Recordings And Records
By Larry Whitler, Jan 4 2017 09:01PM
Before continuing our discussion and showcasing another songwriter I wanted to say a few things about recordings and records.
You probably play most of your music digitally. Maybe it plays from your phone or from your computer. Some of you may use compact discs and others may even play vinyl records or even recording tape (cassettes or reel-to-reel).
The music that is captured on our various forms of recording mediums is remarkably reproduced so that the modern listener can easily distinguish between the sound of a guitar, or a flute, or the voice of a well known singer. But before there was the technology to record audio, all music was captured with pen and paper. The only way to distinguish that a piece of music was intended for a trumpet or a violin was if that information was written on the paper. The only way to know what the singer would sing was by reading the lyric.
This book is about songwriting more than it is about singers and musicians but, for now, let’s look at the recording.
What is a record? If you ask any music aficionado the answer will probably be something like, “a vinyl disc with sound recorded onto it.” But if you ask the Clerk of The Court she might say, “It is a file containing someone’s information.”
In other words, a “record” could be a document. A piece of paper.
As was already mentioned, and as I'm sure you already knew, music, and songs, were originally recorded on paper.
Much of what we refer to as “ancient texts,” for example in the Bible, seem to read like song lyrics. The entire book of Psalms reads like poetry. The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is even called a “song.”
My guess is that these texts were sung and not just recited. Or maybe if we could travel back in time and listen to our ancient ancestors we would hear these biblical texts being chanted. Chanted is an interesting word as it resembles ‘chante’ which is French for ‘sing.’ In English we often use the word chant to describe a relatively monotone delivery of a verse with very little notation variation.
I suppose we don’t have much information regarding whether the folks in biblical times actually had a way of writing music but evidence suggests that ancient civilizations all over the globe had musical instruments. That, itself, leads me to believe, or at least speculate, that there was SOME form of writing down the music that was created, performed instrumentally, and sung. The earliest sheet music I could find on the internet after doing a quick search revealed a piece of music dating back to 1470.
Old coins found by archaeologists depict imagery of harps and the Bible references horns, lyres, pipes, and other instruments. In the Americas the indigenous people clearly had drums.
So if there was a way of writing music onto paper then there were rules about how to decipher that music so that musicians, besides the composer, would be able to play it. We call those sets of rules “music theory” today. I have always been amused that the rules of playing written music are called music “theory.” The word “theory” almost makes it seem like it is an unsettled science.
Whether you are looking at written music from 1470 or sheet music from Taylor Swift’s latest song you are not truly looking at music. What you are looking at is a RECORDING of that music. Music is a sound perceived by the ear. The notes and notations on sheet music are simply a representation of those sounds which exists for the sole purpose of enabling a musician or singer to perform, or re-create, that music.
Jump ahead in time from biblical times to somewhere in the 1400s. That piece of music I found online from 1470 may have very well been written for someone who played the harpsichord. The harpsichord, which looks very similar to the piano and has an identical keyboard to the piano, predates the piano by about 300 years.
Here are two facts about the harpsichord that help understand its use: Fact number one: It is polyphonic (meaning you can play multiple notes all at once). Fact number two: It is too heavy to carry so it was simply not practical to be used in military marches.
It was probably also very expensive and would have been in castles, royal dwellings, cathedrals and churches. Also, the harpsichord musicians were probably rare and treated as valued members of a kingdom or the clergy.
The subtle difference between the harpsichord and the piano is in the way the keys activate the device that interacts with the strings inside of the instrument. On a harpsichord the device, activated by pressing on a key, plucks the strings while on a piano the felt hammers strike the strings. Plucked versus struck. A subtle difference. Two examples of ingenious design and engineering. And, while very similar, also very different.
Have you ever known anyone who just purchased a very expensive home entertainment system? Maybe it was even you. They like to brag about their stuff. Or, maybe another way to say this is to say that the proud owner of the latest and greatest in audio entertainment systems gets a lot of satisfaction by demonstrating, for his or her guests, all of the cool things it can do.
The same was true with the royalty of yesteryear. The difference between then and now is that, back then, that brand new harpsichord or piano required someone to play it and someone to write for it. So the composers in demand were those who could write and perform mind boggling works of musical art. No king or high priest would own a harpsichord just for it's aesthetic value as a piece of furniture. It was simply not complete without a musician and composer sitting on the bench playing the thing.
I’m sure the kings and priests looked long and hard throughout their kingdoms to find the likes of Giacomo Antonio Perti, Nicolas Siret, Johann Christoph Pepusch, and, Johann Nicolaus Bach to go along with their harpsichords.
So while today you might brag about owning an Apple, or a Jensen, or a SONY, when the "owners" of the instruments in the 1400s were showing off their possessions to their friends they very well may have pointed to the man at the keyboard and bragged, "I own a Bach."
