Four decades ago, we introduced a standard way of encoding digital sound. Its first ever upgrade could lead to new genres of music and ways of experiencing sound
6 May 2020
FOR most of the thousands of years that humans have been listening to music, the only way to hear it was to be there when it was played. The earliest musical notation would take millennia to emerge, and the first recordings were made only about 150 years ago. You might think that since then we have got steadily better at capturing the grace and richness of music. But for almost 40 years, we have relied on the same technology to produce the vast majority of the music we hear. And it’s badly in need of an upgrade.
Finally, though, a sweeping overhaul is in progress. The ramifications for music-making will be huge. When digital music entered into its own in the 1980s, it quickly began to shape what people listened to, ushering in waves of creativity and whole new genres. Now that its foundations are being reset, the same is sure to happen again. And it isn’t just music; the way we experience sound – on television, in cinemas and beyond – is set for an upgrade. So steady those ears: they are about to experience sound as never before.
The first sound recording we know of was made by a device called a phonautograph in 1860, and features a rendition of the folk song Au Claire de la Lune. The machine, a brainchild of French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, transcribed sound waves into a line traced on smoke-blackened glass or paper. It may seem primitive, but conceptually, things stayed the same for more than a century. …