Music Timeline: A Brief Overview of The History of Recorded Music

The history of recorded music is long and complicated. This timeline will give you an overview of the evolution of recorded music, starting from the earliest days of phonograph recordings up to the digital era. Music has been a part of human culture since prehistoric times and has been passed down through oral traditions and via the written word. In fact, the first known musical recordings date back to the late 19th century and the invention of the phonograph. The technology continued to develop and by the early 20th century, the era of the gramophone had begun. More recently, the digital era of recorded music has allowed for a global reach and democratization of music. From the earliest wax cylinder recordings to modern digital streaming services, here’s a brief overview of the history of recorded music.

Prehistory of Recorded Music

The history of recorded music dates back thousands of years, to the very first known recordings made on wax cylinders. Ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian civilizations are also known to have used music notation to communicate ideas and ideas about music. The oldest known examples of musical notation date back to 8000 BC and are found in ancient Mesopotamia.

Ancient Egyptians are also known to have used written notation to communicate musical ideas, including songs and melodies. Various drawings have been found that depict instruments and people dancing. The earliest examples of ancient music notation are found on pottery shards and clay tablets, dating back to 3000 BC.

Wax Cylinder Recordings

The first known recordings on wax cylinders were made in Germany and France between 1877 and 1888, mainly for entertainment purposes. The earliest recordings were of music and spoken word, and were created using acoustic methods.

The technology continued to develop and by the early 20th century, the invention of the gramophone had led to the era of the phonograph, with the first recordings made using transducers. These early recordings used a stylus and sound recording platens, which were later replaced by a needle-shaped diaphragm. These early recordings were made commercially and were sold commercially, at first as a novelty and then as a new way to listen to music.

Wax cylinder recordings continued to be made until the 1950s and were used for a wide range of purposes, including for businesses seeking to promote their products, educational purposes, and as a form of entertainment. Some wax cylinder recordings were even made for the purpose of making a political statement, as in the case of the Russian Revolution.

Gramophone Recordings

The gramophone was invented in 1877 and was used for recording on metal discs, which were then played back by a gramophone. The disc records were first commercially available in the early 1880s and were initially referred to as “phonographs with records”.

In the 1890s, the invention of the electrical recording process led to the invention of the “gramophone record”, a flat disc made of music grooves. The earliest recordings on gramophone records were made in 1898, and were mainly produced by Thomas Edison’s company, which continued to produce recordings until 1908.

The widespread use of the gramophone record led to the development of radio broadcasting, which in turn created a demand for recorded music.

78 RPM Recordings

In the early 20th century, many artists, including classical composers, began to write music that could be performed using a single-speed (78 rpm) gramophone. These recordings were made using a special phonograph that played the records at 78 rpm. The number 78 indicated the speed of the recording, and the records were made in varying lengths of time, from as little as 2 minutes up to as long as 22 minutes, depending on the artist and music being recorded.

Some of the most well-known classical composers who had their music recorded on 78 rpm discs include Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner.

These classical compositions were a hit with the early recording artists and listeners, and were also a favorite of classical radio stations, which were beginning to emerge at the time.

The Sheet Music Era

The Sheet Music Era refers to the period between the 1880s and the 1930s, when sheet music was used to play back phonograph recordings. This era marked the beginning of the decline in popularity of 78 rpm records, and the rise of the gramophone and radio.

In the early 20th century, the popularity of sheet music was rising due to the popularity of phonograph performances, and the sheet music became a staple of many households.

The sheet music era was marked by a rise in popularity of classical music and opera, as sheet music became the preferred way to perform and listen to these works on record.

The Golden Age of Recorded Music

In the 1920s and 1930s, the technology of sound recording continued to improve and led to the development of the “gold disc”, also known as the “long play” record. The golden age of recorded music began in 1927 with the introduction of the Long Play (LP) record, which consisted of about 12 minutes of music per side.

The golden age of recorded music began in 1927 with the introduction of the Long Play (LP) record, which consisted of about 12 minutes of music per side. This new record format was a result of a number of technological innovations, including the invention of the lateral-cut disc.

Compact Discs

The Compact Disc, or CD, was invented in 1956 and was the first commercially available audio recording format that was designed to deliver high-quality sound over a long period of time.

The first commercially available CD was released by Sony in Japan in 1982, and the technology spread quickly. CDs were eventually released in the United States in November 1985, by which time there were more than 1,200 titles available.

In the decades after its invention, the CD rose to become the dominant format for distributing recorded music, especially as the rise in popularity of digital streaming services took hold. CDs were also designed to be replaceable and were often packaged with a book of sheet music so that listeners could perform the music on their own equipment.

Digital Streaming Services

The digital era of recorded music began in 1995 with the introduction of the first digital streaming service, called of “X-Play” by Next Box. In 2000, the first internet radio station was launched by ClearChannel.

Digital streaming services, such as Spotify and Pandora, were originally introduced as a way to play back pre-recorded music, but soon evolved into an open platform for creating and sharing digital music.


The history of recorded music is long and complicated, dating back thousands of years to the very first known recordings made on wax cylinders. From wax cylinders to 78 rpm records to the golden age of recorded music and compact discs.