It is probably fair to say that the classical composer movement of the 17th and 18th centuries set the stage for the music that was to follow. Even some of today’s popular songs have extracted segments of classical works and utilized those writings into the modern incarnations you may be familiar with. Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” for example, contains that famous intro adaptation of Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe’ (‘I Stand With One Foot In The Grave’). In newer music you might recognize ‘Csárdás’ by Vittorio Monti in Lady Gaga’s intro in her single 'Alejandro.'
Needless to say, the earlier versions of ALL of these classical examples existed ONLY in written form. The only records, until the invention of the phonograph in 1877, were PAPER records. Not vinyl, not digital, not audio tape. Just paper. Just SHEET MUSIC.
Also needless to say is that the playing of these complex compositions required musicians, mostly harpsichord and piano players, who were highly skilled performers.
Nearly all the parts required the skills of amazingly dedicated musicians and performers. The performers of the works of the classical composers for over two centuries had to be top notch or else they would be out of the royal orchestra and back into the fields harvesting crops by hand. Even the compositions with vocal parts required singers with incredible range and stamina.
Music was, like a lot of stuff in those days, something only the rich had access to.
And again, just to stay on track, records were sheet music. Just remember that for now. RECORDS WERE SHEET MUSIC.
Now, jump ahead to early America. The 1800s. Think of life for those early Americans.
The folk songs that immigrants brought with them from Europe and Africa remained with the immigrants and they longed to hear them and sing them when they arrived in America. They longed for anything that kept them in touch with their European and African roots.
As in all cultures there are the rich and there are the poor. In early America the rich folks could afford to buy pianos. The poor folks made their own guitars and violins. The songs they played were mostly from their heritages. German immigrants played German songs, English immigrants played English songs, Irish immigrants played Irish songs, etc.
Entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to make money by selling sheet music of the songs that were the most popular and suddenly the world of music publishing was born. With the availability of sheet music the musical traditions of the early settlers could be passed along to future generations and an important part of their heritage could be preserved.
While you buy your favorite music today as an mp3 downloaded from I-tunes, for example, your counterpart in the 1800s would purchase sheet music and play the song on a musical instrument, usually a guitar or a piano, and then accompany it with singing. It was a hugely important part of life in a time when there was no electricity.
It was the ONLY way that there was any music in the home. Imagine that?
Music publishers would seek out songwriters to give them new products to sell. It was a simple transaction. A publisher would scout for a new song to sell, pay the songwriter for the song, and then reproduce the words and music as sheet music and sell it to as many people as he could interest in it.
Since there was no radio, in order to sell the songs, the publishers would have piano players placed in busy metropolitan areas. The businessmen would pass the piano player and, upon hearing the song, if he liked it he would buy a copy of it and then bring it home for his wife to learn to play on the family piano. The poorer musicians probably never had enough money for brand new sheet music so they most likely learned their new songs by simply listening to them. Either way, it explains how early music was distributed to the masses in those days and how early songwriters and music publishers made names for themselves. The money that was made went almost completely to the publishers.
Some of the names that you may recognize of songwriters from that era, and their songs, are: Jingle Bells by James Pierpont in 1857, Camptown Races by Stephen Foster in 1850, When The Saints Go Marching In by Katherine E. Purvis and James M. Black in 1896, and Row Row Row Your Boat by anonymous in 1881.
By the way, “Anonymous” apparently was a very prolific songwriter because MANY songs from that era are credited in this way. Maybe it was an oversight or maybe it was a way to steal a song. I guess we’ll never know for sure.
With the invention of the phonograph in 1877 by Edison everything was about to change.
Suddenly songs were not only sold as sheet music but, with the invention of the record player, people could bring home the songs AND the singers.
The rest is history.
Technology has continued to improve the quality of the sound and today we have the most amazing ability to capture audio and preserve it.
In addition to the evolution of the mechanical means by which we record songs, whether it is ink on paper to be played on a musical instrument, or captured audio signals to then be replicated as sounds on our stereo systems, the business of music has also evolved. But I'll save the topic of the business of music for another time.
I'll end this chapter with this thought: The one constant in all of this is the song and the songwriter. The talents of those who can write music and write lyrics continues to be the most important part of this curious aspect of our human existence that seems to have been a necessary part of every culture throughout the entire history of mankind.
For whatever reason we seem to need songs. And if we need songs then we need songwriters. Once again I am making the case that songwriters have shaped our world.
“Only a truly great songwriter could write 'Marvelous Novelists.' The gentle way you sing this gem of a tune just makes me grin from ear to ear with giddy joy. Brilliant.”
- Sills & Smith, ReverbNation Artist (Mar 23, 2012)