Mapping Music's Evolution: 23 Breakthroughs That Changed How We Listen

Robert Moog
Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Robert Moog smiling as he rests his arms atop his pioneering Moog synthesizer.

Popular music still fills a similar social function as it did in 1894 when Billboard -- then a publication covering the outdoor advertising industry -- launched its first issue: It's both entertainment and a communion, a conduit for both relaxation and revelation. Still, it doesn't sound much like it did back at the dawn of the 20th Century, or even at the start of the 21st Century. As artists and businessmen alike embraced new technology, they shaped the sound and form of popular music in ways that were simply inconceivable 125 years ago. The path that connects sheet music and SoundCloud is, of course, long and twisted, but it's marked by dozens of monumental innovations and breakthroughs that shifted the direction of how music was made -- and heard.

1925: Thomas Edison patented the phonograph in 1877, but the Victor Orthophonic Victrola offers high-quality audio at an affordable price, allowing music -- then usually a public or communal affair -- to more easily become an in-home experience.   

1931: Electric microphones became common in the mid-1920s, but in the ’30s artists like Bing Crosby grasp their full potential, capturing a whispered intimacy on songs like 1931’s “Out of Nowhere” that change the relationship between artist and listener.

1940: After experimenting with stereophonic sound in the ’30s, Walt Disney brings “Fantasound” to the masses with Fantasia.

1948: Columbia debuts long-playing 33 1/3 rpm records, and in the following decades acts like Frank Sinatra (on 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours) and The Beatles (on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) would help establish the LP as a canvas for longform artistic statements.

1949: Seeking an alternative to the 78 rpm record -- a format prone to breakage -- RCA Victor introduces 45 rpm singles, which sounded better and lasted longer, lending themselves to repeated spins on jukeboxes and at home.

1951: In his Memphis Recording Service studio (later called Sun Studio), producer Sam Phillips recorded icons like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. He also pioneered many studio techniques, capturing the first fuzz guitar on Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” in 1951 and experimenting with echo and reverb.

1952: Leo Fender unveils the Fender Esquire -- the first modern, mass-produced solid-body electric guitar -- ushering in a wave of musical innovation.

1955: Ampex develops Sel-Sync, a tape recorder that allows musicians to overdub an existing recording; guitarist Les Paul, at the time developing his own methods of multitrack recording, becomes an early adopter.

1962: Trailblazing producer/sound engineer Joe Meek introduces pop to an early synthesizer on The Tornados’ futuristic hit “Telstar.”

1963: The first superstar producer, Phil Spector, showcases the lush “Wall of Sound” production style on The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”

1968: Treated as a novelty at the time, Wendy CarlosSwitched On Bach introduces electronic music to the public with synthesizers developed by engineer Robert Moog and producer Rachel Elkind.

1970: Carlos had to record Switched On Bach one note at a time, a tedious process that could not be replicated live. Moog addresses this problem by unveiling the Minimoog, a small and flexible instrument designed to play live.

1974: Kraftwerk scores its first hit with “Autobahn,” which features a groundbreaking use of vocoder, Moog synths and other electronic instruments that laid the foundation for dance and disco music.

1978: Roland launches the first major drum machine, the CR-78, allowing users to program their own beats -- and kicking off a revolution that changed the face of pop, dance and hip-hop the following decade.

1979: Tascam’s Portastudio brings the capabilities of multitrack recording into the bedroom, allowing musicians to create ambitious projects with unprecedented ease. Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 LP, Nebraska, later becomes the first major album recorded on a Portastudio.

1979: Though headphones had existed for years prior, the arrival of the Walkman cassette player turns music listening into a more personal -- and portable -- experience.

1979: Hip-hop DJs scratched records throughout the ’70s, but Technics’ SL-1200MK2 turntable makes mixing beats easier than ever.

1983: The CD becomes widely available, allowing listeners to easily skip from track to track and search within a song, breaking an album into pieces in a way that would soon define the digital era.

1986: Akai releases the MPC-60, a tabletop sampler that makes sampling -- the basis of hip-hop -- swifter, sleeker and more democratic.

1991: Digidesign releases the first version of Pro Tools, which brings the power of multitrack recording to a computer and infinitely expands the possibilities of what musicians can create on their own.

1998: Cher’s “Believe” puts the creative possibilities of Auto-Tune and pitch correction on the map; in the next decade, hip-hop artists like T-Pain and Kanye West embrace it.

2001: Though the MP3 was born in the ’90s, the arrival of the iPod and iTunes makes listening to the format easier than ever -- and introduces many music fans to playlists.

2004: Apple introduces ­GarageBand, an entry-level alternative to Pro Tools that would democratize digital recording technology and even empower established hitmakers: Rihanna’s “Umbrella” is built around one of the software’s free drum loops.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Billboard.


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