CSP 64 - Spring 2019

From the Phonograph to Auto-Tune...

Author: josephshiina@oxy.edu

Sousa’s article

In the article The Menace of Mechanical Music, John Philip Sousa expresses his pessimistic attitudes towards the future impacts of musical technology. Sousa, known as “the March King”, was an American composer of military marches in the early 19th century. He predicted in his writing that there will be “a marked deterioration in American music and American taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country,” due to the advancement of musical technologies such as of the phonograph. He justifies his argument saying that these machines will replace instruments, and therefore reduce the number of amateur musicians. However, I believe that technology has made the world more “musical”, as it made both the consumption and the production of music easier and cheaper. Perhaps it is true that more people used to sing and play instruments back when recording music was not a possibility. However, this was limited to the elite, as reading music and being able to play instruments were only possible for those that were able to afford musical education. As the phonograph was invented, those who were unable to do so gained access to consume music. A more recent example is the invention of the karaoke, as it enabled access to machinery that only professionals were able to use. Sousa’s argument on how people will perform music less in the future due to technology is therefore debatable. Further, being able to stream music anywhere using a smartphone, is living proof that technology has made music ubiquitous in our modern lives.

Minstrel Songs Collection

The image above is from the collection of Minstrel Songs published in 1882. Skimming through the book, one could recognize the way in which music manifests the culture of the time and place it was created. The lyrics of the songs are especially racist, though the use of stereotyped characters including Jim Crow and Dandy Jim. These characters are often portrayed as unintelligent, violent, hypersexual, and lazy. For instance, in the song “Jump Jim Crow”, Jim Crow, with a stereotypical “black” dialect, is portrayed eating an alligator. Further, they were often exclusively performed by white men using black-face. I also noticed that these minstrel songs were mostly repetitive and simple. This is arguably because such songs gain more popularity than those that are more complex and harder to sing along to. However, I also believe that the simplicity of the score reinforces its depiction of African Americans being unintelligent. These songs written way before Emancipation, reflect how African Americans were viewed in America back then. Minstrel shows were one of the few theatrical media where the mass was able to learn about the cultures of African Americans. Hence, the way these songs perpetuated these stereotypes show how music not only reflect culture but reinforces it.

The Phonograph Party and Clubbing

In chapter two of The Openeer Papers, the writer explains about throwing a “phonograph party” with his friends. The text written in 1900, just after the phonograph was invented, their experience with the phonograph seems unrelatable to readers of our generation. However, I found that one aspect of their experience seemed to be reminiscent of our day and age. For instance, consider clubbing, where people gather to party and dance to the music played by the DJ. Even though we have access to various devices which enable listening to music alone, the demand for consuming recorded music together with others still exist. How so? The detailed description of the “phonograph party” found in the text indicates that this is due to the human interactions music can create when consumed together. The feeling of amusement to the music and the technology which enables it to be recorded and played, is shared amongst people in the same party. This experience is somewhat comparable to the way we react to the quality and volume of the music speakers and other technology can produce at clubs. This amusement creates a feeling of solidarity amongst those at the party which can not be produced through individual consumption of music. Perhaps this is part of the reason why even after individual listening of music was enabled, we continue to consume music together with others.