The Social Impact of the Phonograph

09 Dec 2014

Before the phonograph and the gramophone, music was very much a social event.  People gathered at a common location—a club, a concert hall, a bandstand—to enjoy music together. 

But when phonographs and gramophones started appearing in private homes in the early 20th century, there was a radical shift.  The living room (or wherever the machine was) replaced the concert hall and the club.



Music also shifted away from being a group experience to a personal one.  Listening to popular music by popular performers was now available on demand.  And because performances were frozen onto records and heard exactly the same way each time, the music lent itself to more analysis.  People learned to copy songs by listening to a record over and over again.  This, too, was new.

While some decried this as a cultural disaster—the end of musical spontaneity that only comes with live performances—the fact is that by the 1930s, more people were listening to more music—as well as more different types of music—than they had at any point in human history.

It also had an impact on musicians.  Now they had to think differently about how they wrote songs.  Writing music for a live performance is one thing.  Writing for a recording is another.  Meanwhile, audiences who were introduced to new songs via records expected to hear the songs played in exactly the same way in a live setting.

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