Soundbreaking is an eight-part PBS series on the art and evolution of music recording which is currently available on Hulu. If you love or even just listen to music, you should watch this series.
The 20th century changed music. Before that, music was made by people playing musical instruments or singing and could only be experienced live, that is, in a place where the musicians and audience shared the same space. Music was ephemeral as performed because it existed only in the moment it was made. Of course, music was written down and preserved by musical notations, so that a piece by Mozart could be played by people who knew the language of musical notation as often as people wanted to hear it. Also, there was an oral tradition, mostly of folk or popular music, which was passed down the generations by those who made music from memory.
Recording music enabled its transmission to great numbers of people who could buy the recording that was preserved on a disc and play it on special machines. Then, radio became popular and another outlet was found so that millions of people could experience a performance as recorded on a disc, all at the same time.
With the invention of the microphone, performers didn’t have to sing through megaphones a la Rudy Valle or have leather lungs like Al Jolson and Ethel Merman. The great singers of the mid-20th century all used the microphone as an instrument and played it to great emotional effect, such as Frank Sinatra singing I’m A Fool To Want You. You could whisper a lament and every syllable could be clearly heard.
With recording and microphones, what was once an oral tradition of often travelling minstrels, morphed into the popular music of the 20th Century that was as diverse as the people who fell in love with it - jazz, blues, country, pop, folk, rock, hip hop, rap - all kinds of music for all people.
Soundbreaking in its first episode gives us a preview of the great musical geniuses who will be profiled in the upcoming episodes. The emphasis is on the music of the second half of the 20th century and how recorded music went from recording engineers trying desperately to mimic the sound of a live performance to artists such as George Martin and The Beatles making sounds that could never be made in a live performance, such as the ground-breaking Tomorrow Never Knows from Revolver. If you are like me, Tomorrow is the song I skipped (it was easy because it was the last song on the second side of the album). Soundbreaking will make you go back and listen again - it is this song which started an entire musical movement of invented sounds as music. From there it is but a small step to the Moog Synthesizer and records such as Manfred Mann’s Blinded by the Light.
Soundbreaking features stories about all kinds of music, from the revolutionary discovery of the electric guitar and multi-track recording by Les Paul to Elvis, The Beatles, Stones, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendricks, The Who, Annie Lennox, Adele - the list includes all the great innovators of the 20th and early 21st century music. One episode tells of Stevie Wonder’s journey to break free from the shackles of the Motown sound to the revolution in music that he created in the 70s with songs such as Livin’ for the City. Like all geniuses, Stevie Wonder perfected the music of his time, then changed it into something new and never heard before.
Music changed forever because of the new technologies that were changing the way musicians could make sounds. By allowing artists to make great records in their own homes, on computers, the new technology has broadened the pool of talent that can produce new music and just as the pool of talent was exponentially expanded by the recorded music industry in the early 20th century, so it has expanded again in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
In the process, the new music changed us, its audience. Now, music is everywhere - there is rarely a public space that is silent. We are use to experiencing life with our own soundtrack. Working out or falling asleep, music is there to motivate us or to tranquilize us. Soundbreaking tells the story of how that came to be - and hint at where it is headed.
Soundbreaking has a great PBS website that has lesson plans for teachers to use and a wealth of material about music and sound recording. It also has playlists that correspond to each episode so you can listen at your leisure to the greatest sounds of our time.