Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Play It Again: Enjoying Music Through the Ages

“I love songs!”

This short phrase is something I’ve been known to say (or occasionally shout) with great enthusiasm. Yes, I could simply say I love music, but that wouldn’t encompass all of those catchy little improvised (and largely a cappella) ditties made up with friends or family while driving, working, cooking, or whenever else inspiration may strike. The word “songs” seems more fitting given the broader creative terrain it covers. Not to mention, most people chuckle or at least crack a smile when I utter those three words.

Music has played an important role in the lives of people for centuries. For some, the very act of playing an instrument or composing a piece is therapeutic. For others, that same piece may provide comfort during a trying time because the musician is able communicate the very thing we are feeling but cannot quite articulate, making us feel understood and less alone. Songs can also serve as the soundtrack for events in our life no matter how big or small. Chances are there is at least one song that sparks our memories enough that we will say, “Oh! This song reminds me of…”

Radio, General Electric Co, about 1950

While the human connection to music remains constant, the way we listen is ever changing. Live music remains unique as being in the room creates a feeling of being emotionally and physically close to the music, whether it’s in a small coffeehouse or a sold-out concert at a stadium. The power of live music touches our emotions and can make us want to tap our feet, clap along, or even get up and dance. But what about those times when a live ​performance isn’t readily available?

Sony Walkman

For decades, radio has been a key in connecting people everywhere with music. The technology for radio is based on the transmission and detection of electromagnetic waves, developed in the 19th century, and fine-tuned (pun very much intended) right around the turn of the 20th century. Radios brought music (and news) directly into the homes of millions. My mother, a baby boomer who grew up the youngest of four in a humble coal mining family, recently described with great fondness the small, plastic, turquoise GE tube radio she received for Christmas one year as a child. To her it was luxury, which brought tremendous joy as listening to music on the radio became a way of life for her. Even now—more than 50 years later— whenever I call or visit, I can count on the fact that a radio will always be playing somewhere in the background.

In addition to radio, vinyl records (or phonograph records) enjoyed popularity throughout most of the 20th century as the technology allowed people the freedom to listen to music when and where they chose. The 1962 debut of the cassette tape utilizing analog magnetic tape technology proved to be another great way for folks to enjoy music. Magnetic tape also took the form of 8-track tapes. Both formats increased the portability of music, allowing people to listen in the car or on the go with devices such as the iconic Sony Walkman, introduced in 1979 for use with compact cassette tapes. Small and affordable, these tapes enabled fans to build extensive music libraries quickly or even create their own customized compilations with personal mix tapes that soon became a staple for any road trip.

In the late 1980s the musical landscape changed yet again with the introduction of the compact disc, commonly known as CDs. Listeners no longer had to deal with pesky rewinding or fast forwarding of a cassette to find the tune of choice—the simple press of a button would advance to the next song without missing a second. CDs proliferated over the years with mail order CD clubs, zippered storage cases for easy browsing and maximum portability of one’s personal CD collection, and advanced portable CD players that could withstand the motion of running and working out. With advanced computer technology, the option to burn CDs—the digital equivalent of a mixed tape— made for a promising future for CDs… until the introduction of a small electronic device changed everything.

Apple iPod 10GB ​Apple introduced the iPod in October 2001 and instantly revolutionized the way people listen to music. The iPod allowed users to store hundreds (now thousands) of digital music files in one compact electronic device, allowing an entire music library to travel anywhere. Gone were the days of selecting a single tape or CD to listen to. Gone were the days of mix tapes and CDs with limited space. Gone was the need to haul stacks of CDs or tapes along with you for road trips or studying at the library. Digital music files and the internet now allow us to purchase or stream music in the comfort of our home, office, or wherever else we can find a reliable Wi-Fi connection.

Now, perhaps more than ever before, people have access to the songs of their choice wherever they are. Chances are no matter where you go, you’ll see someone wearing headphones while going about their daily routine. I freely admit that I am one of these people because the ability to take music with us and fit entire music libraries in our pocket is still amazing to me. So to quote iconic folk singer Cat Stevens “if you want to sing out, sing out.” After all it seems we all love songs.

 

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In October 2015, I was awarded a Research Fellowship from The Strong. I had access to the library, the archives, the museum itself, and the seemingly endless rows of shelves full of playthings of the past. Both my 14-year-old self and my current 30-something researcher self were in a happy place. My job is to study video games and teach about them—not a bad gig at all, I must admit—and I have been interested in the history and theory of digital and non-digital play for some time.

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