CSP 64 - Spring 2019

From the Phonograph to Auto-Tune...

Category: Menace of Mechanical Music

The Menace of Mechanical Music

    Sousa’s opposition to mechanical music is due almost exclusively to unfair copyright practice, as evidenced through his extensive meditation on the issue. He is right to demand compensation, but I find that his anecdotal fear-mongering does little to advance his cause. He says that “the boy with the penny whistle…may give an excellent imitation [of song], but…he is sent to bed as a nuisance” (279). Sousa was trying to associate mechanical music with “imitation” and “nuisance”, but in doing so he trivializes the boy’s musical talent. This seems to directly contradict his case against the phonograph on the basis that it threatens musical skill, something that should be preserved for artistic continuity. Sousa seems to contradict himself yet another time when he defends sheet music as protected intellectual property because “they are only one form of recording…newly fashioned work” (284). He goes on to reasonably say that sheet music and audio recordings are not the same thing, but I take issue with his larger use of skill as an argument against the phonograph. If recordings will cause the end of technical ability, the same logic suggests that the advent of sheet music would have ended creative performances or original compositions. Sousa would likely disagree with this claim himself, logically arguing that sheet music is simply a distribution tool that the highly-skilled composer uses to share original music with the creatively-disinclined recitation player. It follows that recordings are a distribution tool which skilled recitation players can use to share music with the artistically-disinclined masses. There will be fewer original composers if sheet music can record and share songs, and there will be fewer recitation players if audio recordings can record and share music. Sousa’s demands for “fair play” are warranted, but his shallow defense of musical skill implies that he does not view music as an art, simply as a means for his personal profit.

Arguments Made in “Menace of Mechanical Music”

The short argumentative essay “Menace of Mechanical Music” written by John Phillip Sousa elaborates on why he believes that the rising innovations made in recorded music are actually hurting the industry rather than supporting it. One of the first arguments he makes in the piece is how the soulful expression of an artist has been reduced to a “mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, disks, cylinders, and all manner of revolving things.” Another worry that Mr. Sousa has is how these recording devices will be revolutionary for the worse. Having music so readily available for common folk would change the perspective of music as a whole. Whereas before, music was only heard live by people who have spent hours practicing at honing their skills in instrumentation. With the introduction of recorded music, the showmanship of skill has been replaced by the effortless recording which spews out the repetition of a song over and over. I find these two arguments highlighted in the essay to be very interesting. I find lots of truth in the first point made by Sousa, even today. When technology was so limited back in the day and the recordings were still not nearly as advanced as they are today, I can see how there would be a large discrepancy in musicality, performance, and overall enjoyment when listening to a song on a phonograph vs hearing the artist live. Even today, I find concerts to be a lot more enjoyable rather than just listening to recordings of them, even when todays technology has nearly perfected capturing crystal clear sound from the likes of talented musicians. Watching performances of music live can not nearly compare to the single recording of the song.

Sousa’a Mechanical Menace

I think that Sousa’s arguments regarding recordings and copyright law are valid for a composer who is essentially watching technology rob him of the rights to his compositions. What at first reads like an old timer ranting on about “the new-fangled machinery of today” actually reveals itself to in its final pages to be an artist frustrated with a system that seems to cater to those wishing to make money off of someone’s work without compensation for that original artist. Sousa’s points about so called mechanical music (that it will completely decimate the amateur class of musician, no children will want to learn instruments, babies no longer hearing lullabies from their mothers) may not have come true in quite the way described, but today still sees large gray areas in copyright law and artistic rights. Though the way in which music yields a profit at the expense of the artist is not so much mechanical as digital these days, streaming, YouTube to mp3 converters, and yes the bygone days of Napster all are basically extensions of the problem Sousa describes in 1906. Even with all the talk of the “soul filling” power of music, at the end of the day (Sousa seems to imply) creators too would like a share of the profits.

Menace of Mechanical Music

In his article on the developments of musical technology and its potential, John Sousa foresees a “marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations” (278).  Sousa worried that the effects of owning a phonograph would decline if not take away the soul and emotional feelings that music provides. He argues the industry would become passionless as the accessibility of music will rapidly increase. Clearly, this has not been the case. The worldwide accessibility of music has done quite the opposite of Sousa’s prediction. The advent of the internet, mp3s, iPods, and streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music was revolutionary – as was the phonograph – and has provided more passion and soul for artists and listeners. The widespread use of such technological advancements today has made it impossible to imagine a world in which they did not exist. With regards to live music,  I believe the effect that live performances has on us is completely situational. A rap concert has a completely opposite atmosphere as an orchestral ensemble in that the energy of a performance is indicative of the audience’s soul connection to the music. For certain types of music, I think the audience would not realize a change if one replaced a live performer with a recording of their music. After all, some artists lip sync in concerts all the time. 

