CSP 64 - Spring 2019

From the Phonograph to Auto-Tune...

Author: sherryg11

Response to Sousa’s article

            It is interesting to examine Sousa’s criticism toward mechanical music from a modern perspective, since the technology of music recording and reproduction has become a part of our lives. I disagree with Sousa’s point on how the phonograph will bring harm to the artistic side of music. In this article, he over exaggerated in his description of the menace of recording techniques, and there are fallacies in his opinion on the nature of the phonograph. For example, Sousa wrote about how phonograph will replace actual players and make people reluctant to practice music. However, although the easy access to music might cause decrease in number of players and singers, the phonograph will definitely not replace live music, since after all, it is actual musicians who are creating and playing music. In the end, the phonograph is just a medium to capture human produced music. The essence of this art is still the same: people are still moved and attracted by the emotions conveyed through the composer, the players, or the singers. The music will not become “without soul or expression” as Sousa wrote.

            However, I do agree with Sousa’s insight regarding the copyright protection of composers. It is absolutely important that people recognize the emerging problem that the reproduction of music brought to the musicians. Nonetheless, the copyright issue is only a natural side effect of a revolutionary invention, not a problem with the technology itself. As long as the legislation is keeping up with the technology, the obstacle should resolve over time. Although it might seem that Sousa was worrying too much at the time, it is insightful for him to reflect on the potential harms of new technologies, instead of accepting it without evaluation, so that it functions in the most beneficial way.

Oxy Special Collections

Before the phonograph allowed us to capture and reproduce actual music, people used sheet music to record songs. In Oxy’s special collections, there were a number of sheet music from different time periods and of different styles, like a leaf from an early 16thcentury manuscript of church music or the scores of the Don Quixote opera. The one that interested me the most was “Harmonia Sacra,” which is a collection of church music, written by Joseph Funk in around 1860. Its unique music notation system captured my attention, as the note head were written not all in round shapes, but varied for different pitches. In fact, as I observed more closely, the note head had distinct shapes for each pitch in the scale (seven in total). These specially shaped notes were used in order to make the hymns accessible to people who didn’t learn to read music, which reveals the Harmonia sacra’s educational purpose. 

Compared to the 16thcentury manuscript which is written in four line staves and has no rhythmic specification, the music notation used in Harmonia sacra is rather simiarl to what’s used today. By comparing and analyzing these scores, one can observe the transformation of written music over time, including the evolution of the printing methods, music notations methods, etc., as well as how these aspects relate to the content and style of music under the particular contexts.  

The Openeer Papers

In this document, many of the phonograph’s uses mentioned in Edison’s original writing were realized. He mostly envisioned the phonograph to be used to record words and be used for purposes such as language teaching and dictation, both of which became a success according to the author of this document. Besides, the writer also mentioned how a mom had recorded the voices of her eight-year old son, who suddenly passed away. She referred to this recording as “one of the greatest consolations,” meaning that people did start to use the phonograph to keep family records as Edison predicted. Moreover, the author mentioned how the recording technique was used to record songs, funny talks, and speeches of famous men, which demonstrates the phonograph’s entertainment purposes introduced by Edison. Although there are many consistencies between Edison’s prediction and the actual uses of the phonograph later on, Edison did not anticipate that the public is mostly appealed by the amusement and leisure brought by the phonograph. The lectures and orations were not efficiently carried out using the phonograph, yet people were excited to share and reproduce music or to be at a “voice guessing party.” In general, I think the document demonstrates how the phonograph is seen as a novel and popular invention at the time; Edison gave a rather comprehensive prediction about the potential uses of the phonograph, yet emphasized on the wrong aspects of its future functions.