Even though the feelings it evokes may be the same, the way we listen to it has changed dramatically as technology has shifted over the past century—thanks to innovations in technology.
Recorded music became a possibility when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. By 1895, the gramophone was allowing people to play music in their homes. These early technologies first used wax or metal cylinders before disc-shaped records became popular. Early records were made from a variety of materials—often rubber, minerals or shellac, which made them brittle and fragile.
But in the 1930s, scientists had learned to make a variety of useful plastics, including one called polyvinyl chloride. In 1931, RCA Victor began selling longer-playing records made from vinyl. Durable and versatile, vinyl discs became so popular for recording music that “vinyl” is now synonymous with a turntable record.
Eight-tracks and Cassettes
The synthetic plastics that scientists were making were so versatile that they could be formed into a variety of shapes. In the 1950s, engineers began coating long strips of plastic in oxide and recording music onto them. The plastic tape was then spooled onto a plastic reel.
While vinyl records were still popular in homes, auto manufacturers had been searching for a portable technology that could bring recorded music to cars. Tape cartridges were the answer. In the 1960s and 70s, many cars were equipped with eight-track players. In the 1980s, they were quickly replaced by smaller, lighter cassette tapes.
From its place in cars and homes, music headed outside. The advent of the boombox meant that anyone could carry music wherever they went—and the whole street could hear it. Boomboxes relied on the ultra-portable cassette tape technology. Other lightweight materials, including plastic, made boomboxes light enough to hoist on your shoulder or carry to a friend’s por
Soon, engineers were looking for a technology with the portability of cassettes and sound quality that could compete with vinyl. Engineers began experimenting with recording digitally onto discs that were made of almost pure polycarbonate plastic, coated with a very thin layer of aluminum. Released to the public in 1982, compact discs (CDs) soon dominated the home-music market.
As the digital revolution spread across the world, personal music devices were no longer just for your home or your car, but for your pocket as well. MP3 players could hold thousands of songs, and because they were safely encased in durable plastic, they could go anywhere. Add some plastic earbuds (with wires protected by synthetic rubber) and you could listen to your music wherever you wished.
Today, many of us no longer listen to music on devices solely dedicated to music. Streaming services have allowed music to transfer wirelessly to our smartphones, laptops, desktops and even voice-assisted equipment like Amazon’s Echo. Wireless transmission enables us to access music anywhere. It relies on a complex cellular network of antennae and receivers. From the insulating material around the cables to the plastics hardware, these networks would not be possible without these new products.
What do they all have in common?
You might not realize it, but products derived from oil and natural gas played a huge role in all of these technological breakthroughs. That’s because crude oil can be processed into hydrocarbons, which go into the majority of the plastics we use today, as well as vinyl, synthetic rubbers and waxes. All told, oil and natural gas have significantly contributed to the existence of thousands of products that we use every day. Without oil and gas, we wouldn’t have smartphones or vinyl records, and we never would have had boomboxes or 8-tracks.
No matter how you listen to music, the oil and gas industry has helped make it possible.