Music Formats

Music is everywhere. With the advent of digital music, the iPod, streaming services and more, music has the opportunity to be with us more often and in more ways. We listen at home, in our cars on our way to work, on headphones walking down the street... we are always listening to music. How did we get to this point? How did listeners consume their music before the modern day conveniences we have today? This website is intended to answer these questions and showcase the music formats of yore, in all of their glory.

wax cylinder


Invented: August 12, 1877
Inventor: Thomas Edison


Size: Standard-sized cylinders tended to be 4.25" long and 2.1875" in diameter.
Portability: Meant for home usage and not extremely portable
Capacity: Early wax cylinder had a length of only 2 minutes.

Music was not a the first application Thomas Edison had in mind when he invented the Phonograph in 1877. He thought the device would be most useful for "letter-writing and other forms of dictation, books, education, reader, music, family record." Although a music player was on his list of possible uses for this device, he saw it being used as a Dictaphone, talking book, or an answering machine as we know these devices today.

The Edison Phonograph

The original Edison tin foil phonograph

The first recording was made by Thomas Edison as he recited the words of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on December 6th, 1877. Unfortunately, the recording made that day no longer exists. The earliest known recording of Thomas Edison't voice is "Speaking to Mr. Blaine" made in 1888.

Speaking to Mr. Blaine

The earliest known recording of Thomas Edison's voice (1888)

In 1897, the Edison Standard Phonograph was manufactured and marketed to consumers for only $20 (a significant price drop from phonographs that previously cost $150). Marches, sentimental ballads, coon songs, hymns, comic monologues, and more were made available for consumption at home for the first time ever. Before the phonograph, the only way to experience these types of entertainment was to see them live. The phonograph allowed consumers to bring performances home and revolutionized the way we consume entertainment.

The Edison Phonograph

"I want a phonograph in every home."

magnetic tape

Magnetic Tape

Invented: First demonstrated as the "magnetophone" at the Berlin Radio Fair in 1935
Inventor: Dr. Fritz Pfleumer patented the application of magnetic powders to a strip of paper or film in 1928 in Germany. BASF of I.G. Farben joined with AEG of Telefunken later to develop magnetic tape recording using the Pfleumer patent.


Size: The "Type C" tape that was first produced for the magnetophone was 6.5mm wide and about 0.5mm thick.
Portability: Tapes were made of light paper or plastic and made on-location recording more feasible.
Capacity: Early tapes were 1,500 meters long and played at a rate of 1 meter per second giving tapes a running time of 25 minutes.

As with the phonograph, music was not the first real-world application for magnetic tape. Steel-tape recorders were widely used at the onset of World War II to gather news and entertainment from a variety of locations. These tape machines allowed the German broadcasting authority to pre-record entertainment, news, and propaganda to be delivered over public address systems throughout the country.

The original magnetophon

AEG Magnetophon, 1935
The handles on either end of the device allowed for easier portability.

Music recording was definitely on the minds of those developing the magnetophone at AEG and BASF. They invited Sir Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra to make a series of recordings in 1936 that were some of the earliest of a symphonic ensemble.

Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

A selection from Mozart's Symphony No. 39 recorded by BASF Nov. 19, 1936, during Thomas Beecham's concert in Ludwigshafen, Germany

While many tape machines were used for the war effort, there were ongoing experiments with high-fidelity designs. By 1945, the K7 was one of two improved versions of the tape machine and was able to produce frequencies up to 15,000 Hz which was higher than most phonographs or radios could produce and near the limit of human hearing (around 20,000 Hz).

The magnetic tape machine never became vastly popular as a consumer device. It was, however, widely used as a recording and playback device for radio stations in particular. It provided many technical advances that paved the way for more "hi-fi" systems that were yet to come.


Vinyl Records

Invented: 1948
Inventor: Columbia Records


Size: The 33 1/3 rpm long-playing (LP) disc was 12 inches in diameter.
Portability: None. Any movement might knock the stylus out of the record's groove resulting in a skip.
Capacity: About 20 minutes per side

Columbia's long-playing record incorporated many of the improvements in disc recording that had been available but idle since the 1930s. A fine groove as well as a slow speed of 33 1/3 revolutions per minute allowed for longer playing sides (as the name might suggest) that could hold many of the lengthier classical recordings in Columbia's library.

The LP

Columbia's Long Playing microgroove record, originally conceived as a way to present long recordings of classical music

While Columbia was busy developing the LP, RCA-Victor was at work developing the 45. These 7-inch discs used a fine groove much like the LP, but only held about 5 minutes worth of music due to its smaller diameter. Alongside the 45, RCA-Victor was also developing the "X-Changer", a disc changer that could play a series of records that were stacked on a spindle mechanism, one by one. First sold in 1949, the changer retailed at $39.94 which was about the same as the Columbia LP player.

45 changer

The disc changer was a key feature of RCA-Victor's new 45 record. Most historians assumed that the small disc size implied that RCA-Victor's target was the popular music market.

The competition between Columbia's LP and RCA-Victor's 45 was dubbed the "War of the Speeds", although neither format was ever declared a winner. The end result was ultimately a compromise: albums were commonly released on LPs and 45s were mostly reserved for singles in subsequent years.

Obviously, the vinyl record is an old format, but it isn't anywhere close to being dead. In recent years, there has been a massive resurgence in vinyl record sales. In 2011, U.S. vinyl album sales reached 3.9 million units, which was nearly a 40% increase from 2010. Although these sales numbers pale in comparison to those of 1977 when a record 344 million LPs and EPs were sold, it's still a major increase from a year like 1993 in which less than half a million records were sold.

vinyl record sales since 1993

Vinyl records have had a major resurgence in recent years.

Some say that digital music streams that we have today might be easy to tune out and that vinyl records are a more active way to listen to music. Vinyl enthusiasts enjoy taking the time to remove a record from its sleeve and place it on the turntable, handling it carefully along the way. Some might just like the look of the spinning platter while they hear their favorite tunes. Whatever the reason, many music enthusiasts are building collections of this old format despite the many modern music conveniences such as MP3 players and internet radio that we have today.

eight track

Eight Track

Invented: 1964
Inventor: William P. Lear of Learjet aircraft company


Size: 5.25" x 4" x 0.9" cartridge
Portability: Made available in automobiles in 1965. Compact 8 track cartridges allowed listeners to enjoy music at home or on the road.
Capacity: 80 minutes

The 8-track was created by William P. Lear, entrepreneur and leader of the Learjet aircraft company. He wanted a way to deliver soothing music to passengers in his new business aircraft. He decided to reengineer the Muntz Stereo-Pak, a 4-track tape music format of which his company was a distributor, for his aircraft with a simplified cartridge that was cheaper to make and could hold twice as much music.

In 1965, Ford agreed to offer the 8-track as an optional feature in some of its automobiles. The device caught on, and Ford executives decided to include it in more of their models. In 1967, only two years after the introduction of the 8-track, there were already about 2.4 million players being used.

vinyl record sales since 1993

The 8-track allowed music lovers to take their music with them on the road.

With the introduction of home 8-track players, consumers could now listen to their music at home or while they were driving around town. Drivers and passengers were no longer at the mercy of their local radio disc jockey. Now, they could listen to their own music whenever they wanted. It was a drastic change in the way people enjoyed music.

The 8-track enjoyed widespread success, but not for long. Within five years of its creation, companies began dropping the format for a competing tape cartridge called the "Compact Cassette".

cassette tape

Cassette Tape

Invented: 1962
Inventor: Phillips Electronics Company of the Netherlands


Size: 4" x 2.5" x 0.4" cartridge
Portability: Available in many vehicles and was extremely portable when using Sony's Walkman
Capacity: Variable - often 30 or 45 minutes per side

Believe it or not, the compact cassette was actually developed before the 8-track cartridge. It was first introduced in Europe in 1962, but it was not well received. A high price tag for a cassette recorder which was outperformed by many other available recorders did not give the format a great start. Although, within a few years, the price had come down significantly, and the format began to gain traction.

Much of the cassette's success was due to its capabilities as a recorder and as a player. Although blank recordable 8-track cartridges were available, their sales were far outstripped by those of blank cassettes. The cassette began eating away at 8-track sales in 1975, and was able to surpass it within five years. By 1983, almost all 8-track production has ceased, and the cassette became the portable format of choice.

Phillips Compact Cassette

A blank cassette that could be used for recording or for playback.

The cassette's affordability, improved sound quality, and compact convenience were helping it to gain popularity in the late 70s. It received an extra boost when Sony introduced the Walkman in Japan in 1979. The Walkman gained significant traction in New York City and other key American markets the following year. It completely changed the way people listen to music again. Now, instead of being tethered to a home stereo system or a car radio, music could be carried with a person right on their waist, wherever they may go.

Sony Walkman

The Sony Walkman allowed people to listen to music wherever they went, not just at home or in the car.

