Listening to History

I’ve been thinking recently about the importance of knowing about technological developments and how they affect how we listen. This came up first in a conversation with colleagues about early electro-acoustic music (Stockhausen, Lilburn, etc) and how it sounds to us know in the 21st century, and then a few days later I was listening to Mark Robinson’s big band radio show on Radio Adelaide and he made a comment about a particular track he’d just played that had been taken from vinyl rather than being from a modern remastered/native digital format. This really got me thinking about how we in the 21st century listen, how I (or more broadly anyone who teaches music history) can help students understand what things were like in the pre-streaming audio, everything-in-stereo era, how we can understand the differences in the ways people have listened over the course of the 20th and now 21st century, and what that means for understanding music in its time and space.

A while ago I taught a jazz history course to first year university students, and I was really struck by how little they knew about the various formats of recordings- I’m talking the absolute basics here: vinyl, CD…maybe cassette. Only one student in the class had any idea about them, and he was a ‘mature’ student so he probably doesn’t count. They had no clue about mono versus stereo and what that meant for the listening experience. They got all their music from MP3s and/or they streamed it; they didn’t know about, or understand, the importance of the metadata (liner notes, personnel, discographical information) that were attached to the recordings.

These experiences have made me think long and hard about the importance of history of recording technology on the way we listen. In the first conversation I mentioned above we were discussing listening to MP3s of 1960s electro-acoustic recordings and the importance of remembering that the composers were using the very limits of the technology available to them. It’s easy to forget in this age of remastering that sometimes a recording isn’t meant to be clean. This is an issue that has been debated since the 1990s in jazz circles- should recordings off 78s and so on be remastered to the point that the track is clean, or not? Should a track be converted into stereo when it was never meant to be (or rather it wasn’t possible at the time of recording)?

Frequently, however, recordings are remastered to a point of digital cleanness, converted to stereo and ‘perfected’ in other ways to make them seem ‘current’. This can be a problem when teaching and learning about 20th century music because the developments in recording technology are intrinsically linked to how musicians’ recorded- and what was possible to record- and how people listened. In the span of a mere 100 years we have gone from analogue recording through a horn onto a cylinder or disc to completely digital recording where you don’t even need live musicians. The physical formats have moved from a cylinder or disc that could only contain a maximum of 3.30 minutes recording to unlimited time frames. As an audience we have moved from listening to recordings being a communal activity (frequently public activity) to it being an intensely personal, private, and isolated (headphones) activity.

Understanding these differences, even in the most basic and vague way, can help music students begin to see that musicians were frequently working at the limits (or beyond them- ever seen an album of 78s with just one work on them?) of the technology and creativity. Take an early Duke Ellington recording for example. It’s really quite incredible when you consider that they were severely limited in terms of time (usually less than four minutes per track unless they were recording onto a 12 inch or bigger disc), the fact that they were recording with one, maybe two microphones for the entire band straight onto disc- not to mention that if they screwed up they had to scrap the disc entirely and start again. And despite all this Ellington (in particular) created the most amazing miniature arrangements that shone the light on his creativity and his sidemen’s abilities. All in the space of less than four minutes. This is incredible, and I’m not sure that many composers or performers could achieve the same feat today because we’re (both performers and audience) too used to almost unlimited time limits (when was the last time you heard a jazz musician take a quarter or half chorus solo?). We’re too used to multiple microphone placement negating most of the necessity of physical placement of musicians in the studio, and to engineers that have amazing technology at their fingertips and the ability to (if wanted) go back and re-record things as much as needed, or for things to be tidied up in post production.

Understanding how people listened to music across the last century and a bit is just as important as the technology, particularly for jazz, but all genres have experienced changes in how people listened to both live and recorded music. Putting aside the changing functionality of music, the most vital change to using recordings is the move from communal based listening to isolated listening. The invention of personal devices and headphones changed our perceptions of how to listen to music and what sort of activity it is. That move changed how people developed their tastes in music as well.

Before personal devices were invented playing records was a family, friends or even public affair. This type of communal listening was a popular way of experiencing and learning about music- but when was the last time you sat down with friends or family and decided to listen to music together and compile a stack (physical or digital) or recordings to play in a listening session. Listening to other people’s playlists isn’t quite the same- yes music is being shared, but you’re still most likely doing it by yourself. This is neither good or bad, merely different, but the important thing is to understand that people listened differently in different periods of time, and this can inform your perceptions of the music.

Understanding what the technological limits were in any given decade, how people listened and what their expectations of the listening experience were can vastly change how you view music. So that 1960s electroacoustic piece that seems rather scratchy, or that jazz piece from the 1930s that only comes through one channel on your stereo (or through one side of your headphones), and doesn’t have much improvisation may not be as ‘limited’ as it seems.

Too often those of us who know about these things take this knowledge for granted and don’t tell our students, but maybe we should take more time to talk about technology and how that informed the recording of music, and importantly how the musicians/composers responded to technology.



  1. Really interesting, Aleisha. The way we listen has changed so much…oh I remember getting my first Sony Walkman from Santa Claus…it changed my world!

    1. Exactly! I remember when Dad bought a CD player for our stereo in 1987. I think we were the first family in our area to have one (he’s a wee bit of a technophile), and it was mind boggling to me and my friends that there was a small disc that could be played with a laser! As an aside- we still have that CD player and it still works!

      1. Our father’s must be cut from the same cloth. Dad was the first of our friends to get a CD player, too—it was a small, black Sony one that plugged into his audio system (Kenwood, maybe?). He positioned the speakers perfectly around the room and dragged his armchair to the sweet spot in the middle of the room to get the full effect of ‘War of the Worlds’. Hilarious to watch!

      2. That’s hilarious- ours was a Sony too, and Dad did something similar- rearranged the speakers so they were perfectly aimed at his armchair for a surround sound experience of Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same’.

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