The Evolution of Recorded Music – Part 1 – The First 100 Years

image of the original nipper dog staring into gramophone

Recorded music is ubiquitous. It permeates our lives. We rely on it to entertain us, to inspire us, and in some cases, to define us. It is hard to imagine the world without recorded music.

But recorded music is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In fact, it is likely that my grandfather was in his thirties before he heard a recorded piece of music. You see, my grandfather was born in 1856. Edison did not invent the process to play recorded music until 1874.

Think about that for a moment. Not that my grandfather was born in 1856. But the fact that the process of recording music is only 143 years old. That implies that the majority of mankind never heard a symphony orchestra!  I am having a difficult time grasping that fact. Let alone the fact that my grandfather was born in 1856.

But what is more mind-boggling, is how far the music industry has come in the last 140 years.

The Phonograph

Technically, Édouard-Léon Scott, a French publisher discovered a process for recording sound in 1857, by r. But it would be twenty years before Thomas Edison invented a way to play the sound back.

edison phonograph with cartridges in frontIn 1877 Edison invented the phonograph.  A device that etched sound waves on a tinfoil sheet wrapped around a rotating vertical cylinder. The cylinder, when inserted into the phonograph, emitted a corresponding sound. In 1881 Alexander Graham Bell refined the process. He recorded sound on wax covered cylinders driven by an electric motor. After Edison’s phonograph, came the graphophone, then the gramophone, the Zonophone, and the Pathé. Each a subtle variation on Edison’s machine but slightly better.

While Edison continued to rely on the vertical cylinders, others were experimenting with recording sound on a flat disc.  Manufacturers were able to stamp flat discs quickly and issue them in greater numbers.  Whereas cylinders they had to record one at a time.  Lowering production costs greatly enhanced marketability.

By the 1920s the majority of the industry switched to discs, Edison being the last holdout. But even he could see the writing on the wall.  The ability to stamp both sides of the disc, perfected in 1903, further enhanced the marketability of the disc.  This led to the demise of the musical cylinder and in 1929 Edison closed his phonograph business.

The 78s

As I mentioned earlier, the “disc record” began to dominate the market by the early 1900s. In 1925 the industry standardized the 12″ disc recorded at 78-80 rpms as the preferred process. This allowed approximately three – four minutes of music on a side. Smaller discs were impractical since they held less music and often required changing before a song had played its entirety. Discs larger than 12″ proved to be unwieldy and too fragile to store.

78 shellac record on turntableThe wax and paperboard used in the manufacture of cylinders proved to be ineffective for flat discs. Wax and paperboard offer poor sound quality and damage easily during shipment and play. But, In the mid-1890s manufacturers hit upon a suitable material. It consisted of one-third shellac (a natural compound) and two-thirds mineral filler. Adding alcohol creates a pliable material that stamps easily.  Carbon black gives the records an attractive color and sheen.

Though breakable, shellac records were surprisingly durable. However, they were prone to scratching. And when they did crack, the needle had a tendency to “jump” back and play the same spot over again. Thus, the term, “You sound like a broken record!”

Nevertheless, shellac records became the industry standard until the late thirties. As the world ramped up production of military goods in the years leading to WWII, shellac became scarce. Record producers experimented with other materials such as synthetic resins and plastics consisting of polyvinyl chloride or related polymers.  One material, vinyl, proved particularly suited to the job.

The Vinyl Record

In 1931, RCA Victor introduced the first vinyl records. Designed for playback at 3313 rpm, they had a duration of about 10 minutes per side. Unfortunately, this first introduction failed due to economic constraints brought on by the Great Depression. By 1933 RCA discontinued production.

However, vinyl’s lower surface noise level than shellac and its durability retained the industry’s attention.  In fact, they continued to use vinyl for radio commercials and pre-recorded radio programs.  And during WWII, companies pressed 12″ vinyl 78rpm records for the troops overseas.

After the war, research into vinyl records intensified. And on June 18, 1948, Columbia Records released the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York’s recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor. Released as a 12-inch, 33 13 rpm microgroove record, the company marketed it as a Long Play record. It was not long before the term LP became synonymous with the record format.

LP record on turntable

Vinyl offered advantages over shellac. First, being a synthetic material chances of shortages were less than a natural material like shellac. Also, stamping vinyl was more efficient, thus, less expensive to produce and distribute. Vinyl also has a lower playback level, which enriches the quality of the recording. And lastly, vinyl records were more durable and unlikely to break. This was a major fault of shellac and the bane of many audiophiles of the twenties and thirties.

The “War of Speeds”

It was clear that vinyl would become the prevalent material there was still some doubt as to the final format. Columbia was promoting their 12-inch 33 13 rpm. RCA Victor, a major competitor, was unwilling to accept and license Columbia’s system. Meanwhile, other companies continued to release records in various sizes (7,” 10”, 12” and 16”). And at various playback speeds including 16 23 rpm, 45 rpm, 33 13 rpm and the old standby, 78 rpm.

various size records a 78, 45 and a 33 1/3

Between 1948 and 1950 the competition intensified. In 1949 Capitol and Decca adopted the Columbia’s new LP format and in January 1950 RCA Victor gave in and issued its first LP, Gaîté Parisienne by Jacques Offenbach, played by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra.

