The First Song Ever Recorded (Was Never Meant To Be Played Back)

THE FIRST PODCAST Imagine if we could hear the voices of Abraham Lincoln, Queen Victoria or Harriet Tubman?

Believe it or not, somebody was making audio recordings as far back as the 1850s. Had these techniques been widespread, we might have had the words of those famous people preserved, as well as recordings from the Civil War, the Crimean War and other tumultuous events.

The only catch — Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, the inventor of this audio recording process, never meant for his recordings to be played back! And yet today, thanks to modern technology, we can hear his work from the 1850s for the very first time.

This is the story of the first audio recordings ever made and the oldest song recording to ever be heard today, thanks to an intrepid group of tech-savvy historians.

This important musical piece may not sound like much — in fact, it sounds downright creepy! — but it marks the beginning of music as a cultural force. One that can be replicated, replayed and enjoyed by those who were not in the room when it was first made.

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THE FIRST SONG EVER RECORDED

Big thanks to First Sounds, the organization which helped bring the audio of Scott de Martinville to life. They have also generously offered their work for all to listen to on their website.

 

(Edouard) Leon Scott de Martinville’s invention went through several iterations. The image below illustrates one version from 1857. Tuning fork vibrated by bow or iron rod, and vibration traced on cylinder coated with lampblack (carbon). Engraving, 1872 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

A later version of the so-called phonautograph

 

The inventor himself Edouard Leon Scott de Martinsville. Also the singer of the first song!

From Scientific American 1877 — an illustration of what the inventor hoped to achieve with his device. The noted vibrations could be translated into words. Thus the first audio recording device was really a dictation of machine of sorts.

 

This is what First Sounds technicians were working with — a page from the inventor’s phonautograph. The vibrations proved too small to work with the human eye but a computer could identify the detailed ridges much more effectively.

  • What a fantastic Podcast series. I never fail to learn something with The Bowery Boys. I loved how you described what music is, that’s an explanation I will always remember. The recording is haunting.