How Thomas Edison Changed Singing

The great inventor helped launch the jazz and blues revolution—but that was the exact opposite of what he intended

by Ted Gioia

I once made the glib claim that Thomas Edison had more influence on modern arts and culture than anyone else. It seems far-fetched. After all, Edison was a technologist, not an artist. But he did invent the record player and motion picture camera—and, for that reason alone, gets credit for laying the groundwork for all later media platforms relying on audio and video.

You might even say that Thomas Edison was the person who turned artistic creation into content—an annoying buzzword of media moguls in the digital age. Content is a term that makes me cringe. It implies that creative works are somehow generic and more-or-less interchangeable. That’s a dangerous notion, but it does encapsulate how the mega-corporations ruling the media and entertainment world tend to view their mission.

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Just check out the headlines

  • “Netflix Will Invest Around $17.3 Billion This Year in Content”

  • “Amazon on Pace to Spend $7 Billion on Video and Music Content.”

  • “Can Disney Outspend Netflix On Streaming Content?”

  • “Why Music Content on YouTube is About More Than Music”

  • “Meghan and Harry Have Given Spotify Just 35 Minutes of Content So Far in Their £18m Deal”

You get the idea.

Thomas Edison, bless his soul, set all that in motion. And he even managed to make money on content—by running his own record label and movie studio. True, it was analog content back then, not digital. But that hardly matters. After all, content is content.

As it turns out, Edison also had very definite aesthetic ideas about music. He wasn’t just interested in technology, but had strong opinions about singers and songs. And his influence was so pervasive during the early 20th century, he even changed the way people sang. Imagine Simon Cowell on steroids, with a dose of Steve Jobs, and that gives you some sense of Edison’s impact on the culture.

First and foremost, Thomas Edison hated vibrato—or what he called tremolo. His notes on recording sessions make this unmistakably clear. After hearing the legendary Irish singer John McCormack, Edison concluded: “Fine voice marred by a terrible tremolo. I turned him down for I couldn’t stand it.” After listening to Adele Ponzano, Edison noted: “Terrible rapid tremolo. Not wanted.” Edison’s reaction to the celebrated Italian soprano Adelina Agostinelli was caustic: “Her tremolo queers this song. Hold it.” And even the great Caruso got dismissed out of hand—Edison’s response to a 1912 session was “Caruso is getting big tremolo, tune N.G., all N.G. [no good].”

But Thomas Edison had other objections to singers. “I have about made up my mind that EVERY Italian tenor is an all around general damn fool,” was his commentary in response to a 1917 session featuring tenor Guido Ciccolini.  In other instances, Edison complained about “guttural sounds,” “uneven volume,” or “ridiculous noise.”

What’s make all this even more unsettling is that Thomas Edison, the world’s most influential music talent scout, was severely hearing-impaired. He was deaf in one ear, and had poor hearing in the other. He claimed this problem started at age twelve—possibly due to a bout of scarlet fever, or a series of ear infections, or (as Edison himself suspected) an injury to his ear during a train trip. At school, he had difficulty following the speech of the teacher, and this held him back—as a result, his entire formal education only amounted to a few months. In other words, Edison’s inability to hear certain frequencies was serious enough to incapacitate him in important situations long before he entered the music business. His impairment got worse over time.

It’s possible that this personal history helps explain his absolute insistence on clarity in musical performances. His written policy on singing from 1912 emphasizes this point: “All that we desire is that the voice shall be as perfect as possible, free of conspicuous tremolo, clear and without ragged sustained notes, free of subsidiary and false waves on these notes.”

Experts now believe that surgery might have improved Edison’s hearing, but he refused to consider it. He also didn’t use a hearing aid. When asked about it, he said wanted to invent his own.

In their study of Edison’s practices, scholars Tilo Hähnel and Karin Martensen claim that he may have influenced singing in several ways. First, by choosing who got recorded, Edison created an impression that vibrato and other methods of pitch alteration were not widely used in live performances—and nowadays we lack the means to make detailed comparisons. So it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Edison left us with a highly biased sample of the vocal music of the era. Second, artists almost certainly adapted their singing styles to please Mr. Edison, and this marked a further distortion of common practices. Finally, any aspiring singer who tried to learn techniques by studying recordings would obviously be conforming to Edison’s preferences—because those were the records that were most accessible. 

Yet Edison’s obsession with pure music and precise intonation backfired—at least when viewed over the long term. One of the reasons why African-American music sounded so fresh and exciting in the 1920s and 1930s is because alternative approaches to popular song seemed so cautious by comparison. When everybody else is singing right on the beat and in the middle of the pitch, jazz and blues sound liberating and revelatory.

“The voice shall be as perfect as possible, free of conspicuous tremolo, clear and without ragged sustained notes, free of subsidiary and false waves on these notes.”

In my book Music: A Subversive History, I call this preference for pure, perfectly delineated musical tones the Pythagorean paradigm. This attitude, which I named after the alleged inventor of Western scales, holds that notes should always be played in tune, without bends or deviations of pitch. The advantage of this approach is that it allows for easier codification and notation of music—it's so much easier to write down the melody on the printed page if every note is delivered with a precise tone and a carefully delineated rhythm placement. To some degree, the evolution of Western concert music required this codified way of creating and preserving performances.

Edison didn’t need to worry about how music was notated on the page, but he was as ardent in his pursuit of clarity as the most dogmatic Pythagorean. He hardly realized that his invention of the recording machine made it possible, for the first time, to preserve bent notes and rule-breaking rhythms with exact precision. That wasn’t his goal. He worked to limit or even eliminate this approach to music-making. Yet his technology would prove more powerful than his opinions on music.

Over the course of the next century, these defining techniques of African-American music would revolutionize popular song, and allow American record labels to dominate the global entertainment business. The Pythagorean paradigm was finally dislodged after two thousand years. Musicians were empowered to create sounds, textures and rhythms not captured by conventional notation—and this breakthrough would be disseminated by means of live performance and recordings.

Most of the credit for this belongs to African-Americans, who brought with them a very different way of conceptualizing music—because Africa had never agreed to those Pythagorean rules, thus developing a much different approach to music-making. In fact, songs were one of the few things that these forced immigrants to the New World brought with them on their doleful journey. Deprived of family, community, and possessions, they still had music. Over the long run, it proved decisive, much to the benefit of our global culture.

Thomas Edison would have hated this—because free-flowing, rule-breaking black music represented everything he tried to suppress in his recordings: tremolo, lack of clarity, uppity musicians, and so on. Even so, Edison made this Africanization of American music possible, although he never realized it. But that’s a useful lesson about technology, which often has results unforeseen by the technologists, sometimes the exact opposite of what they desire.

Jazz and blues might actually have disappeared if recordings had not preserved and disseminated these innovations. Even the philosophy of jazz, built on spontaneity and improvisation, required recording technology in order to assert itself—and that’s before we even start considering bent notes and distorted tones. Sure, improvisation can exist without recording devices, but its influence is hindered at every juncture. In contrast, commercial recordings made it possible for a musician from New Orleans or the Mississippi Delta to have global impact. From my perspective, it’s no coincidence that jazz and blues became social phenomena during exactly the same period that people started buying record players for their homes—the two trends are linked.

So I’ll give Edison indirect credit for all this. He pushed aggressively for a standardized way of singing—one that aimed to keep American music under unrealistic constraints. This only made the public all the more enthusiastic when something more expansive and free came along. And he unwittingly provided the tools these radical new musicians needed to advance their agenda. We are still benefiting from that a century later.