When we celebrate big-name musicians and their songs, we rarely think of the role technology played in creating a hit. Behind the catchy tunes that flood our phones and other smart devices are centuries of technological advancements.

The History of Recording and Playback of Music

Give thanks to Thomas Edison for being able to listen to that pop song on repeat for hours. He engineered the mechanical phonograph cylinder in 1876, which was the first recording and reproduction machine. From there, the technology grew more sophisticated, and evolved with engineering innovation from the phonograph in 1877, through to the streaming technologies we embrace today.  

  • 1877- Phonograph – This early recording device used a stylus (hard-pointed instrument like a large needle) on a tinfoil cylinder to record sound
  • 1887- Gramophone – A couple tweaks to the phonograph gave life to the gramophone, which amplified musical recordings for entertainment
  • 1906 – Victrola – This updated device was a disc player with a horn inside the cabinet instead of outside, and was commercialized for home use
  • 1925 – Electrical Recordings – Sound quality was improved by the invention of an electronically amplified, electromagnetic disc cutter, as well as an improved acoustic phonograph on which to play the resulting records
  • 1931 – Stereo Sound – Engineers found that two-channel recording, utilizing two microphones, two amplifiers, and two loudspeakers, resulted in a more pleasing sound
  • 1943 – Record Players and Vinyl – Innovations in speed of the turntable as well as in material for records created the long-playing, two-sided record that could be used at home to enjoy full albums
  • 1966 – 8-Track – This large cassette-type device was created for use in cars, and required minimal effort, with no rewinding, so the driver could concentrate on the road while enjoying music
  • 1983 – Cassette Tapes – These plastic devices with tape inside sparked the personal, portable music culture. Cassette tapes allowed for both pre-recorded music, as well as home-recorded sound
  • 1984 – CDs – Compact discs were created by using a laser to write the music onto the reflective discs
  • 1993 – MP3s – Digital recordings revolutionized the industry, as they were searchable and downloadable to computers and other devices, making it easy to grow a large music collection.
  • 2003- iTunes- Apple debuted their online music store with 200,000 downloadable songs available for 99¢ each
  • 2005 – Streaming Services – With billions of songs just one click away, streaming services have changed the way we store and listen to music, phasing out the need for many physical household devices

History of Headphone Technology

Recording and data storage tend to monopolize the music conversation as it relates to technology. But what about  the history of the amplification of sound? The first headphones were created for use in the military and at switchboards starting in the 1890s, and weren’t embraced by the public for recreation until 1895. The earliest consumer use can be traced back to operagoers using a bulky device to connect into the sounds of the live performance.

The engineering behind the first earphones was an incredible feat for the 1890s. Using telephone receiver technology, miniature receivers were created that weighed less than two  ounces. They contained a rubber cover to provide comfort to the wearer.

Around 1910s, the Navy started using an invention closer to the modern design of the headphones we have now. Dynamic headphones were brought to market in 1937, and were improved upon in 1957 when the Koss Corporation created stereophonic headphones for public use.

Headphone usage went truly mainstream with the invention of the Walkman in 1979, which came with portable headphones. Earbuds were created just one year later, and since then have experienced innovation and advances in noise cancellation.

The advances in technology for music recording, playback and headphones have come a long way thanks to engineers who have worked for centuries to improve the way we record and hear music.

Written by IEEE on February 16, 2016