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.
Essential Question: How did the development of microphones in the 20th century change the way people make and listen to music?
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- 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
- 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
Pre-Microphone Recording, the Microphone and the Rise of the Crooner - Video
Frank Sinatra, Lifelike Lyrics and the ‘Magic’ of Audio Capture - Video
For additional lesson plan materials, please visit the Lesson Resources at TeachRock.
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?
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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?
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?
Photo Credits: Globe Photos, Inc., D'Oyly Carte Opera Trust Ltd. UK