How the Microphone Changed the World

In the same way that spoken language changes over the years, so do musical styles.  We no longer speak English to one another like they did in the time of King James, nor do we speak Latin as they did in the church for a thousand years, nor do we speak the language of the original people to whom the scriptures were given.  Yes, we can read the King James Bible and some who have studied can even read the Latin Vulgate or even the original texts in Greek and Hebrew and there will always be a need for that.  But for the vast majority of people, we need to retell that most important story and it’s sub-stories again and again in every possible language, dialect and sub-dialect.  God is the great I AM, the living God and he has always interacted with people and still does today and we must make the gospel known in every tongue, including musically.  It has been said that when you sing, you pray twice – once with the words and the other with your music and melody.  People need prayers in their own mother language, both lyrically and musically.

Shifts in musical language have happened over the years, especially recently with technology, and we are still adapting to some new paradigm shifted realities.  Let’s take a look at how the microphone as a symbol for new audio technologies are still transforming the musical landscape.

Microphone and Notation.

It used to be that over long distances of time and space, the most accurate way of capturing the essence of a musical experience was by writing down various descriptions of what you heard.  We have developed in the West a highly sophisticated notation system that is slowly being replaced by the more accurate, more High Fidelity as we might say, system: audio recording.  Audio engineering is the new notation system. More and more musicians play things by ear with vague memory joggers as an aid in the form of chord charts.

Microphone and Ensemble Size.

It used to take a very large orchestra or choir to fill a large room with music.  Now a single musician with overdubs and technology can fill a stadium not even really designed for music, but rather for loud sporting events.  The economic realities of a small group of people splitting the profits has led to ensemble sizes being considerably smaller, once again eliminating another reason for the notation system, if no parts need to be doubled up on.

Microphone and Vocal Style

The Italian Bel Canto style was invented in order to allow a singer to sing with a larger than life voice that would reach the very back of giant rooms.  Now, with a microphone, the singer is freed up to be able to use a wide palette of emotional timbres, vowel shapes and colloquial accents that were impossible with the older system.

Microphones and emphasis on Time/Rhythm

Because rooms no longer need to be built to bounce sound around to help it carry to the back row, the microphone and amplifiers and speakers do all the heavy lifting, making it possible to have more complicated rhythms and more of an emphasis on tight rhythms.  Imagine the difference between the sound of a hi-hat in a modern day isolated studio and in a large cathedral.

Microphone and the Internet

Combined with the power of the internet, today’s average listener has access to more music from more artists from more ages in history than ever before.  This allows for revivals and continuation of musical styles that might have otherwise passed on.  The musical tastes and knowledge represented in an average crowd today might well be significantly more diverse than the past. What effect is that having?  What will it mean for future generations?  We’ll have to wait and see!



2 Responses to How the Microphone Changed the World

  1. Another change the microphone has brought: It has become the emblem of vocal performance in our culture, and sadly one of the major influences contributing to eliminating the use of the personal singing voice in any personal expression or participatory venue.

    Many children growing up in our performance focused culture don’t believe their singing has any value without a microphone. From a culture that 100 years ago, everyone sang for personal expression, work, and worship, we now have created a vocal aristocracy, where many believe only the talented have the “right” to open their mouths to sing.

    We must make a priority to heed God’s call, singing in worship to, for, and with one another without fear or shame. We can sing in the joy of knowing that through Christ’s purifying redemptive work we lift our voices to God, and God fully receives the sweet aromas of our offerings.

    • jchollar says:

      Good points Ruth. Psalm 150:6 “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD”
      God wants and commands all of His children to love him and praise Him with all that we are, including the unique voice that He has given to each of us. There is a time and a place for the individual solo, but there is a huge need for the “congregation”, or “congregational choir” as I call them to sing.
      I have microphones on my “congregational choir” that I turn up on our recordings and I do what I can to specifically engineer the acoustics of the room and volume levels so the “congregational choir” can hear themselves. Again, there is a place for instrumental sections, special vocal solos and ensembles, but we will all lose out big time if we lose the congregational singing!
      Thanks for pointing that out!

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