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.

The Menace of Mechanical Music

John Philip Sousa, being a famous live musician and composer, asserts that recorded music would be the degradation of the music industry. As someone so deeply involved in the field of music, the idea of marketing and reproducing music in any sort of lower quality than live strikes him as wrong and a step backwards for the industry. With the quality of phonographs at that time, Sousa’s prediction is not totally off-base. The introduction of phonographs changed how music was thought of and produced to a more economically motivated mindset. Sousa was a strong believer in music as an emotional release, an outlet in which an artist is solely motivated by their own experiences rather than the monetary gain they would receive. Sousa is correct in that there is a rise in music with less of a emotional connection and more of just catchy tunes and lighthearted content. However, he automatically assumes that this is the end of music as an art, which is not true. Instead, the music industry was expanded to include music as an art as well as music for fun, and include live music as well as recorded and reproduced music. While Sousa’s fears were not completely unfounded, he lacked the foresight to see how music could evolve into something much larger than it had been for centuries.

The Menace of Mechanical Music

After reading Sousa’s “The Menace of Mechanical Music”, I had a few different thoughts. I agree with Sousa’s argument that the phonograph and the player piano do have a negative effect on musical culture. I think that with the overproduction and overuse of the phonograph and player piano can take the authenticity out of the music. As Sousa says “the whole course of music, from its first day to this, has been along the lines of making it the expression of soul states; in other words, of pouring into it soul” (279) As music becomes more interwove with technology- especially the player piano- music will become more reproduced and manufactured. However, while I do agree with Sousa’s argument that the rise of the phonograph and player piano are dangerous for musical culture, they were also both very beneficial. The phonograph has the ability to provide “professional” music to someone at any time and in any location. This development allowed music to spread all over the country. This issue still has relevance in the music culture of today. As technology has become a key component of music production and creation, the whole prosses of creating a song has changed. Artists are able to constantly edit and reproduce small sections of songs to fit their needs.

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.

The Marvel of Mechanical Music

John Philip Sousa was an American composer and conductor during the Romantic era. He wrote hundreds of marches, dances, and operas many of which are still utilized today in American military forces. While Sousa was an original and imaginative musical creator, he detested the creation and influence of the modern phonograph on music composition and culture. Sousa worried that the replication of music would diminish the effect of the “expression of soul” and reduce the emotional expression of music down to something mathematic and passionless. Sousa was also troubled by the possibility of Americans no longer valuing the traditional study of music; claiming that when music can be easily accessed, people will become indifferent to the practice of honing musical skills themselves. In modern American, recorded music has become a source for the creation and dispersal of emotive art. Though music is not coming directly from the artist/composer to the listener, recorded music has not lessened the effect that music can have on a persons emotional and physical status. The broad availability of music has allowed modern day listeners to broaden the style, type, and time of the music they are listening to and find pieces that they can more deeply connect with. Similarly, while music is not as readily taught in schools as it once was, the ability to find recorded works of musicians has allowed children and adults to learn music and instruments from those who have already developed their musical skills via recordings. While I agree with Sousa regarding the importance of live music, I believe that the invention of recorded music has worked to benefit musicians and the music community.

Menace of Mechanical Music Response

Personally, I do not agree with Sousa’s argument in this reading.  He mentions that “[he] forsee[s] a marked deterioration in american music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations….”  While he does have a point that the ability to record music with a machine will change the culture around music, I do not think that it is a bad thing. I think that the ability to record and sell music was rather a beneficial addition to the music industry.  This allowed more people to have access to music, storing of music, and increasing the size of the market, allowing musicians to more successfully pursue music as a full time career. Furthermore, to address his concern on copyright laws, I feel like that was an issue that we do not face today.  Now, everything is so connected that there is very little opportunity for anyone to steal another person’s work without getting noticed, and if this happens then the creator of the song will receive all of the revenue. It is so strict that even a small 15 second clip is enough for a person to lose all revenue off of their song.  I feel like this threat of losing all that money for such a small difference in their song is a big risk nobody wants to take. Of course, back then this was written it was much more difficult to catch people stealing other material since each city had different sets of artists, especially compared to now where an artist is known across nations rather than cities.  Copyright is no longer a serious issue we need to be concerned about, showing that this issue was able to resolve itself as time went on.