On August 11, 1877, about 140 years ago, and just one day before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, If you wanted to hear music, you played it or sang it or went to a place where others were playing or singing or (if it was 1717, still 160 years earlier, and if you were King George III, of England) you got Handel and the boys to play it for you while you, your family, and your political allies and enemies went for a nice boat ride on the Thames.
Music, until not all that very long ago, was a precious human commodity, that not only had to be written by people, but – other than that made by wind-up music boxes or mechanical devices like the player piano – had also to be performed by people every single time it was to be played. And that's what happened. Practically everyone sang or played an instrument or whistled, or just hummed, or snapped their fingers, tapped their toes, or did something to enjoy and perpetuate the gift of Saint Cecilia, and music was shared and loved by all.
When the phonograph came along, the very first thing that Edison shouted into it was "Mary had a little lamb", the nursery rhyme that mothers often sing to their children, and, had he known it was going to work, he might – because music is so important a part of human life – have actually sung it.
As it was though, making recordings of the actual sound of music wasn't too far behind and, even before The Great War (1914 to 1918) disc recordings of the great singers and performers of the day were available and becoming commercially successful. The 1920s saw two more new developments that were to make music even more readily accessible to the average person. Radio, which had been invented at around the same time as the phonograph, aired its first news broadcast in August of 1920 and followed it in the same month with radio stations in the United States and in Argentina starting what was to become a deluge of entertainment broadcasting in the now familiar music, news, and sports formats.
The Jazz Singer of 1927 was the next link in the chain that ultimately made recorded or broadcast music ubiquitous; and maybe even unavoidable in homes around the world. Famous as the world's first "talking" film, The Jazz Singer was also, as the name reveals, the world's first singing film and, by playing phonograph records synchronized with the action it gave motion pictures their first "soundtrack" and brought music to a whole new public environment.
Radio had also brought with it something new in terms of music: the singing commercial (which had been in effective use since at least 1929, when the "Have you tried Wheaties..." jingle is reputed – all by itself – to have saved that brand of cereal from planned discontinuance due to poor sales). Radio commercials proliferated and were joined in the 1940s by more singing commercials on television (some even, in the 1950s, featuring a dancing Old Gold cigarette pack). Lovely as the legs of the Old Gold dancers were, though, it was not television but the movies – in the form of (among other things) the great Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s and 1940s that made such things, in their multitude and gyrating in intricate patterns, a familiar sight to most people.
Music on radio, on television, on phonograph records, and even, thanks to Bill Lear (of Learjet fame), who co-founded Motorola and invented both the car radio and the eight-track cassette), in their automobile, was available to everyone practically all the time. And with the invention of the transistor and, because of it, everything from the shirt pocket radio to, finally, the smart phone, completed the job: Music, as entertainment, as background, as commercials, as political or other entreaty; and for every other purpose is now available to us no matter where we are or what we may be doing, whether we want it or not.
Should we be pleased? Frankly, I don't know.
What I do know is that I no longer have to make it for myself. Nor could I if I wanted to. Do you play a musical instrument? I don't. Do you sing anywhere other than the in shower? Me neither. Did you know that some homes have (presumably waterproof) speakers for their home music or intercom system even there?
In economics, there's a thing called "Gresham's Law" that says that "Bad (cheap) money drives out good". What that was originally formulated to do was to explain what happens when there are two competing types of money in circulation in the same economy at the same time. If one is, for example, gold coin and the other is printed paper, people will, according to Gresham's Law, keep, bury, or hide the gold and spend the paper. The theory being that gold has intrinsic value and paper does not, so spend the paper now to get whatever value from it you can, and keep the gold as a safe reserve for later. The result is that the gold disappears from circulation, and while not exactly the same, something similar seems to have happened to the music in our lives.
With music everywhere, most of us have no incentive to create our own. Why spend years learning to play an instrument or to sing when all we have to do to immerse ourselves in the music of people perhaps vastly more skilled or talented than we might ever be is to turn on a machine or to play a recording? Why bother to learn the words of a song or the notes of its tune, or even its chords and changes, when it's already there for us to hear as many times as we want for practically no effort at all?
Don't get me wrong; I'm a music lover through-and-through. I go to clubs and concerts; I buy records and CDs; I've spent a great many thousands of dollars on music and the equipment for playing it; and I've even designed and built products for music reproduction that people have described as "The Best in the World". It's just that I can't – even though I've tried – create music instead of just the gear for playing it.
One of the things that has come up from time to time in speaking with friends is Mozart – not his music, but the person, himself. According to what I've been able to discover, the total population of the Earth in 1756, the year he was born was something like 1 billion people. That meant that the odds of a Mozart – an unparalleled musical genius who produced prodigious quantities of some of the world's finest music – being born and coming to artistic fruition at that time was about one in a billion. Given that, doesn't it seem reasonable that – human beings today certainly having no less potential than those in the eighteenth century – there ought to be not one, but seven Mozarts alive now and contributing to our musical enjoyment and cultural heritage? Why aren't there? Maybe they simply were never born. Or maybe they were born and, if they're still involved with music, they became writers of movie music, TV and radio advertising jingles, Hip-Hop, or Death Metal.
More likely, though, I'm afraid that never having to make music for themselves and always having it available in abundance at the touch of a button or the twist of a dial, those potential Mozarts never needed to learn about it, and just became computer programmers or video game designers, doing all of their listening on their smartphone, a boombox, or through the latest Dr. Dre headphones.
What a waste! Personally, I'm going to go put on an LP of the real Mozart – the one who enriched all of our lives, whether we know it or not, and whose like may – because so much of music has become nothing more than a commodity nowadays – never be seen or heard from again. Then I'm going to sit back, close my eyes, and...
Enjoy the music.