Listen To This: How Recordings Changed Music


Today we’ll be continuing our walk through Alex Ross’s book, “Listen To This“, with a look at the third chapter titled, “Infernal Machines: How Recordings Changed Music”.

Even though we’ve only covered the first two chapters so far, both have proved to be full of valuable information and insights into music and music history. In the first chapter, Ross laid out his relationship to both classical and pop in a personal essay, including as he did, a sweeping overview of music history. Last week, we let Ross walk us through several bass patterns that have persisted over the generations, shaping every genre of music on their way.

As we continue to explore Ross’s insights, we’ll be doing so while keeping two connecting threads in the back of our minds. One, that successful musicians and composers throughout history have succeeded by making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. Ross mentions this in the prologue as a common feature among some of the most famous and successful artists in history.

The second thing to keep in mind is the language Ross uses throughout the book, and his approach to writing about music. As an accomplished music critic of “The New Yorker”, anyone interested in one day writing about music could benefit by a lesson or two by Ross.

Granted, we might not see these threads in every discussion, but they’re good to keep in mind, nonetheless.

How Recordings Changed Music

In the beginning of this chapter, Ross lays out the main concerns that have plagued technological advancements in recordings since there were recordings to be concerned about. One of them, was that with a wealth of recordings available to entertain, people would stop making music altogether, or begin reproducing old copies instead of creating something new.

Ross takes us back to Thomas Edison to follow the arc of technology’s effects on music. “Ever since Edison invented the phonograph cylinder, in 1877, people have been assessing what the medium of recording has done for and to the art of music” (p. 56). While Edison didn’t have music recordings in mind, his invention spurned the advancement of recording to where we are today.

Since Edison’s breakthrough, changes in recording technology continued to alter the environment of the music industry. And with change, there will always be a backlash. “Each subsequent leap in audio technology — microphones, magnetic tape, long-playing records, stereo sound, transistors, digital sound, the compact disc, and the MP3 — has elicited the same kind of over-the-top reaction” (p. 58). We’ll talk about a few of those now.

Magnetic Tape

Magnetic tape recordings for the first time allowed musicians to splice and edit their sounds to unlock a new level of creativity. The Beatles were one of the firsts to fully take advantage of this, albeit with some concerns from the music community. “Were the Beatles pushing the art forward by reinventing it in the studio? Or were they losing touch with the rugged intelligence of folk, blues, and rock traditions?” (p. 59).

Digital Recording

“The advent of digital recording was, for many skeptics, the ultimate outrage” (p. 59).

With audio files deconstructed into 1’s and 0’s, traditionalists felt it as a metaphor for the human spirit, and possibly a loss of “authenticity”. But digital recording also opened the door for anyone to create music.”Later, studio-bound DJs and producers used digital sampling to assemble some of the most densely packed sonic assemblages in musical history” (p. 60).

The advent internet brought total connectivity, which allowed new artists to bypass the corporate world altogether. While some might criticize it for allowing the less skilled to gain success, the democracy of the internet gets the last word.

Final Thoughts

Despite the concerns and criticisms over the years, there’s no evidence that suggests a need to worry that people will ever stop creating music. On the contrary, there might be more aspiring musicians now than there had been at any other point in history. Ross sums it up quite well toward the end of this chapter.

“Music education is in tatters, but the impulse to make music with the voice, with an instrument, or on a computer remains”(p. 67).

That about wraps up our discussion of this chapter, and with it, Ross’s section on music history. From here on out, we’ll be looking at individual artists and composers who changed the musical environment with their work. Since Ross is a classical buff, we’ll begin this new section next week by looking at the work of Mozart.


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