Editor’s Note: As part of CMN’s ongoing music journalism program, we asked our team of music writers to research one invention that changed the history of music.
Although it may seem basic, the discovery of electricity, and the inventions used to harness it, changed the course and shaped the music industry as we know it.
Approximately 2,600 years ago Greeks stumbled upon static electricity in amber, which a physicist named William Gilbert also observed around 1600 A.D. He coined the attraction ‘electricus’ in his writings.
In 1752, Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment confirmed that electric sparks are the same as lightning. Circa 1800, Alessandro Volta discovered that an electric charge could be transferred through metal.
Thomas Edison invented the Talking Foil, or phonograph. This was the first scientific instrument that could transfer sound, an ability that has allowed humans since to communicate faster, amplify instruments, record, edit, and share music.
The instrument was inspired by the French printer, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s invention the Phonautograph, which copied the anatomy of the human ear to capture sound through a diaphragm. Prior to this, the only way to hear sound was to be in its physical presence. The only type of music humanity had experienced was live music, as opposed to a world in which humans carry phones with the capacity to play music everywhere they go.
Before the phonograph, the acoustics of sound had never been considered a part of science. Scientists of all kinds struggled to understand sound from the perspective of harmonics, pitch, and vibration. Yet, the phonograph was invented entirely of pre-existing machinery, and bestowed the ability to transfer sound, something that was previously impossible.
Despite the value of its premise, the sound produced by the phonograph was not clear enough to articulate specific words, let alone transfer the sounds of one or more instruments. It did however, attract Alexander Graham Bell’s attention, who improved the invention by adding a vital component: an electric motor that would turn the motor at a constant speed. He titled the new and improved invention, the graphophone.
Emile Berliner filed his first patent for the Gramophone, a device that used vulcanized rubber discs to insulate the electricity that the machine required.
Next up in the line of evolution was the jukebox, created by Louis Glass in 1889. That invention drove music into the business of sound sharing and generating profits.
Early Electronic Instruments:
In 1902, Thaddeus Cahill created the Telharmonium, which electro-magentically synthesized and distributed music across telephone lines.
Leon Theramin, a Russian scientist and KGB spy, invented the Theramin in 1919, while working to create a device that measured the density of various gasses. The Theramin is played by moving one’s hands through two electro-magentic fields surrounding two antenna.
By 1936 Gibson was producing electric guitars for sale to the general public. The RCA Mark II synthesizer was the first programmable, voltage-controlled synthesizer, created in 1959 in a Columbia-Princeton studio.
Impact of Electricity:
Specific inventions aside, a world without electricity would render our music devices useless, of course.
From a consumer standpoint, the inability to charge a phone, mp3 player, or plug in a speaker makes these devices moot. Furthermore, without electricity there would be no power for electric instruments, recording studios, or the amplifiers used at concerts.
EDM would cease to exist, and most modern genres for that matter. Can you recall any piece of music that does not incorporate an electric instrument or sound? Unless you are capable of playing acoustic instruments, you wouldn’t be able to even listen to the aforementioned musical piece.
Electricity has made the production and playback of music accessible to anyone with electricity, and technology which is widely commercially marketed.
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