The history of music player: a sociotechnical analysis — Wency

The history of music player: a sociotechnical analysis — Wency

It seems to become a real commonplace for most music amateurs today to take a pair of earpieces and an iPhone with them to listen to music anywhere and anytime. Either you are hiking, going to the gym, on a travel, working on a project, studying for an exam, it has become a habit that you put on your earpieces and start to enjoy the music as well as getting better focused on your job.

However, things are different if we move back even just 10 years when iPhone was not as popular as today and people needed external music players (i.e. MP4) for them to listen to music. Further, if you ask your parents about their experience as music amateurs when they were young, they probably have a huge nostalgia back to the days when several children gathered together in some cool kid’s house and listen to the popular song on the tape or few years later, feeling extremely cool about walking on the street, carrying a huge Walkman, shaking their whole bodies with the music beats.

  1. From ancient live performance to phonograph and records: a need to preserve the temporal audio piece

People’s need of enjoying various forms of art started in the very earlier time when people made instruments and did live performances. They also invented notes to communicate with each player as well as preserve the songs. However, the key, rhythm, beats, etc. of the song could be preserved, the performance itself couldn’t. For those pure instrumental performance, it might not be a huge problem since people were able to produce many tokens of the original instrument as well as tokens of the original performance so long as they follow the rules recorded on the notes, but what about the singers? Words, notes per se would never be able to fully record the original voice of the singer. At this point, therefore, we see the need of humans to invent a technology, a durable tool that could extend, maintain the skills and thus break the limitation of time and space, they need to maintain the entire succession of accumulated elements for future innovation (Latour, 1994, p.61; see also Latour, 1991, p.109).

The phonograph, to some extent, sees an affordance which is latent in the environment (Zhang & Patel, 2006, p.336). While phonograph incorporates a desire to preserve the temporal music or broader, sounds, accompanying that desire would be a need to play that audio piece in the future. Therefore, records and LP records, 10 years later, are invented to play the audio piece and to keep refining the standard.

  1. Records –> tapes –> Walkman: an increasingly need of portability and convenience.

If the invention of the phonograph and records are intended to preserve and play music which is still focus on the music per se, the long-term transition from records to MP3, nevertheless, might be more or less deviated. Can we invent a technology that would allow users to carry them so that they could listen to music everywhere? Can we make them smaller, lighter so that users won’t be annoyed while carrying them? The idea of new innovation, the transition of an idea to a project, a project to an object, is not only incorporating the people who inhabit it but also they wish to effect: product development team sees the potential of the user’s need and imbues such potential into the update of new innovation. On the other hand, users’ earlier roles, habits, functions also provide a precondition for such innovation (they’ve get used to the earlier mode of listening to music and they themselves would see some lacks on the current product, e.g.: while going out for a travel, they might want to carry something with them to kill time) (Latour, 1994,  p.49). The music player, therefore, is becoming smaller and smaller and Sony reached one of its annex by selling the Walkman since 1979.

  1. From Walkman to MP3: analog to digital

The well-known Sony Walkman didn’t last forever, unfortunately. While the main technology inside it was the vibration of magnetic sheet, the external noise and the dust accumulated on the sheet would be inevitable to lower the tone quality. As the whole technology industry’s working better and better on computing and the utilization of digitization, this also facilitate the development of digital music. Through the analog to digital transition, people were therefore able to numerically view the noise and eliminate them more accurately, the quality of listening to music, were therefore guaranteed.

At the same time, the users need is incited and diversified by the environment as well as their previous experience, if we think about how users were more and more used to the better quality provided by the digital music, more and more of them might not be willing to return back to the Walkman age when there were too much noise interrupted, it would not be difficult to relate this to the modern distributed cognition theory where the boundary of cognition is not individual anymore, the external sources, tools in the environment should also be considered in the range (Hollan, Hutchins, & Kirsh, 2000, p.175, p.193).

Meanwhile, the blossom of digital music allows the musicians to delegate part of the real performance in the recording room to some electrical synthesizing effect (the computer is later be programmed to be able to simulate a ton of sounds from different kinds of instrument which gives musicians multiple choices as well as save a lot of money to find the players for each instrument needed in the song (Latour, 1994, p.39). But at the same time, modern musicians are required and trained to be more and more adjusted to work with those new electrical technologies and new occupations are created in a macro social level.

