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Recording music and sound
Recording music and sound

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2.1 The pre-recording era

The first sound recording of a human voice, of the nursery rhyme ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’, was made over 150 years ago. Within 25 years sound recording had become a global industry.

Before sound recording was possible, few people had the opportunity to hear music in the way we take for granted today. Apart from expensive musical boxes and mechanical music players, the only way music could be heard was in live performances. Take a moment to think how your life would be without being able to listen to music through a sound system, via the web, or in public places. How often would you listen to music if you could hear it only by attending performances or making it yourself? No two answers to this question will be the same, because each person’s experience would depend on where they lived, the kind of repertoire they might seek out and the resources at their disposal to travel, or to gain entrance to live events. The following activity pursues some of these ideas

Activity 1

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Think of how people listened to music before the advent of sound recording. Try to put yourself in their place and make a list of the various ways in which you might hear music. Is there a common thread that you can discover about the experience?


You might have thought of the following:

  • places of religious worship (singing hymns, listening to the organ, etc.)
  • at school (nursery rhymes, group songs and dance)
  • in the home (listening to a singer, or instrument, perhaps accompanied by the piano)
  • live organised musical events (listening to the band in a local park, going to the music hall, a classical concert or a musical theatre performance, for example)
  • dancing (to music from local bands).

Of course, the sort of music to which people listened depended on their resources and social class, as well as where they lived, but a common thread that runs through the list above is that on many occasions music was created by people meeting together – at church, school or the local public house for example. Almost all of the music was live, with just the possibility of hearing a mechanical instrument such as a barrel organ. Of course, music was not necessarily heard only on occasions when several people met together – nursery rhymes, humming, or whistling generally have an audience of just one or two.

The evidence of historical listening accounts suggests that listeners in pre-recording eras heard a much less eclectic mixture of styles than we do today. We hear music in a great variety of places – for example, in shops, restaurants, bars, on television, in the car, at home, at concerts, etc. – so we are likely to be familiar with the sound of a range of, for example, popular music as well as orchestras, singing groups and musical styles from other cultures. Earlier listeners were much more constrained in the variety of music to which they were able to listen and what is interesting in some of their accounts is the impact of listening to unfamiliar styles. The nineteenth-century character Samuel Midgley illustrates the point. He was born in 1860, the son of a miner and shop-keeper, and had little experience of large-scale orchestral and choral sound, describing in his memoirs the rarity and wonder of hearing such a performance:

I had not been able to attend good concerts. Money was scarce, and more than once I had looked with longing eyes at the outside of [Bradford’s] St. George’s Hall when big concerts were in progress.

One memorable evening, when the temptation was immensely strong, I quietly stole up the steps of the South gallery and listened outside the door to the glorious music.

(Midgley, 1934, p. 16)

If you are interested in listening to other accounts of early listeners you can do so at The Listening Experience Database [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .