Earliest recorded music

 Images 2008 03 27 Arts Sound450

The first ever audio recording we know of was made by Éduoard-Léon Scott in 1857. As Maggie has previously posted here, the recording device he invented, the phonautograph, etched sound waves to paper. They weren't intended to be "played back" and it wasn't until 2008 when researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory used a scanner and "virtual stylus" to listen to the sounds inscribed on the paper. It was a recording of a tuning fork and someone, likely Scott, singing Au Clair de la Lune.

I listened to it over and over this morning and was trying to imagine a time when there was no recording, and every sound was temporary. That led me to what appears to be a fascinating book from 2009, titled "Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music" by Greg Milner. The opening paragraph is fantastic:

The story goes that, late in his life, Guglielmo Marconi had an epiphany. The godfather of radio technology decided that no sound ever dies. It just decays beyond the point that we can detect it with our ears. Any sound was forever recoverable, he believed, with the right device. His dream was to build one powerful enough to pick up Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (Amazon)

For more about the Éduoard-Léon Scott project, visit FirstSounds.org


  1. Wow! That is wild! Wasn’t their a book that had someone “translating” the sound of singing off of a pot on a wheel from centuries ago? Like a stick was being used to draw a line on the pot while it was spinning? Anyone remember what I’m talking about?

    1.  Holy smokes! I remember that. Unfortunately, I remember it about as well as you do. But hey, at least you’re not crazy.

    2. There was speculation that the grooves in pottery might have recorded ambient sound, but I’m unaware that anybody has actually been able to produce such.

      Also: http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/weblog/comments/3992/

      1. There was an x-files episode with this as a plot point.  Supposedly someone was making a pot when Jesus resurrected Lazarus.  The incantation was “recorded” onto the pot which gave it magical zombie creating powers.

    3.  There was an April Fools joke a few years ago that claimed archaeologists had been able to play back Roman pottery, and included sound files. I think a lot of people fell for it…because WE WANT TO BELIEVE.

  2. There is an excellent video series, “Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs”, 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgQptKXzcTY, where one episode looks at how recordings changed the music industry in ways that may not be so obvious to us now, such as the effect on composers and artists but also the rediscovery of musical treasures long forgotten.  (As record companies quickly saturated the markets with contemporary music and the few, long-accepted classical standards, they had to start digging to find great music to record; Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”, for instance.)

  3. For more background on this, check out paleosound guy Patrick Feaster, who has a good case for recovering sound from written form going back 1,000 years. You’ll have seen his name associated with a number of early acoustic recovery projects.

  4. Interesting post, thanks!  There’s another great book on this subject called The Recording Angel.  It’s by Evan Eisenberg.  http://www.amazon.com/Recording-Angel-Records-Culture-Aristotle/dp/0300099045

  5. I’ve long had a fascination with this subject – although i’m always suspicious of ‘firstness’ claims for a number of reasons. however i’m going to play the contrarian here and mention that according to an unpublished manuscript i have, Arthur Morin first recorded sound around 1840 by directing reflected light onto a moving daguerreotype from a small mirror attached to a rubber membrane. This method has been used plenty of times since then (for example with the manometric flame apparatus 


    so it seems entirely feasible to me that he could have managed it…

  6.  Haha, believe it or not I once had the same epiphany that Marconi did, though I was about 9 at the time and pretty much forgot about it until now. 

  7. Hopefully, for Marconi’s sake, he didn’t last long enough to be informed that the various teeny-scale stochastic noise behind Brownian motion and the like squelches sound beyond even theoretical hope of recovery pretty quickly…

  8. xlnt post and re-post. Gives me chills to hear a 150-yo recording because of 4-yo technology (or use of it for this purpose.)

    1. It was intended to convert the sound into visible markings.  Markings to be examined visually only with no expectation that the would be used to recreate the sound.

  9. I bought Greg’s book last year and read it on holiday. Brilliant, fascinating book, and it ties in with the Dynamic Range Day movement and the whole ‘Loudness Wars’ thing. I love this whole subject; my earliest memories centre around songs I heard on the radio, ‘Freight Train’, by Nancy Whiskey being one, and the other was ‘Beep Beep (The Little Nash Rambler)’, by The Playmates

    Music has been a major part of my life since, that’s around fifty two or three years. I just wish I could create it…

  10. Laurie Anderson used the idea of “never dying sound” as part of her “United States” performance.  And in terms of ancient music, there’s also this fake entry, from my “Top 10 imaginary audio events of 2007” list:
    Black Figure Audio Vol. 1: Amphorae (Ancient Audio, 2007)We generally date audio recording to 1877 and Edison’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, but recent examinations of the peturbations of wavy spirals on ancient Greek black figure pottery suggested an audio wave form to Prof. Xenophon Auros, who made a precision scan of the Heraklion collection and turned them into audio. Ancient Greek voices actually popped out, mostly ordering new pots and complaining of the heat. Auros theorizes that the lines were scribed by a quill dipped in ink on a lathe, and while the lathe was turning, the feathered end of the quill caught the ambient air movements. He continues his investigations of Kraters in Vol. 2.

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