Adorno on needles

The 20th century German cultural critic Theodor Adorno wrote an elliptical essay on music and technology entitled "The Curves of the Needle." This short work -- not really much more than a critical postcard -- is available in Richard Leppert's edited volume of Adorno's Essays on Music.

Adorno begins "The Curves of the Needle" by reminding us that there is an intimate connection between the music itself and technology used to distribute that music:

"Talking machines and phonograph records seems to ahve suffered the same historical fate as that which one befell photographs: the transition from artisanal to industrial production transforms not only the technology of distribution but also that which is distributed."

Adorno wrote this essay in 1927, in reaction to Edison's mechanical phonograph player. As the phonograph's needle touches the plastic record, he tells us, the music recedes into the background:

"As the recordings become more perfect in terms of plasticity and volume, the subtlety of color and authenticity of vocal sound decline as if the singer were being distanced more and more from the apparatus.... "

So Adorno is saying that the "better" the technology, the less "real" the music sounds. And this in 1927, years before the invention of the stereophonic gramophone record, let alone the compact disc. I daren't imagine what Adorno, that old Luddite, would have thought of digital music distributed and copied "perfectly" over the Internet.

Then again, perhaps Adorno can help us understand the decline in recorded music sales. Maybe he's right to suggest that a perfect technology for the distribution of music undermines acoustic color and authenticity. And maybe that's why, just when the technology of distribution seems to have been perfected, fewer and fewer people are buying recorded music.