Microphones and Modern Life: A Listening Revolution

Essential Question

How did the development of microphones in the 20th century change the way people make and listen to music?


For as long as humans have gathered, they have listened, entertaining one another with stories and songs. But larger gatherings have always presented a problem: how can all of the listeners in the gathering be made to hear? Over the millennia, before electricity, simple solutions went from shouting to having actors speak and sing through cones to more sophisticated ideas like designing theaters in shapes that naturally carry sound to the outer perimeters of those spaces. But with the harnessing of electrical power in the 19th century, the inventors Thomas Edison and David Edward Hughes each arrived at a way to convert sound into signals that could then be captured and amplified. And thus began the “microphone” revolution.

In the space of a few decades, the “microphone,” a term coined by Hughes, brought about major shifts in the ways artists performed and listeners experienced and conceived of music. Beginning in the 1920s, the microphone enabled new electrical recording methods that introduced subtleties and clarity not possible when recording through the large horn of the earlier phonograph recorder. And for vocalists, the microphone created a broad range of previously unthinkable dynamic possibilities, in particular the ability to sing softly without concern for vocal projection.

When some singers learned to manipulate the nuances made possible by the microphone, their stock as entertainers rose. Vocalists such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra attained new reaches of stardom by taking advantage of the microphone’s capacity to carry their voices and personalities to a mass audience, all the while sounding like they were standing right there with each individual listener. Many listeners experienced a heightened connection to vocalists, a new intimacy. They felt as if the singer was addressing them directly.

This lesson explores the invention of the microphone and its aftermath from several perspectives. Students will learn about Edison, Hughes and their methods, arriving at an understanding of how sound waves are converted into analog, electrical signals. Moreover, this lesson follows the improvement of the earliest microphone into both “ribbon” and “condenser” technologies, analyzing the methods these microphones use to capture sounds and how vocalists employed the new capabilities of these microphones to sing to large audiences with an intimacy that was previously inconceivable. Finally, this lesson explores the ways in which that heightened sense of personal connection with vocalists enabled the rise of a new kind of pop star.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • About Thomas Edison, David Edward Hughes and the development of carbon “microphones”
    • About the development of carbon, ribbon and condenser microphone technologies
    • What a “sound wave” is
    • How microphone technology impacted the recording industry
    • How singers and singing changed with the advance of microphone technology
    • How American audiences reacted to the effects of microphone technology
    • How the microphone enabled the “new intimacy” of the 20th century pop star
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Evaluate the effects of technology on history and culture
    • Trace musical expression to the specific historical and social context from which it emerged
    • Discuss how technology can affect social change
    • Discuss how people can create social meanings from technology