Experimenting with the Phonograph

Did you ever record music with a phonograph? Well, we gave it a go during the skills training on Experimental Media Ethnography (4 – 5 July 2018) conducted by Prof. Dr. Andreas Fickers, Prof. Dr. Kristen Haring, Dr. Jessica Mesmanand Dr. Stefan KrebsWe experimented with the phonograph as a form of media ethnography. Simulating the learning-by-doing teaching technique which Kristen Haring introduced to us, we started hands-on immediately with a brief reflection on what we wanted to record on a wax cylinder.

We were keen on combining our personal interests with this experiment, so as musicians, we decided to record our own live music. I was particularly motivated to try out the violin because Dr. Stefan Krebs mentioned that at the time they couldn’t record the violin with the Edison phonograph because it wasn’t loud enough. Ever the historian I wanted to put that finding to the test (perhaps driven to prove it wrong).

I took my dusty violin out of its case and started looking through the stack of sheet music for a piece that was easy to play and did not exceed the 2-minute wax cylinder limit. Eventually I decided on the Carnival of Venice because it is such a recognizable tune. I practiced for about an hour the night before and packed my violin and the sheet music before heading to the workshop. Although we were given a copy of the original user manual, I only took a brief look at it. That morning we first studied the Edison Phonograph up close and figured out what each component did. In order to understand the recording process, we watched a YouTube instruction video and after a presentation on video-reflexive ethnography by professor Jessica Mesman attempted our first recording.

Experimental Media Ethnography in the DH-Lab (Belval)


Instead of sticking to the original schedule and having one group observing the other, we all gathered around for the recording. First I had to tune the violin while Marleen was also warming up the flute she brought. It was a team effort; Jessica’s task was to hold the sheet music for me and Kaarel had to announce the title of the music for the recording. We were as ready as we could ever be, when Stefan started the recording and measured the decibels with his phone, and the others were either recording the first try with their phone or observing the procedure. At the end of the first recording, I stopped the phonograph on time so that there was a part of the cylinder left for Marleen and then she recorded the song she knew by heart.

While listening to the recording afterwards the violin was indeed hard to hear, whereas the sound of the flute was slightly easier to pick up, so we decided to try out a few different techniques. First, we added a piece of carton board around the recording horn in order to capture the sound better. That didn’t work because the carton board absorbed the sound rather than expanding the reach of the horn. Furthermore, the piece of carton made it harder to stand close enough to the recording horn. Next, we heated the wax cylinder right before our final test and that improved the recording much better than the cardboard addition.

In order to listen to the recordings, we had to change the horn and the ‘reproducer’, and both of these elements influenced the quality of playback. As I was visiting the Heinz-Nixdorf Museums Forum a month later in Paderborn, the Dictaphone caught my attention. This device that otherwise looks very similar to the Phonograph, seemed to use headphones instead of a reproducer-horn.


Dictaphone on display at the Heinz-Nixdorf museumsForum in Paderborn.

The Phonograph was used at home, whereas the Dictaphone was used in the office. While I was looking at the images accompanying the display, two thoughts popped into my head. First, I realised that this constellation of a manager speaking into the Dictaphone and a secretary afterwards transcribing the recording must have inspired Vannevar Bush while he was describing certain features of the ‘memex’ in As We May Think.1 Second, transcribing speech to text – whether by typewriter or modern day computer – requires absolute concentration and noise-cancelling headphones. The headphones from this Dictaphone must have been inspired by the stethoscope because the metal part that you would expect to go over the head of the secretary hung below her chin. Whether for entertaining or professional purposes, this analogue media has influenced our experience of listening to music profoundly. To the point where modern songs usually only last between 2 and 4 minutes, the maximum length of a recording on a wax cylinder.


  1. Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic, July 1945.

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