How Edison Killed 'Serious' Music


After Thomas Edison perfected the phonograph, a little light bulb went off in the inventor's head. Hoping to promote his product, Edison invited a famous diva to record an aria on his machine. Then he persuaded the lady to declare the result "indistinguishable from my own voice."

Of course it wasn't. Most early recordings sound so unrelievedly tinny and artificial that it is difficult today to comprehend how anyone could have confused them with the real thing. Serious musicians detested them. The primitive phonograph was so bad, in fact, that in retrospect it is a wonder that music, of all the arts, should have become the major preoccupation of the nascent recording industry.

Yet clearly there was money to be made from the new technology. And within a few decades Edison's invention had revolutionized the musical life of Europe and America.

As in all revolutions, the most profound changes were the last to be recognized. At first, the phonograph appeared to be merely an extension of the principle of mechanical reproduction embodied in the player-pianos popular in middle-class homes of the last century, which allowed near professional-quality performances to be recreated by non-musicians.

Edison's device was much cheaper than the player-piano and it had the additional advantage of being able to simulate all the instruments of the orchestra along with the human voice. Thus began the gradual displacement of the piano as a principal indicator of middle-class social status and of piano playing as the principal form of music-making in middle-class homes.

The phonograph also democratized music. Many more people could buy phonographs than could afford pianos. Whereas once only the wealthy could enjoy listening to music on a regular basis, recorded music -- and later music broadcasts -- became an experience available to the masses.

The new mass audience in turn exerted a powerful influence on musical tastes. Vocal and instrumental styles previously limited to one geographic region or social group spread to other parts of the country and found followings among different social strata. Eastern tenderfoots hummed the strains of Western cowboy tunes and Northern socialites jitterbugged to the rhythms of rural Southern blacks.

Recordings made possible the rise of a truly "popular" music culture in America, one whose characteristic melodic and rhythmic style remained distinct from the European classical tradition and evolved largely from regional folk forms, particularly Southern Negro spirituals and jazz. This indigenous new music passed through the commercial filters of Tin Pan Alley, &r; Broadway, Hollywood and the broadcast industry before being disseminated nationally and eventually to Europe and much of the rest of the world.

The impact of Edison's invention on "serious," or "classical," music has been if anything even more profound. The phonograph came along at precisely the moment in history when European art music was experiencing the first pangs of the crisis from which it still suffers. The phonograph did not cause that crisis, but it undoubtedly hastened its subsequent development.

By the end of the 19th century, many of Europe's most adventurous composers had concluded that the musical language of Romanticism was an artistic dead end. If a truly new music were to be created, it would have to employ harmonic and structural principles radically different from those of the past.

But where were these new expressive principles to come from? Some composers, like the Hungarian Bela Bartok and the Russian Igor Stravinsky, sought inspiration in the native folk traditions of their countries. In France, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy developed Impressionism. The German-speaking musicians Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern composed atonal works using such techniques as the 12-tone row.

While many of these experiments resulted in compositions of lasting value, audiences have never accepted the "classical" music of our own time with the same enthusiasm accorded to the great masters of the past. The "serious" music of the 20th century thus finds itself in an unprecedented situation: It cannot sustain an audience, even one of cultivated music lovers, on its own. A local orchestra might play nothing but Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and get by; if it played Bartok, Berg and Schoenberg exclusively people would soon stop coming.

It did not occur to most "serious" composers to draw on the expressive possibilities of American popular music. Yet the audience created by the phonograph shifted the musical center of gravity from its traditional European locus to the Americas and its African influences. If "serious" composers are unloved it is because they ignored this profound cultural change -- a revolution brought about almost single-handedly by Thomas Edison's humble phonograph.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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