Nowadays, it represents a commonplace practice to discuss the significance of music in conjunction with how the aesthetic medium in question affected the course of humanity’s historical progress. Such an analytical approach does appear to make much sense. After all, there can be only a few doubts that the evolution of musical genres, as we know it, was in part made possible by different breakthroughs in the field of empirical science that continued to take place throughout history. In its turn, the continually advancing forms of musical expression never ceased having a strongly contributive effect on the pace of the ongoing cultural and technological progress, as a whole. Therefore, while hypothesizing about the yet-to-be-invented means of music reproduction, one must take into account the dialectical (cause-effect) nature of the relationship between the notions of ‘music’, ‘technology’, and ‘society’ (Wan-Chi, 2006). In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length while promoting the idea that it is indeed possible to predict what will account for the qualitative specifics of the audio format in the future, outlining some of them, and expounding on the discursive significance of the paper’s analytical insights.
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The initially invented sound-reproduction format is now being referred to as analog. It presupposes the necessity of a physical medium (such as the phonograph cylinder) for recording, storing, and reproducing sounds. The format’s roots can be traced back to the 16th century, which marked the invention of a barrel organ. However, barrel organs could not record music and it was not up to 1877 that the recording of sound waves became possible. On August 12 of this year, “Thomas Edison shouted ‘Mary had a little lamb’ at a cylinder wrapped in tin foil, cranked the machine up again, and heard a reproduction of his voice” (Knowles, 2003, p. 1) – hence, proving the workability of the world’s first phonograph. The invention’s main elements included a hand-winded cylinder (wrapped in tinfoil) and a detachable needle (connected to a sound membrane) in the immediate proximity to it. While reacting to the incoming sounds (amplified by the membrane), the needle would move up and down – hence, producing groves of varying depth on the cylinder. The reproduction of the recorded sound was achieved by allowing the needle to slide through these groves, with its vibrations being transformed into the sound waves by the membrane and amplified into the audible sounds while through the attached tube.
It must be noted that Edison never fully realized what would account for the discursive significance of his invention while preferring to think of it in terms of a curiosity (Butler, 2012). However, it did not take too long for the sound-recording/reproducing technology to begin accounting for a cultural phenomenon of its own. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated regarding the societal implications of the sub-sequential milestones on the way of the analog standard’s continual development. In this respect, we can mention the invention of gramophone (shellac) discs by Emile Berliner in 1889 – the development that made possible the consequential rise of the sound recording industry. The reason for this had to do with the fact that, as compared to what it used to be the case with Edison’s cylinders, Berliner’s discs were much more durable and could store up to three times of the recorded audio data. Moreover, discs also outperformed cylinders in terms of laudability/sound quality.
The year 1948 marked the invention of vinyl discs. As compared to the shellac ones, they were non-brittle. Being designed to rotate at the rate of 33 turns per minute (much slower than that of shellac discs), vinyl discs could ‘last’ reproducing music for as long as 30 minutes. The reduced self-cost of producing these discs was another factor that contributed rather substantially towards initiating the so-called ‘vinyl era’ in the domain of music reproduction through the 20th century’s sixties, seventies, and eighties. During the historical period in question, vinyl records attained the status of an important household commodity. It is understood, of course, that by then the descendants of Edison’s original phonograph (gramophones and pathephones) were all electrically operated.
Another major step on the way of the analog sound recording technology’s development had to do with the invention of ‘magnetic recording’ during the 1930s and the sub-sequential popularization of tape recorders (or magneto phones). In a tape recorder, sound waves are transformed into the electromagnetic ones and then recorded onto the magnetic tape (by the mean of polarization) that moves across a tape head. The reproduction of recorded sounds/music is achieved by converting information on the magnetic tape back into sound waves and amplifying them accordingly. The Germans pioneered the technology, “The German magneto phone developed by Telefunken and BASF used plastic tape coated with iron oxide, which could be magnetized by amplified electrical impulses to encode a signal on the material. Playback simply reversed the process” (Garofalo, 1999, p. 333). Even though the concerned sound recording/reproducing technology became available as early as before the outbreak of WW2, it was not up until the 1960s that tape recorders proved the sheer out-datedness of vinyl discs as the physical mediums for storing music.
