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A Brief History of Recording Technology

I could argue that the earliest "recordings" of music were inscribed in clay tablets--the earliest written music. Notation brought with it the ability to musical transfer ideas from one area to another, and ultimately had a HUGE effect on Western civilization as we see it today.

But as much as I looooove me some ancient history, today let's visit the turn of the 20th century and look at a few forces that created the music we hear surprising ways!


Most of us attribute the invention of recording technology to Thomas Edison, an inventor of great notoriety and infamy. While Edison was incredibly smart, he was also prone to taking others' ideas and passing them off as his own.

The first device that could successfully record sounds was created in France in 1857 by

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. He invented and patented a device called the phonautograph. This device couldn't replay sounds as we are familiar with today; rather, it etched the sound wave into a carbon coating over a piece of glass. It wasn't until 2008 that a group of amateur audio enthusiasts reverse-engineered the recordings and the oldest recording: a French folk song called Au Claire de la Lune (In the Moonlight).


Edison did know a lot about sound, however, and in 1877 he made audio recording devices more practical. His high profile as an inventor helped these devices gain traction commercially, and the phonograph was born.

Technology took off quickly in the following decades. Between 1877 and the turn of the century, people quickly realized that being able to play back sound was perfect for one industry: music!


In 1906 the first song was broadcast on the radio!

Early records spun at 45 revolutions per minute. This basically meant that if you produced a single song you had about 3 minutes before you ran out of record! Therefore, EVERY song that was played on the radio was no more than 3 minutes long. Technology eventually got better, but we have become so used to 3 minute songs that the tradition continues today! Rarely do you see top 10 pop songs longer than 3-4 minutes.


Recording technology has gone through so many forms in the last 150 years! These technologies have embedded themselves so deeply in our culture that they are now significant contributors to defining generations.

Some defining technology advancements have been:

  • Magnetic Tape Sound Recording

  • Hi fidelity, or Hi-Fi

  • Stereophonic Sound, or Stereo

  • Digital Recording

Lucky for us, technology now allows us to record songs longer than 3 minutes! While the tradition might hold on the short side for radio hits, long songs still make it to the airwaves. Without technological evolution, we wouldn't have songs like Bohemian Rhapsody or Freebird!

Thank you, Édouard!

What's the best way to celebrate our friend Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville? Follow his story to the end and subscribe to the Zeitgeist Radio podcast! Head over to for the latest announcements.

We’re going to talk about all the ways people interact with culture through music on this podcast.

We’re going to speak with music performers, dancers, composers, and everyday people who make and consume music…all to illustrate the ways music creates the building blocks of our lives and influences our behaviors, social networks, and life paths. Sign up for updates today!

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