The cassette surpassed the LP in the mid-80s and sold almost three times as many units in 1986, even though many argued that it was of inferior sound quality. Regardless, it was the most popular format at the time. As LP production quickly faded in the late 80s, there was demand for a high quality alternative, and that paved the way for the next format to reach the spotlight: the Compact Disc.

compact disc

Compact Disc

Invented: 1982
Inventor: Sony and Phillips


Size: 12 x 12 cm disc
Portability: Available in many vehicles and was extremely portable with portable CD players, although too much movement could sometimes cause discs to skip
Capacity: 74 minutes

In the 1970s, there were several electronics firms experimenting with the the idea of recording analog television signals optically and reproducing them by scanning them with a beam of light. MCA was one such firm, and they created their first prototype videodisc player in 1972. As work continued on the system, MCA and Phillips joined forces, demonstrating the device again in 1972. It used a 12-inch plastic disc spinning at 1,800 RPM and held about 25 minutes of audio and video.

The videodisc information was recorded with a laser making a series of pits of varying sizes in the disc's surface. Phillips wanted to take this same technology and apply it to digital audio. Sony had similar ideas, so the two companies came to an agreement and worked together on what would come to be known as the "Compact Disc".

Sony CDP101

Sony's first CD player, the CDP101

Along with the first player came the first commercially-available album, Billy Joel's 52nd Street, released on October 1st, 1982. That makes the CD more than 30 years old.

Billy Joel - 52nd Street

The first commercially available Compact Disc, Billy Joel's 52nd Street

The format has certainly enjoyed its fair share of success in the past three decades. In 2000, the CD's peak year, the record industry sold a staggering 785 million units. Since then, the CD has started to fade and quickly. Less than a decade later in 2009, CD sales were less than half of what they once were, selling 373.9 million units. As CD sales declined, digital formats such as the MP3 started to gain traction. With the advent of the internet, online file-sharing, and MP3 players, listeners no longer had to buy physical copies of their favorite music. CD sales plummeted, and many record stores such as Tower Records were forced to go out of business completely.

Tower Records

As physical formats declined, brick and mortar stores such as Tower Records felt the pain.

digital storage

Digital Storage

Invented: The MPEG-3 (later called MP3) was announced in 1992
Inventor: Moving Picture Experts Group invented the MP3, a popular digital music format


Size: n/a
Portability: Extremely portable. Can be carried on any device that has some form of digital memory.
Capacity: Unlimited

The MPEG-3 (MP3) was invented to pass audio at a reasonable quality while minimizing the bandwidth needed to transmit it. It is a "lossy" format that doesn't maintain all of the information from the original analog signal. With many users still stuck on slow dial-up connections, it was perfect for sending over the internet in the 90s. MP3 files took up less space, transferred quickly and sounded decent... sometimes. The format had the ability to sound downright awful depending on how compressed the file was.

In 1998, the first MP3 players hit the market. One such device was called the Rio player and was made by Diamond Multimedia. It allowed listeners to load MP3 files into its internal memory to be played later at the user's convenience. The RIAA subsequently sued Diamond Multimedia over the device.

Diamond Rio

The Diamond Rio, the first commercially successful Mp3 player, was released in 1998.

In 1999, Napster was born. Created by a young programmer named Shawn Fanning, Napster allowed users to share music files over what was know as a "peer-to-peer" network. Through this network, Napster was actually able to skirt the "Digital Millennium Act" which stated that no device or software could be made that was intended to circumvent the copy protection features of digital media files. Technically, the users were the ones committing piracy. Napster was simply enabling them to. Nonetheless, the courts demanded that Napster block any illegal transfer of files, which effectively shut the service down.

Despite Napster's demise, digital media piracy continues to exist. Some say that prohibitively high prices of CDs encourage listeners to download illegally. Regardless of the reason, the record industry has had trouble capturing the high profits they once had during the CD's heyday. Many listeners now download their music from online music stores such as iTunes, listen to internet radio from services such as Pandora, or subscribe to services like Spotify, which offers unlimited playback of music at the user's request.

iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify

Services like iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify are all ways for listeners to enjoy music from the web.

The future of the music industry is largely unknown. Technology is advancing at an ever-increasing rate, and these changes will most certainly affect the way we consume music in coming years. Who knows how music will be delivered to our ears in the future. Whether you still listen to CDs, prefer the experience of vinyl, or subscribe to an online music service, one thing remains clear: We love to listen to music, regardless of the format, and that doesn't seem to be changing.