Through the 20th century’s closing decades, the pace of the ongoing progress in the field of IT attained an exponential momentum – something that predetermined the rise of computer technology and the eventual emergence of the ‘digital’ sound format. The latter development can be traced back to 1979 – the year when Sony and Phillips introduced the world’s first optical (later renamed ‘compact’) disc – CD. Prior to being recorded on such discs, the sound data must be digitalized (as the sequence of ones and zeroes). The recording process is concerned with the laser leaving ‘burnt’ and ‘blank’ marks (‘burning’) onto the spinning CD. They are later to be deciphered into the electromagnetic data (by another laser) and eventually turned audible. The most obvious advantage of the ‘digital’ format is that it guarantees the supreme quality of reproduced music and allows it to be replicated with ease in an essentially cost-free manner.
As time went on, there were more and more standards emerging within the digital audio format, such as WAV, FLAC, and Mp3, with the latter having proved the most versatile of all. This development has led to the creation of numerous web-based platforms for sharing music (such as Napster) over the Internet, which operated in a striking contradiction the conventional provisions of the copyright law. As Carey and Wall (2001) pointed out, “A program called a CD Ripper ‘rips’ or encodes a music CD and converts it into an Mp3… The legality of the action is challenged when Mp3 files are uploaded to the internet and the copyrighted piece of work is offered for public consumption, without the copyright holder’s permission” (p. 35). The development’s yet another consequence was the introduction of portable devices for playing digital music, which is now being commonly referred to as ‘Mp3 players’.
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As of today, the digital format of recording/reproducing music has completely phased out the conventional (analog) ones. Moreover, it continues to be perfected as we speak. The validity of this suggestion can be exampled regarding the comparatively recent introduction of the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) standard for recording and storing the digitalized audio and video data, which provides ten times higher of a compression rate, as compared to that of CDs. The compression methods are being continually improved as well – something best illustrated for the 1994 presentation of the VQF audio standard. Its main advantage is that while requiring 35% less storage space on the hard drive, it provides a substantially increased quality of the reproduced audio data. For example, in terms of sound quality, the 80kbps VQF audio file can be compared to the 128kbps Mp3 file.
Another current trend in the domain of music reproduction has to do with the rapidly expanding share of digital music stored on the web in one way or another and the fact that, as time goes on, more and more people prefer to stream audio files of the Internet, as opposed to downloading them. What contributes to this trend even further is that there are now several web-based multitrack recording applications (such as Mixcraft) available for musically minded individuals to use – often free of any charge, whatsoever (Anderton, 2008). Because of these applications, just about anyone is now in the position to create the professionally sounding compositions of its own, even without knowing how to play musical instruments or read notes.
As it was pointed out in the Introduction, it is important to discuss the adoption of different audio formats throughout history in conjunction with what is used to account for the affecting socio-cultural circumstances of relevance in each case. The earlier provided historical excurse is perfectly illustrative in this respect. What this means is that, before proceeding to predict the future of the audio format, we must first outline what will account for the qualitative specifics of the socio-economic situation in the West through the decades to come. After all, there can be only a few doubts that this situation will have a strong effect on people’s predisposition towards music, in general, and various audio formats, in particular. We will also need to take into account that the digital format is likely to enjoy a complete dominance in the domain of music reproduction for at least another century. The rationale behind this suggestion is concerned with the scientists’ estimate of how long it may take to develop the first workable quantum-computer – the ‘gadget’ that will enable the sub-sequential invention of many new previously unheard-of audio formats.
The most easily identifiable of the mentioned would-be specifics is concerned with the fact that while trying to adjust their actions to be consistent with the ideological provisions of economic Liberalism, people in the West are encouraged to yield to their consumerist instincts (Gray, 2016). Therefore, it will be appropriate to expect the continual ‘commodification’ of music in the future. This term stands for the process of more and more individuals beginning to regard music as a thoroughly tangible commercial product while expecting it to match their consumerist specifications with exactness. In its turn, this establishes a discursive ground for the currently adopted audio formats to grow increasingly advanced, in the technological sense of this word and allows us to come up with the first prediction, concerning the ‘shape of things to come’ in the domain of music reproduction.
