The earliest recordings made with Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1877 required no electricity. To record, musicians directed their performances into a large, funnel-shaped horn. The narrow end of this horn was attached to a needle that recorded the sound vibration by cutting a groove into a wax cylinder as it was rotated by turning a crank. To play the sound captured on that wax cylinder, this process was reversed.
Though the improvements to this process have been many, the basic concept of making records in the pre-digital era continued to involve capturing sound in the form of indentations on a material surface. What did change over the course of time was the surface on which records were made.
Wax cylinders were replaced by flat shellac discs. Shellac however was hard, heavy, and, worse, breakable. Vinyl, the more flexible compound still used for records today, was introduced in the 1930s.
With the introduction of vinyl, fierce competition within the recording industry led to two closely timed technological advances in the late 1940s. First, in 1948, Columbia Records introduced the “Long Player,” a 12-inch record that rotated at 33 ⅓ rpm and held almost three times as much music as previous records, roughly 18 minutes per side. The following year, Columbia’s main competitor, RCA Victor, released a new 45 rpm 7-inch record. Though it held only 4 minutes per side, RCA also promoted their new, small and portable playback system that automatically switched between records that the user could stack on its spool. Though this 45 rpm 7-inch, which became known as the single, and the 12-inch LP were initially marketed as direct competitors, the different records led to different uses. Teenagers in particular were drawn to the 45 rpm record. Many among the teen demographic listened to Top 40 radio, on which they could hear their favorite songs in regular rotation. With RCA’s record player, teens could be just like their favorite DJs, playing individual songs by different artists one after the next. The LP would find its natural radio format some years later, with the rise of FM radio and with a somewhat older audience, and by the late 1960s, the LP was the format most recording artists had in mind when they entered the studio. Some artists would go so far as to not release singles at all.
New technologies prosper only when they become meaningful to users. The stories of how the single and the LP became meaningful in different ways in American music culture provides a unique glimpse of American life in the mid-20th century. This lesson explores the technology of records and what it meant to the people who consumed them. Students will learn how a record works and why a needle on a disc can record and play back music. Moreover, students will investigate how these technological changes had far reaching effects, even in the domestic setting. Finally, this lesson follows the 45 rpm and LP record through the airwaves of both AM and FM radio, using excerpts of broadcasts by the pioneering DJs Alan Freed and Tom Donahue and investigating how the possibilities and limitations of each medium and their respective places on the radio dial provide a framework for historical analysis.
How did changes in the technology of record manufacturing effect popular music, radio, and the people who consumed both?
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
- Know (knowledge):
- About Thomas Edison and the invention of sound recording
- How a vinyl record stores audio information
- How the emerging youth culture of the 1950s can be understood in relation to technological advancements in record and record player production
- About the inventions of AM and FM radio broadcasting, how the technologies differ, and how these differences affected American music culture
- How FCC regulations created space for the emergence of FM radio
- About the pioneering DJs of AM and FM radio, and their roles in American youth culture
- How trends in the formats of recordings and radio broadcasting reflect concurrent changes of broader American culture
- Be able to (skills):
- Evaluate the effects of technology on history and culture
- Interpret and discuss the meaning of a variety of primary source materials, including radio broadcasts and print material
- Read, listen to, and watch a variety of sources to gather information and draw historical and thematic connections
- Analyze content from historical materials to arrive at a better understanding of the past
- Understand connections between popular culture and the time, place and social circumstances in which it was created
The 78 - Video
The 45 - Video
AM Radio and the Hit Single - Video
Excerpt from Alan Freed’s March 23, 1955 “King of the Moondoggers” - Video
Bob Dylan and the Transition to FM Radio - Video
an excerpt of pioneering FM DJ Tom Donahue’s 1969, KSAN radio program - Video
For additional lesson plan materials, please visit the Lesson Resources at TeachRock.
Ask your students:
- How do you listen to music? (Students will likely suggest their phones and computers. Also encourage them to think about whether they use speakers or headphones.)
- How do you think your parents listened to music when they were your age?
- Do you own any physical music releases such as CDs, cassettes or records? If so, where do you listen to them? Do you relate to these recordings differently than you do to the Mp3s or music that you stream?
- Play Clip 1, Soundbreaking - The 78 rpm Record and ask your students:
- How do you think music is stored in the grooves on records?
- Why do you think this type of record was called a 78? (Students should note that rpm is an abbreviation of rotations per minute.)
- Why does a record that spins slower allow for longer playing time?
- What advantages might a long playing record have?
