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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?

OVERVIEW

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.


Bing Crosby Publicity Photo     |     Credit: Globe Photos, Inc.

VIDEO

IMAGES

OBJECTIVES

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

ACTIVITIES

Motivational Activity:

Ask your students:

  • Have you been to see "live music"? Where was it?

  • Do you remember anything about the way you heard the music? What characterized “good” or “bad” sound to you? (Students will likely have attended a show where poor sound quality led to an inability to hear or understand the vocalist, or which suffered from feedback. Also encourage students to think about the balance of instruments: was the guitar too loud? Was the drummer overpowering?)

  • In those situations, could you hear the singer as well as you felt you needed to? What do you think helps make the singer be heard at a concert?

Procedure:​

  1. Have your students imagine a time–only a little more than a century ago–before microphones were invented. Ask your students:

    • How do you think sound traveled before microphones?

    • How do you think performers made themselves heard?

  2. Have your students consider that though song and theater are thousands of years old, microphones are new. Show them Image 1, a mosaic from the Villa of 2nd-century Roman emperor Hadrian. Tell your students that Greek and Roman actors wore them to visually enforce characters and ask your students:                                                                                                    

    • What else do you think these masks were used for? Why? (Encourage students to consider the shapes of the mouths on these masks that were designed to amplify the actors’ voices.)                                                 

  3. Next show the class Image 2, the Epidaurus Theater in Greece. It was built between 300-400 BC and was designed with sound in mind. Ask your students:

    • What elements can you see in the design of this theater that might help the audience hear the performers? (Encourage students to consider the shape of the theater, the location of the stage, the natural environment into which it is built.)

  4. Tell your students that from the time of antiquity until the end of the 19th century the tools with which one could amplify sound were largely unchanged. Play Clip 1, Soundbreaking - Pre-Microphone Recording, the Microphone and the Rise of the Crooner. Ask your students:

    • How does Bing Crosby use the microphone in this clip? What does it enable him to do that other singers before him could not?

    • Why do you think the microphone helped Bing Crosby to become the first multi-million album selling vocalist in history? (Students should recognize from the clip that while singers before Crosby mostly had to “shout” to be heard, the microphone allowed him to sing softly, or “croon,” yet have intelligible lyrics nonetheless. This allowed Crosby to develop a gentle, romantic sound and accompanying image and to broadcast this personality with his voice.)

    • In what ways do you think the microphone changed the public’s relationship with a vocalist? Why do you think it inspired listeners to “ask new things from singers emotionally”? (Students should recognize that this clip shows women flocking to Bing Crosby in public; this is the launch of the popular cultural “icon” and super-stardom in the U.S. The microphone makes the singer seem “right there” with the listener and enabled a closeness; it felt as if Crosby was speaking directly to those who heard him, whispering in their ears. The microphone allowed him to seem like a friend.)

  5. Display the following two images of recording sessions (Image 3 - Orchestra Recording into a Horn, 1902; Image 4 - Bing Crosby Recording with a Microphone).    Ask your students: 

    • Do you know how the orchestra is recording in the first image? (Encourage students to recognize that Slide 3 is a phonograph recording. The sound from the performers’ instruments is funneled from the large end of the phonograph’s cone to the narrow end where a needle records the vibrations by etching them into a wax cylinder or disc. There are no microphones, the balance of instruments on the recording was achieved by arranging the quieter instruments closer to the horn and the louder instruments at a distance.)

    • Compare your perceptions of the personalities of the musicians in the first image with Bing Crosby’s group in the second image. Does one group look more comfortable than the other? Why?

    • If Bing Crosby had been singing with the group in the first image, where would he have been standing? Could he have sung softly? Would the photographer, or the musicians, have seen his face? How do you think this might have affected the performance, or the audience’s perception of the performance? (Students may suggest that if Crosby had been recording with a phonograph, he would have sung directly into the cone. His face would be obscured by the cone.)

  6. Direct your students to stand up. In order to imagine how these early technologies affected the way people sing, have your students do the following:

    • Sing the first stanza of “My Country ‘tis of Thee” as a class: “My Country ‘tis of thee / Sweet land of liberty / of thee I sing.”

    • Have students cup their hands at their mouths and sing “My Country ‘tis of Thee” again. Discuss the differences between the two sounds.

    • Have students cup their hands around their mouths and sing the “My Country ‘tis of Thee” softly, as if addressing a single person.

    • Now, discuss with your students:

      • ​In what ways did the sound change when you cupped your hands around your mouth? Did the sound change in more ways than getting louder? (Students will likely recognize that the sound got louder but that the tone also changed. “Cupping” one’s hands at the mouth directs sound in the way the horn of the phonograph did.)

      • How did it feel to try and sing softly with your hands cupped at your mouth? Could you imagine singing a “romantic” song this way? Do you think you could sing directly to a person this way?

  7. Play Clip 2, Soundbreaking - Frank Sinatra, Lifelike Lyrics and the ‘Magic’ of Audio Capture. Ask your students:

    • In this clip, Gary Giddens says that “Sinatra could wring blood out of a lyric,” what do you think this might mean?