In the near future, the available digital audio standards will serve the purpose of recording and reproducing the so-called ‘audio scenes’, consisting of “sounding objects that are associated with input (source) signals, a certain position or trajectory in the virtual space and other source parameters” (Geier, Spors, & Weinzierl, 2010, p. 9). The main implication of the predicted development is that it should enable listeners (at least theoretically) to modify music as they are being exposed to it. Consequently, this will add yet another qualitative dimension to the aesthetic experience in question. As Morrison (2009) aptly observed, “Multichannel digital recording… is ﬁnally making it possible to fulﬁll the dream of early recordists of placing the listener in the virtual presence of the performers” (p. 82). As of today, the ‘multichannel’ audio format for digital music continues to be developed and there is a good chance for it to become available in a few years from now.
The eventual introduction of the ‘multichannel’ audio format should also result in bringing about the emergence of many new music genres, such as the one that may end up being referred to as ‘dynamic music’ in the future. To understand better the subtleties of this futuristic music genre, one will need to get familiar with some of the recently released 3D video games that feature the so-called ‘self-generative’ musical accompaniment, such as the 2013 Proteus. At first glance, Proteus may not appear particularly enticing, “The game literally consists of strolling and observing the cycles and the rhythms of nature in an idyllic landscape” (Harron, 2014, p. 19). However, it usually does not take too long for players to end up being enchanted by this game. The main reason for this is that as the player explores the game’s 3D landscape, he or she simultaneously (and effortlessly) creates some uniquely sounding musical compositions, reflective of the person’s movements within the digital realm of Proteus.
The popularity of yet another recently released game Pokémon Go implies that it is indeed only a matter of time, before one’s experience of listening to music on a portable device attains the quality of spatial integrity and ceases to be perceived as an utterly passive activity – the direct consequence of the would-be introduced ‘multichannel’ music reproduction format. As Lacey (2013) argued, “In the digital age, there is a sense in which the act of listening is rendered increasingly obscure. The new (multichannel) ‘activity’ of the listener in personalizing and intervening in the ‘production’ (of music)”… most commonly conceptualized as actions in response to, or in advance of, the act of listening” (p. 19). Such a development would correlate rather well with the listeners’ seemingly phenomenological but essentially consumerist desire to personalize music.
The foretold advent of the ‘sound scene’ audio formats is likely to be followed by the invention of different biotechnical means for storing/reproducing digital music. One of the possible scenarios in respect will be concerned with making it possible for people to have a microchip with the digital audio data on it implanted under their skin. The electromagnetic signal would travel wirelessly from this device into the miniature headphones, implanted into the person’s ears. The discursive soundness of this particular prediction can be substantiated regarding the recent technological breakthroughs in the field of hi-tech miniaturization (Bahney, 2006). However, this would-be occurrence is best discussed as having been predetermined by the earlier mentioned ‘commodification’ of music in the West. The rationale behind this suggestion has to do with the fact that the contemporary realities of one’s ‘post-industrial’ urban living often prove utterly stressful – something that naturally prompts urban dwellers to refer to the listening of music when it comes to coping with stress, on these people’s part. What is crucially important in this regard, is ensuring that the concerned individuals are in the position to access their favorite tunes instantaneously – by allowing ‘audio implants’ to be inserted in his or her body, one will be able to reach this objective with ease.
I believe that the earlier articulated predictions, regarding the possible future of the audio format, are fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, it does make much sense expounding on this issue in a manner that takes into account the affiliated societal factors of relevance – just as it was hypothesized initially in the Introduction. This once again highlights the applicability of the cause-effect type of reasoning, within the context of defining the significance of a particular technology-related subject matter. Moreover, in light of what has been said in the paper’s analytical part, the mentioned ‘commodification’ of music appears to have been predetermined by the law of historical dialectics, which works to substantiate even further the validity of the paper’s predictions with respect to the development of audio format in the future.
Anderton, C. (2008). Acoustica Mixcraft 4: Multitrack audio recorder and sequencer (PC). Keyboard, 34(2), 56-66.
In this article, the author outlines the main features of the multitrack recording application Mixcraft 4, which allows the creation of the professionally sounding music tracks by both professionals and amateurs. The article contains many analytical insights, concerning the future of music as an aesthetic medium. This makes Anderton’s article discursively relevant.
In his article, Bahney discusses the practical implications of the fact that it is now possible to implant different hi-tech devices into one’s body. As such, this particular article does help to substantiate the validity of one of the provided predictions as to what will account for the next step in the way of ensuring the ultimate user-friendliness of the audio storage/reproduction technologies in the future.
Butler, R. (2012). Thomas Edison speculates on the uses of the phonograph. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 56(4), 8-10.