- Can you think of any reasons people would want to purchase a short, 45 record?
- In this Soundbreaking clip, Steven Van Zandt mentions that the portable 45 player that a “kid could take into his room” was a significant development. In what ways do you think this might have changed the way young people listened to music? (Students should note that this was a level of privacy previously unattainable. Young people and their friends could now listen and dance to music in their own private spaces.)
- Why do you think that George Martin suggests that the louder a Rock and Roll song was the better it would sell?
- What family members are present in each advertisement?
- What room of the house do you think the people are in in each advertisement?
- Do you think it would be easy to move this record player, or bring it to a friend’s house?
- What family members are present in these advertisements?
- Do you think the absence of parents is significant? What might it suggest to young people? Is there any music in your life that you enjoy but your parents do not?
- How is the size of the record player represented in these advertisements?
- In what ways do you think the size of the 45 rpm record player might have been attractive to young people?
- On what devices do you listen to music? On what devices do you think people listened to music in 1960 (Students might answer that in 1960 people listened to music on the radio and on record players.)
- How much music can you access on your device(s)? How much music could a person access on their device in 1960?
- How do you discover the music you listen to? How do you think people discovered new music in 1960? (Students might answer that in 1960 people discovered new music from the radio and television, but remind students that people have always discovered music from each other.)
- Once you discover what you’d like to hear, do you buy it? If so, how and in what form? How do you think people did this in 1960? (Students will likely mention the radio, but remind them that people went to physical record stores and bought their music as well.)
- Overall, how do you think the differences in the way the 45 rpm generation and your generation listen to and discover music affects the way you experience music?
- Why do you think radio was such a powerful force in the 1950s and 1960s?
- What do you think might have drawn young people to a particular radio station or show at this time? (Encourage your students to consider the power of a DJ to function as a tastemaker.)
- Make a timeline that indicates how much time is spent on each: music, advertising, and dedications
- How would you describe Freed’s pace?
- What age group do you think this show was directed toward? Why?
- In what ways do you think that the record format of the 45 was well suited for a show like Freed’s?
- In what ways do you think a show like Freed’s could help sell 45s?
- In what ways does this clip suggest that Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” broke with established AM radio formatting?
- Do you think “Like a Rolling Stone” would have fit into Alan Freed’s broadcast?
- In what ways does this clip suggest that the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone” might have presented new possibilities for both artists and DJs?
- What about FM radio do you think might have made it an ideal space for free form broadcasting after the end of simulcasting in the late 1960s? (Students should note that it was largely a blank slate with no clearly established rules or formats, a sort of Wild West open to experimentation.)
- Though it was initially an AM hit, in what ways do you think Bob Dylan’s success with “Like A Rolling Stone” might have inspired subsequent freeform stations on FM? (Students should note that the song’s popularity, despite its extended length, suggested that people were open to alternative formatting.)
- How does Murray the K suggest that FM programming reflected a matured or grown up form of Rock and Roll?
- How does Murray the K suggest that this more mature Rock and Roll changes the role of the DJ?
- How would you contrast Donahue’s verbal delivery with what you have heard from Alan Freed?
- What does Donahue say he’s just played on his show? How does that contrast with what we heard of Freed? (Students should observe that Donahue names at least two songs, so he’s returning from a stretch of at least 8 straight minutes of music.)
- In what ways do you think Donahue’s demeanor reflects Murray the K’s statements in Handout 3 that, “You didn’t have to hype the record anymore. The music was speaking for itself”?
Discuss with your students:
- When you listen to your favorite artists, do you listen to albums or singles? Do you even think of music in those terms?
- When you listen to the radio, how would you describe the DJs? Are they like Freed, Donahue, or something completely different?
- In what ways do you think current formats of music releases and radio reflect the world you live in right now?
Have your students interview a parent about how they consumed music in their youth. Have students write a short essay that addresses some or all of the following questions. You may also wish to add region-specific questions to this list. Have students share their essays with the class.
- How did you discover new music when you were my age?
- Did you buy music? If so, on what format did you buy it? Did you buy singles? Did you buy LPs?
- How did you play your music back? Did you have a personal listening device?
- Did you listen alone, or with friends?
- Did you usually listen through speakers or headphones? If you had both, when and why did you use each?
- Did you listen to the radio? If so, do you remember your favorite channels? Were they AM or FM? Do you remember any of the DJs? What do you remember about the DJs? What kind of music did your favorite radio stations play?
- Did you listen in headphones ever? Did any of your friends use headphones?
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Library of Congress