    • Having watched this clip, do you think the dramatic impact many felt from Frank Sinatra was a result of the lyrics that he sang, or the way he sang them?

    • In what ways do you think the microphone aids in Sinatra’s impact? (Students may suggest that it is both the lyrics and the way he sings them. Sinatra’s comfort with the microphone and his ability to maximize its potential for dramatic effect allows him to deliver the lyrics as if they are his personal story.)

  8. Display Image 5 - Bing Crosby Publicity Photo and Image 6 - Frank Sinatra Publicity Photo and tell your students that these are staged publicity photos.      Remind students of Chuck Granata statement from Clip 2, “You can see [Sinatra] move in [toward the microphone] when he’s emphasizing a certain emotion.” Ask your students:

    • Why do you think microphones are included in these staged photos? (Students may say “because they are singers,” but encourage them to think about what these microphones represent in terms of modern technology and the singers’ images at the time. Microphones were new and represented modernity, advancement and, to a certain degree, wealth and power.)

    • How does each performer stand in relation to or hold the microphone? What type of relationship do you think this suggests? (Students may suggest that Crosby is comfortable next to the microphone, as if standing with a friend. Sinatra embraces the microphone much like he might hold his partner during a slow dance and seems ready to “whisper in its ear.” Sinatra’s tilted head could suggest vulnerability and submission; he is posing with this microphone as if with a trusted partner. The postures of both vocalists suggest comfort, relaxation and intimacy. One could suggest the microphones in these photos represent the women toward whom the singers croon. Listeners intuitively knew that the closer the vocalist got to that microphone, the closer he got to them.)

  9. Tell your students that although Albin Zak suggests in Clip 2 that “microphones are like magic,” we know there is science involved. Ask the class, “We see microphones frequently, but many of us know little about the science behind them. Does anyone know how a microphone works?"

  10. Distribute Handout 1: How Microphones Work. Have your students read the paragraphs out loud and take a moment to study and discuss the diagrams and images as a class.

  11. Have students break into small groups and open the Soundbreaking Emerging Microphone Technologies TechTool that allows them to hear the sound of phonograph recordings as well as those done with carbon and condenser microphones. Allow each group to experiment with the TechTool and then discuss the following as a class:

    • How would you describe the recording of the phonograph? Do you think playback on the phonograph sounds like listening to someone play live? If not, what is different?

    • How would you describe the sound of the carbon microphone? In what ways is it better or worse than the phonograph?

    • How would you contrast the condenser microphone recording with the phonograph and carbon microphone?

  12. Now have each group open the Soundbreaking Microphone Comparison TechTool that demonstrates a recording of the same vocalist and material through the phonograph, carbon and condenser microphones. Allow the groups to experiment with the TechTool and then ask the class:

    • What adjectives would you use to describe phonograph recording?

    • What adjectives would you use to describe carbon microphone recording?

    • In what ways do you think the condenser microphone might inspire the adjectives “lifelike” and “intimate” that we heard throughout this lesson?

 

Summary Activity:

Discuss with your students:

  • In what ways do you think the microphone enabled a new kind of pop star?

  • In what ways do you think the microphone helped create a sense of personal connection with individual listeners?

  • Are there any singers you feel connected to? How do you think the microphone figures into your relationship with these musicians?

 

Extension Activity - Short Essay:

Tell your students that unlike now, during the prime years of Frank Sinatra’s career direct references to physical intimacy in lyrics or any aspect of performance were forbidden. Now display the following quote from journalist Sandra White who, after an extended interview with Sinatra, in which he sang for her personally, wrote: “Even though he was 72 and I was 38, he was… still desirable. He breathed love in my ear!” Have students use the materials from this lesson to address the following questions in a short 1-2 page essay.

  • How did the sound of Sinatra’s voice enable him to become a “romantic symbol”?

  • How might Sinatra’s one-on-one encounter with White have represented something that the microphone made possible on a much grander scale?

  • In what ways did microphones allow singers to reach much larger audiences than ever before while simultaneously creating a sense of personal connection with individuals within the audience? How do you think Frank Sinatra may shaped his singing style around the availability of the microphone?

© 2016 TeachRock

STANDARDS

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for English Language Arts

  • Reading 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone

  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally

  • Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric

  • Speaking and Listening 5: Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations

  • Speaking and Listening 6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate

  • Language 1: Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking

  • Language 5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings

  • Language 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture

  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments

  • Theme 8: Science, Technology, and Society

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Connecting

Connecting 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make music. Demonstrate how interests, knowledge, and skills relate to personal choices and intent when creating, performing, and responding to music..

Enduring Understanding: Musicians connect their personal interests, experiences, ideas, and knowledge to creating, performing and responding.
Essential Question: How do musicians make meaningful connections to creating, performing, and responding? Demonstrate how interests, knowledge, and skills relate to personal choices and intent when creating, performing, and responding to music?