However, RCA did not abandon the 45-rpm record format. Due to the rising popularity of the jukebox, it was rapidly gaining in popularity with teenagers. This did not escape Columbia’s notice and in February 1951 they too released a set of 45s. The seven-inch format became widely popular and a principal revenue source for the industry until the mid-80s.

Magnetic Tape


The technique of recording sound on magnetic tape was first developed in Germany during the 1920s and 30s. However, the technology was closely guarded due to pre-war tensions throughout Europe. Following the fall of Nazi-Germany in 1945, recording on tape readily spread throughout the industry.

image of a reel-to-reel tape playerTape offers two main advantages. First, longer recording sessions are obtainable since the process is not constrained by disc’s the 30-minute limitation. Second, tapes were easy to edit following the recording process. However, it was not until the mid-50s before the industry started releasing pre-recorded tapes for sale to the public.


The cost was a drawback. First of all, the reel-to-reel tape decks required for playing the tapes were expensive. Second, the tapes themselves were costly to produce. This limited production to those musical genres – classical, soundtracks, original cast albums, major pop stars –  that appealed to well-heeled audiophiles.

And lastly, the system was not convenient to use. Bulky reel-to-reel tape decks consist of two reels. One reel holds the prerecorded tape. The listener then has to thread the tape onto a second, receiving reel. Threading the tape is a cumbersome process often resulting in a damaged. tape

The heyday of pre recorded reel-to-reel tapes was the mid-1960s. By the early-70s pre recorded reel-to-reel tapes were difficult to find, even at high-end audio equipment stores. And in 1984 Columbia House stopped offering reel-to-reel tapes, bringing the era of the reel-to-reel to an abrupt end.

The 8-Track

blank 8 track cartridigesIn 1964 a new tape format would rise to dominate the market. Bill Lear, is best known for founding the Lear Jet Corporation. He was also an avid inventor with an extensive background in sound recording. In the early 60s, Lear teamed with representatives from Ampex, Ford, General Motors, Motorola, and RCA. Their goal was to improve upon the continuous four-track loop system developed by others. Lear made minor part modifications and doubled the tracks creating an 8-track system capable of playing 80 minutes of music.

It wasn’t  technology that set the 8-track apart; it was marketing. Lear focused on the auto industry rather than the recording industry. In 1964 his aircraft company made 100 demonstration Stereo 8 players and distributed them to executives in the auto industry.  Within two years Ford was offering the 8-track player as an option throughout its entire line of cars.

8 track in car playerBy the late 60s, a home unit became available. Its convenience and portability seemed poised to offer an alternative to vinyl as the primary recording medium. But the system has its flaws. First, 8track have a tendency to produce a wow or flutter (pitch variation) after repeat plays. Second, 8track tapes often jam, especially if dirty or exposed to heat. Jamming can easily ruin an 8 track tape.

There are also playback issues. For instance, the 8track tape is a continuous play system which prohibits individual song selection. In some cases, with long songs, in particular, there is a brief interruption while the music changes tracks. There are other minor annoyances with an 8 track system. For instance, song order is often different from that of the album. Purists feel this compromises the artistic intent of the original LP.

But it was the introduction of the cassette tape that led to the 8-track’s demise.

The Cassette Deck

The 8-track marked a pivotal point in the evolution of recorded music. Despite its flaws, it proved there existed a huge market for “portable” music. The public wanted to take their music with them and not just in their cars.

While Bill Lear was developing the 8-track, Philips was exploring an alternate use of magnetic tape. In 1962 they successfully developed a compact cassette suitable for audio storage.  They initially focused on the dictation and home recording markets. But developers realized the cassette tape also held promise for the music industry.

norelco tape deck for cassettes

In 1964 Philips released the Norelco Carry-Corder 150 recorder/player. By the end of the sixties, eighty-five manufacturers had sold 2.4 million units. Throughout the seventies improvements such as Dolby B noise reduction significantly enhanced the quality of cassette tapes. And the stage set for the next revolution in the music industry.

In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman. A portable high-fidelity player not much bigger than the cassette. Weighing 14ozs it was extremely portable, ran on two AA batteries and came with headphones and a leather case. First introduced in Japan, the Walkman sold 50,000 units in the first two months!

walkman with headset and tapeThe Walkman and similar players completely revolutionized the way people listened to music. The portable cassette player not only impacted the music industry it spawned new cultural phenomenon such as the aerobics craze. It even made walking fun to the point where it soon became a favorite form of exercise.

By 1983 sales of cassette tapes were outselling vinyl records. Music cassettes would dominate the market throughout the eighties and early nineties. But a new sheriff had come to town determined to once again transform the industry. In 1982, Sony and Phillips introduced compact disc (CD), which would once again turn the music industry upside down.

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