What have loudspeakers done for music? The question may seem ridiculous because the obvious answer is so apparent – without them there would certainly be a lot less music in our lives. But this palpable observation hides many less apparent influences of these ubiquitous pedlars of noise.

Today, most people’s experience of music comes via a loudspeaker, whether they’re listening on headphones, in the car, at home, in a club, a rock concert, wherever. Only a tiny percentage of the population of the developed world hear music played on acoustic instruments, without amplification. Yet, up until recent times, this was the only way anyone could hear music. The listener and the performer had to be within earshot of each other, sharing the same space and time. The invention of sound recording changed all that.

Loudspeakers, of course, are part of the paraphernalia of sound recording and reproduction. They turn electricity into sound. And headphones and earbuds, on Walkmans and iPods, are simply loudspeakers that are small enough to wear. Most sound recording is done for documentation purposes – an orchestra performing Beethoven, Charlie Parker playing the saxophone, T S Eliot reading ‘The Waste Land’, whatever – these are ‘postcards’ of events that occurred prior to the listener’s involvement. Here sound recording is experienced as representation.

Sonic representation separates the listener from the person or thing that made the sound. Loudspeakers give us only sound. But we rarely have difficulty identifying the source of what we’re hearing. In fact we subconsciously make this bond as we listen, continuously formulating what is making the sounds. But our language for articulating this experience is extremely limited – certainly compared with that of visual phenomena. How do we articulate what we are hearing? How do we name the sounds? What do we call them?

We usually call them trumpet, motorbike, telephone – whatever it is that is making the sound. But these things are not sounds, they’re objects, things, animals, people etc. There is no word for the sound of a trumpet, motorbike, telephone or whatever. If we want to talk about the sound of a trumpet we have to talk about the object trumpet. In order to name a sound, to speak about a sound or to even think about a sound we have to refer to the object that made the sound. Our vocabulary relating to sound is incredibly impoverished. So consequently we don’t think about sound, instead we think about things that make sound. And this helps us suspend our disbelief when listening to loudspeakers – sound representation becomes sound reality.

Sound is strange stuff, it’s ethereal, transient, fleeting – it unfolds in its own time and vanishes. The last sentence you spoke, your last cough or sniff, has gone forever. You may try to repeat it, but it can never be produced again in exactly the same way. Not unless it’s recorded. Recording makes sound tangible, concrete and almost tactile. It becomes data on a storage medium – CD, hard drive, tape, vinyl, whatever. Manipulating this data changes the sound. Slowing down a record or tape changes what is heard. Scratching, looping, reversing, all effect the sound. It’s the same with CDs and computers, although they need handling differently. Since sound recording technology became readily available, composers have been using it to make sound tactile and malleable like paint or clay.

In Paris, in the 1940s, Pierre Schaefer coined the term musique concrète, referring to music made with recorded sound. In those days the sounds were recorded onto wax discs and manipulated in playback through speed changes, reversal and repetition. These processes changed the sounds radically, sometimes beyond recognition, sometimes into completely new sounds that had never been heard before. Sounds were mixed by playing two or more discs at once, very much like DJs have been doing for the last 20 years. Schaefer was one of the first turntableist.

The most radical composers today also compose with sound, not just notes. They’re not necessarily using recording technology, they’re using conventional orchestral instruments, but the soundworld they’re creating has been informed through the possibilities offered by sound recording. This approach, this way of thinking about instruments and music, has evolved from the work of the great Modernists – Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, John Cage and others.

Since about the time of the First World war ‘classical’ music gradually ceased to be about the familiar, conventional elements of melody, harmony and rhythm. Tunes that could be whistled or rhythms that could be tapped out on a table top became history. Melody, as most people know it, ceased to be the major concern of many serious composers. The idea of music being in a particular key, with a strong feeling of a pull towards a centre, progressively broke down. The notion of being off-key didn’t apply because there was no key to be off. This didn’t produce the Les Dawson, wrong note, school of composition but rather a music that relied entirely on dissonance. The logical conclusion of this was to widen the palette beyond notes and move towards a music made from any sounds. This is where the conventional world of the orchestra collided with Schaefer’s world of recorded sound.

There’s a parallel here with modern painting. At the end of the 19th century painters began to paint things (objects, people, landscapes) less realistically and what their images presented was paint itself. They were putting paint (and other stuff) onto canvas and that was it. That was all there was to see. The work of undermining painting’s grip on representation began in Europe and reached a peak, with the Abstract Expressionists in New York, in the 1950s. And when did painters stop painting things and begin painting paint? Roundabout the time that photography began representing what had previously been represented in paint – objects, people, landscapes, places.

Photography and sound recording are roughly contemporaneous. Technology of the second half of the nineteenth century. Rooted in industrial thinking. Invented and developed for commercial, documentary purposes not for artistic pursuits. What photography and sound recording enabled was the freezing of the moment. Susan Sontag brilliantly described the photograph as ‘a neat slice of time’. Photography and sound recording captured something that was fleeting, evanescent and transitory and turned it into a thing, an artefact. Something that could be held in the hand.

Photographs and sound recordings are not equivalent, of course. They’re not the same sort of thing. A photograph is taken in a fraction of a second, and represents a fraction of a second, whereas a sound recording captures longer periods of time and the temporal experience of sound cannot be compressed. But there is a similarity in the illusory nature of photography and sound recording. We’re fooled into thinking we have the real thing. We want to believe that the camera and the microphone do not lie. And, as Susan Sontag has pointed out, photography established the model for the development of all the media arts – film, television, video and ‘the tape based music of Cage and Stockhausen’.

Tape based music – music made with recorded sound – has enabled composers to push music beyond the world of conventional orchestral instruments, which are devices, developed over centuries, primarily designed for playing tunes. But the soundworld of tape music – now more likely to be made on a computer – has also transformed the nature of instrumental music. The sounds that orchestral players produce in many contemporary pieces extend way beyond the conventions of the instrument.

In so-called ‘classical’ music today, there’s often a mixture of conventional orchestral sounds and new sounds influenced by the world of recorded sound. Beat Furrer’s Orpheus’ Bücher sets a text describing Orpheus’s ascent into the world of light. The voices of the BBC Singers sound as though they’ve been recorded onto tape, shredded and flung into the air, scattering like confetti. The sound spins around the auditorium, the text fizzing like bubbles in sparkling water. Einklang by the effusive Tobias PM Schneid is formed from the ‘microtonal environment’ of a pair of notes sounding together. The inaudible inner details of sounds can be revealed and analysed when they are recorded, exactly as microphotography shows fabulous new worlds. In this piece Schneid has formed the macro structure by exposing and enlarging the micro structure within two notes. The effect is strident and as dramatic as the view down a microscope.

Just as photography changed forever what painting was, and could be, so sound recording has changed music. Not only in the way it is re-presented and consumed but also in the way it is conceived. In the way composers put sounds together and in the nature of those sounds. This has opened up a brave new world and brought the sound of the symphony orchestra into the 21st century.

© 2004 Robert Worby

A version of this article originally appeared in the Guardian