The Roots of Audio Recordings Turn at 78 RPM

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Technology and Art

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Our series on how technology affects art continues with a report on how those old 78 RPM records set the stage for music today's recordings.


When the compact disc was being developed nearly 30 years ago, legend has it that conductor Herbert von Karajan requested that Beethoven's entire 9th Symphony be able to fit on a single small disc. The conductor got his way. CDs can hold at least 74 minutes of music.

In the very earliest days of recording, much less music got on a disc. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg continues her series about the link between art and technology with notes on what the old 78-RPM records did to the music of their day and ours.

SUSAN STAMBERG: In 1974, Billy Joel sang out a musical frustration.

(Soundbite of song, “The Entertainer”)

Mr. BILLY JOEL (Musician): (Singing) It was a beautiful song but it ran too long. If you're gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 305…

STAMBERG: They cut it for play on commercial radio. The three-minute pop song first found a home on radio in the 1900s thanks to a brand new technology, 10-inch phonograph records. You played them on a turntable that went round and round at 78 revolutions per minute. The record could only hold three to four minutes of sound.

Even though Billy Joel recorded on a long-playing record in 1974, the three-minute song created for the old 78s became so ingrained that today's performers still sing short even when they don't have to.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: The world of classical music was also affected in the days of the three-minute discs. Composers often had to cut their works to fit 78-RPM recordings. University of North Carolina Music Professor Mark Katz says Sir Edward Elgar put the scissors to his 50-minute violin concerto.

Professor EDWARD KATZ (Music, University of North Carolina): When he recorded it, he cut out so much music that it only lasted about 20 minutes. And that was his own piece.

STAMBERG: And those slashed 20 minutes were recorded on several separate discs. There were 12-inch records too that held a bit more music, usually classical. Still, you had to keep getting up to change the record to hear the entire work. In his book, “Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music,” Mark Katz says to avoid slashing, some classical composers wrote to measure, even the great Igor Stravinsky.

Prof. KATZ: He was asked by a record company to write a piece, and he decided to write a four-movement piece for a piano, which he called “Serenade in A,” and he decided to write it so that each movement lasted exactly the length of a 10-inch 78-RPM record.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: Jazz musicians may have made the most adjustments once music could be recorded. Performing live, they played as long as they pleased, took solo after solo. But in the studio, their solos had to be shorter and the improvisations got, well, less improvised.

Prof. KATZ: Louis Armstrong, we find that he actually wrote down “Cornet Chop Suey” two years before he recorded it. And the written version looks a lot like the recorded version, and I'm sure that he did that because he needed to have it carefully fixed for the recording studio.

(Soundbite of song “Cornet Chop Suey”)

STAMBERG: Before 78s, recording was done on wax cylinders. Then, in the late 1800s, a chap named Emil Berliner flattened the cylinder into a big, heavy disc. In fact, the first platters were called Berliners. Imagine John F. Kennedy in Germany saying Ich bin ein platter?

(Soundbite of static)

STAMBERG: The flat 78 platters were easy to store but very scratchable - scratchy and breakable because the 78s were made of…


STAMBERG: Thank you very much. The definitive word from NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. What is shellac?

HARRIS: Shellac is actually the excretion of a beetle that lives in Southeast Asia, and they used to scrape it off the tree trunks. And of course for beautiful furniture finishes, you know, these lacquer finishes that you see, but also for other handy purposes like making records.

STAMBERG: Can you imagine who the first person was who thought, gee, let's take this beetle excretion and see if we can play some music with it?

HARRIS: A natural plastic, it really is.

STAMBERG: Oh gosh. Well, why is it so good for recording?

HARRIS: It's great for recording because it's malleable. And what you need to do to make a record is you need to stamp on the negative of your song, essentially, and you stamp it on. And then you want the stuff to be able to solidify and then hold its own.

STAMBERG: And that stamp you're making puts grooves into that platter, and then you found with an arm with a needle on the end, put the needle down to the groove. Poof, magic, music.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of song “I Get A Kick Out of You”)

Ms. ETHEL MERMAN (Singer): (Singing) I get no kick from champagne…

STAMBERG: In the wonderful world of popular music, early 78 recordings let you enjoy in the comfort of your own home music you otherwise would've had to go out to hear in clubs or theatres. Smithsonian curator Dwight Bowers tells how singer Ethel Merman obeyed the three-minute rule.

Mr. DWIGHT BOWERS (Curator, Smithsonian Institute): The Brunswick house band played an orchestration somewhat like what you heard in the theatre, but it would speed up a little bit so she could get the whole song on the 78.

STAMBERG: The brittle little 78s filled homes with music for decades. People stopped standing around the piano singing from sheet music. Instead, they listened to recordings. Dwight Bowers thinks that had all sorts of sociological implications.

Mr. BOWERS: Music became a passive experience. Your experience becomes one of the listener, not a participant. And there was a very strong contingent that felt it cut into how society performed music, understood music, appreciated music.

STAMBERG: Well, the listening continued and moved to new recording forms. I remember the day in the early 1950s when my father came home with a big red platter, said here's a new record, held it out to me, and then deliberately dropped it. I gasped. But it didn't shatter into a million pieces, and that's how I learned about vinyl records. Longer playing but still filled with three-minute songs. Why? Because that 78-RPM memory lingered on.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, Susan ends her series on art and available technology with notes on what candles did to opera.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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