How our music is shaped by technology, part 1

[This was my weekly column for – AC]

Mr. Penner, my seventh-grade science teacher, was trying to teach us about the three states of matter. “The shape of a solid is obvious,” he said, “but a gas or liquid assumes the shape of the container in which it is stored.”

I thought of Mr. Penner when preparing for a TEDx Talk in Winnipeg next month on the way technology shapes music. Tech is the container into which we stuff music. And the results, while subtle, change the very nature of how we make and listen to music.

Before Thomas Edison came along with his phonograph in 1877, music could not be contained. It was evanescent, momentary. Once the performer stopped playing, that rendition was gone forever. Those sounds couldn’t be stored for future enjoyment or study. (Weirdly, Edison didn’t see his invention as a music storage device. For him, the phonograph had a future preserving the great speeches of men, providing audio books for the blind, and perhaps as a telephone answering machine.)

But when others acquired phonographs, one of the first things they did was use it for recording music. As a byproduct of this new gizmo, the length of a popular song started to become standardized.

Before the phonograph, a song or a piece of music was as long as it needed to be. Symphonies went on for an hour or more. Folk songs and ballads continued until the story was finished. Hymns and national anthems could stretch on forever. (The Greek national anthem has 158 verses!)

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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