribution. However, introduced in 1990, the MP3 became the preferred digital format, maximizing the combination of digital audio and computers and played in devices like MP3 players and smartphones.

Still vital today, MP3 files can be compressed and sent from computer to computer without losing sound quality and, using Bluetooth technology, devices can play MP3s in cars and homes. Also, websites like Soundcloud and Spotify allow users to stream a wide selection of music. Furthermore, the promotion and delivery of music forever changed with social media and digital delivery, and file sharing has worldwide reach through the internet.

Music Technology Innovations

Music technology also brought us:

  • Stereo sound, which is high fidelity sound, which splits up one source into multiple tracks
  • Speakers, which are units that convert electric signals into waves of sound to produce sound
  • Amplifiers, which are devices that augment the power of a signal electronically; they're often partnered with electric guitars and basses
  • Samplers, which are machines used for housing and editing numerous sound bites
  • Auto-tune, which is software that's used to correct the pitch of vocals and instruments

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