The author of this article aimed to enlighten readers about the fact that the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison was essentially accidental. According to Butler, it never occurred to the inventor that his sound-recording apparatus had a number of different practical uses, besides the ones that Edison was able to envision initially (such as using the phonograph to record the last words of people on their deathbeds). The provided reference to this article helps to emphasize the paper’s overall phenomenological ethos.
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Carey, M., & Wall, D. (2001). MP3: The beat bytes back. International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, 15(1), 35-58.
In their article, Carey and Wall outline the scope of different legal issues, brought about by the introduction of the Mp3 audio format. According to the authors, the sheer innovativeness of the concerned format created the objective preconditions for the conventional provisions of the copyright law to be deemed hopelessly outdated. Given the paper’s topic, there can be only a few doubts that the article by Carey and Wall does directly relate to it.
Garofalo, R. (1999). From music publishing to MP3: Music and industry in the twentieth century. American Music, 17(3), 318-353.
Garofalo’s article contains many in-depth insights into the history of both analogue and digital music-recording/reproducing methods. As such, this article came in particularly handy within the context of how I proceeded to work on the ‘Historical excurse’ part of the paper. The provided direct quotation from Garofalo’s article specifies what used to be the main technological principles behind the production of magnetic tape (used in tape recorders) in Germany during the 20th century’s forties.
In their article, Geier, Spors, and Weinzierl strived to outline some of the major driving forces behind the ongoing progress in the field of audio recording/storing. The authors must be given credit for having succeeded in such their undertaking. The reading of this article proved extremely helpful through the research’s data-collecting phase.
Gray, J. (2016). The closing of the liberal mind. New Statesman, 145, 24-29.
In this article, the author discusses the main conceptual deficiencies of the Liberal (and Neoliberal) paradigm in political economy while promoting the idea that the former cannot possibly be considered a scientifically sound ideology – all due to the ideology advocates’ refusal to recognize the systemic implications of just about every society’s functioning. The reading of Gray’s article proved indispensable when I was in the process of formulating the paper’s thesis statement.
Harron, N. (2014). Fully destructible. Alternatives Journal, 40(3), 16-23.
In his article, Harron expounds on some of the most noteworthy virtual reality features of the 2013 3D video game Proteus. In particular, the author focuses on the role of audio in the game, as the integral element of the gaming experience provided by Proteus. The reading of Harron’s article proved complimentary to the research. The reason for this is that Fully destructible does contain a number of discursively relevant suggestions as to what kind of audio format will dominate the global ‘sound scene’ in the future.
Knowles, S. (2003). Death by gramophone. Journal of Modern Literature, 27(1), 1-13.
This article enlightens readers on what used to be the particulars of the socio-cultural climate in the US and Europe through the late 19th and early 20th century – the historical period associated with the invention of sound recording. The article enables readers to attain a better understanding of the historical significance of Edison’s invention. As such, Knowles’ article does directly relate to the ‘Historical excurse’ part of the paper.
Lacey, K. (2013). Listening in the digital age. In J. Loviglio (Ed.), Radio’s new wave: Global sound in the digital era (pp. 9-21). New York, NY: Routledge.
In her article, Lacey advocates the idea that, as opposed to what it used to be the case before the advent of the Internet, the activity of listening to music has now attained the subtleties of a solitary pursuit. In its turn, this adds an additional momentum to the process of more and more people in the West deciding to adopt a socially withdrawn lifestyle. Lacey’s article contains quite a few argumentative claims that resonate with the paper’s thesis.
Morrison, J. (2009). Acoustic, visual, and aural space: The quest for virtuality in music production. Explorations in Media Ecology, 8(2), 81-98.
In his article, Morrison argues that the social significance of just about every audio recording technology should be assessed within the methodological framework of what used to account for the dominant socio-cultural discourse at the time when this technology came into being. I did benefit from reading this article; as such that tackles the concerned subject matter from the psychological perspective.
Wan-Chi, W. (2006). Understanding dialectical thinking from a cultural-historical perspective. Philosophical Psychology, 19(2), 239-260.
This article is concerned with outlining the main principles of dialectical (cause-effect) reasoning. According to the author, one’s emotional comfortableness with this type of reasoning is the crucial prerequisite for the would-be undertaken research to prove productive. I drew from this article rather extensively while coming up with the requested predictions, regarding the future of audio format.