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Despite Technology, The Song Remains the Same

Music collectors and fans today have more options for collecting and storing music than ever before. Digital downloading makes it possible to buy music online, sync that music to a number of devices and share music with anyone that has a computer or digital player. The sound quality never declines and making changes to song selections is as easy as drag-and-drop. But it has been a long journey getting to this point.

The recording industry was born in 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the mechanical phonograph cylinder, the first device that could record and play back arbitrary sounds such as musical instruments and the human voice. By the beginning of the 1900s, these players and the recordings made for them were selling millions around the world. The phonograph cylinder was the primary mode of distributing musical performances until around 1910.

musicThe first change in format occurred when the gramophone disc overtook sales of the popular cylinders. The gramophone disc made its commercial debut in the United States in 1889, but it took two more decades to become the preferred format despite the higher quality and ease of use. These were 78 rpm shellac discs that featured music on both sides. Collections of songs by an artist were put together in books of several discs. It was this way of compiling music that gave rise to the term “record album.” see

Over the years, other formats were introduced and became popular. 8-track cartridges made it possible to listen to music in cars and on portable players. Eventually these were replaced by audio cassettes. By the late 1950s, vinyl records had replaced their shellac counterparts and these remained the primary source of recorded music until the mid-1980s when the compact disc ushered in the digital age.

While advances in reproduction had improved sound quality over the decades, nothing before could match the jump in quality brought about by these digitally mastered discs. Music producers were now able to get their music into the hands of fans essentially sounding exactly as it had on the mixing board. Once digital music became the norm for sound quality, it was time to find a better way to distribute it.

By the mid-1990s, MP3 files were gaining popularity. These files could be transferred from one computer to another and burned onto compact discs. By the end of the century, portable MP3 players began to appear. Despite some resistance from the music industry due to copyright concerns, the future of recorded music seemed clear. Physical formats of music began to decline as digital transfer grew.

The advantages for music fans were obvious. Compilations of songs could be made without any loss of quality. These compilations could be stored on permanent media such as compact discs or on temporary devices like iPods. The songs loaded onto temporary devices could be changed at any time. It had never been easier to have your music collection at your fingertips.

While the rise of digital files for music storage changed many things, some things remained the same. Music is still delivered by some sort of electrical device though portable 8-track players may seem primitive compared to today’s digital players.

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