  1. From MP3, MP4 to Streaming media: not music itself but the market of music player devices is under a revolutionary– mixed affordance: the whole industry

The story seems to finish if we are only focusing on listening to music conveniently with high quality and without the limitation with time and space. Nevertheless, the reality today seems to be unpredictable 10 years ago. In the digital age, everything can be integrated and thus be defined as a computer, while MP3 is focusing on digital music which also provides a large potential of storage, why don’t we add some new features onto it? Can we watch videos, download pictures, play games on that as well? The iPod touch is later known for offering anything but communication that a smartphone does.

But as the price is becoming higher and higher as the new music player is becoming more and more function diversified, why not just directly integrate the music listening function onto the smartphone? It’s highly integrated, convenient and much cheaper than purchasing an external device. Such need thus accelerates a whole revolution in the streaming media where Apple music, Spotify, Pandora, etc. came out almost overnight and everyone starts to download those application on their phones to listen to music. While these applications substitute the previous music players, they are competing with each other as well as collaborating with the smartphone industry such as Apple store. An economic mediation through time and space is thus emerging as well (Latour, 1994, p.45).

  1. What would be the next?

That could be a tough question. In fact, technologies are not fetishes, they are unpredictable, not means but mediators (Latour, 1994, p.53). Both the society and technology are mediating what’s currently mediating themselves, the development of technology is thus non-linear. We are living at a period when technology, society, politics, economics and culture are all serving as agencies where the whole system is shifting from single actor to many agents, from homogeneous agency to hybrid constellations and from hierarchy to framed interactivity (Rammert, 2008, p.13-16). Meanwhile, the larger system is broken into subsystems, or modules which work relatively enjoy independencies but are also dependent on and interacting with each other invisibly (Irvine, 2018, p.2). Like what we learned in 506, the whole complex system is like a blackbox which contains infinite blackboxes inside. To understand a system, we need to define it, explore the interaction of its components as well as elaborate its relation with the external environment.

Date Event
1857 Leon Scott de Martinville’s Phonautograph 

The phonautograph could record, but could not reproduce sounds. The original design for the phonautograph eventually led to the gramophone.

1877 Thomas Edison’s Phonograph 

The phonograph made recorded music possible. The device recorded sound, including human voices.

1887 Emile Berliner’s Gramophone 

Emile Berliner created the Gramophone, the first device to play a disk of recorded music, in 1887. The gramophone made recorded music accessible.

1896 Gramophone on the Market 

By 1896, the gramophone was on the market as a Victrola, playing disks of recorded music. This is the first commercially available record player.

1905 Beginning of 78 RPM Standard 

The 78 RPM standard was introduced. This enabled shoppers to be sure that their records would play on their Victrolas, and play correctly. This remained the standard until the introduction of the LP in 1940.

1954 First Transistor Radio 

In 1954, the first transistor radio allowed listeners to take music with them, as the radio was now small and portable.

1962 First Portable Stereo 

The first portable stereo integrated speakers into a record player, allowing people to take their record player with them, moving it wherever they went.

1963 Audio Cassette 

The audio cassette offered music in a smaller and more portable format than ever before. Audio cassettes also enabled the first mix tapes.

1965 Release of the 8-Track Tape 

The 8-Track tape brought recorded music into cars, long before audio cassette players were integrated into car stereos.

1979 The Walkman 

In 1979, the first personal music player was released by Sony. The Walkman combined an audio cassette player and headphones.

1983 The First Compact Disc 

The Compact Disc offered higher quality recording, and increased durability compared to an audio cassette. By 1984, portable CD players were available.

1998 First MP3 Player 

The first MP3 player, playing audio files, was released in 1998. The player eliminated the need for another media to hold music.

2001 Apple’s First iPod 

Apple released its first iPod, taking the MP3 player mainstream in 2001. The iPod made digital music significantly more popular.

2007 iPod Touch 

Apple released the iPod Touch. The iPod Touch served as a music player, but also offered access to the Apple App Store, games and other features.

Table 1. (Evolution of Music Players Timeline, n.d.)


  1. Evolution of Music Players Timeline. (n.d.). Retrieved March 27, 2018, from
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