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Reviewed by:
  • Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music
  • James P. Kraft (bio)
Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. By Mark Katz. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Pp. xiii+276. $49.95/$19.95.

The literature on the history of sound technologies is growing increasingly nuanced and relevant. This interesting book by Mark Katz shows how such technologies have both mirrored and shaped American society. Capturing Sound is concise, well organized, and easy to read; it even comes with a compact disc that enables readers to hear the music to which Katz refers. It draws on a variety of primary and secondary sources, and it demonstrates a familiarity with broad themes in the field of technological history.

The influence of new sound technologies, Katz argues, can be measured by considering differences between live musical performances and the phonograph recordings of particular time periods. In the opening chapter, he explains that recordings of the early twentieth century had greater "portability" and "repeatability" than live performances, and a new sense of "tangibility." But they lacked a certain visual dimension that characterized live performances, and they imposed new restrictions on composers, listeners, and performers. As musicians and producers discovered the "manipulability" of recordings, music began to transcend the human limitations inherent in musical performances.

Katz concludes that the manipulation of sound technologies helped to transform musical culture, and refers to manifestations of technology's influence as the "phonograph effect." But Katz is no technological determinist. Time after time, he explains that new sound technologies did not have "unavoidable, irresistible consequences." He acknowledges that social and economic realities have always shaped the way music is recorded, and that technological change in the recording industry has long had unexpected [End Page 429] consequences. In the book's second chapter, Katz shows how general attitudes about music and technology affected the look and use of the phonograph. He explains (as others have done) that the time limitations of recordings helped make three-minute "hits" part of American culture. He also explains that disc-jockey battles of the 1980s, which were dominated by young men, reflected broad differences in the way men and women are raised; indeed, these battles were similar to "cutting" contests among jazz musicians in earlier times. In short, Katz's book takes the view that technological change is socially constructed.

In the final two chapters, Katz delves into the impact of the digital revolution. He pays special attention to the influence of electronic "sampling" by hip-hop artists, and of "looping" in rap music. He also focuses on the importance of MP3 files and peer-to-peer networking, and weighs in on the legal debate surrounding the downloading of music on the internet. Though Katz sees merit in the recording industry's opposition to file sharing, he ultimately sides with consumers. Rejecting the notion that downloading automatically hurts the industry, he calls for the development of a new file-sharing system that benefits more people. The new system, he says, would need to be easier to use, faster, and more reliable than present systems. Katz suggests that CDs will continue to sell in the age of the Internet because they have characteristics that online music does not, including a greater sense of physicality, permanence, and visual appeal.

This is no comprehensive study of how technology has changed music. It has little to say about many technological innovations that have limited or expanded musical performances, such as electrical transcriptions, cassette decks, and synthesizers. A more exhaustive study would have taken a closer look at how matters of class, race, and gender have impinged upon the history of recording, and on how the goals of cost-conscious producers have intersected with recording technology. On a minor note, this book should have had more illustrations, more references to the thirteen CD tracks, and a longer, more informative conclusion. Yet this is a welcome addition to the literature as it is. It not only helps us see the importance of sound technologies in musical life, but to understand how the development and use of these technologies speak to broad patterns of change and continuity in society.

James P. Kraft

Dr. Kraft is the author of...