A mysterious music in the air

cultural origins of the loudspeaker


  • Kyle Devine City University London




amplification, cultural history, listening formation, loudness, loudspeaker, public address, sound reproduction, sound studies, volume


Loudspeakers are everywhere in the built environment. Indeed, music, sound, and listening today are arguably defined by their apparently inevitable mediation by an electronically amplified loudspeaker. But it wasn’t always so. When and how did that transformation take place? What was its musical and cultural significance? Whereas popular and historical accounts tend to emphasize the concentricity of the loudspeaker and rock music, this article roots such developments in an essential but under-researched prehistory, showing how the loudspeaker went from an incredible novelty to a predictable ubiquity between 1915 and 1940. I sketch the loudspeaker’s early history and offer an assessment of its role in twentieth-century musical and acoustic culture. I suggest that the loudspeaker needs to be understood as a cultural technology in a broader history of sound, and that it played a central role in the formation of modern listening.

Author Biography

Kyle Devine, City University London

Kyle Devine is Lecturer in Music at City University London and a consultant to the Music and Digitization Research Group at the University of Oxford. This is the second in a set of three articles on the musical and cultural history of loudness. The first, a critical history of the ‘loudness wars’, appeared in Popular Music. The third, on the intellectual history of the decibel, is forthcoming.


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How to Cite

Devine, K. (2014). A mysterious music in the air: cultural origins of the loudspeaker. Popular Music History, 8(1), 5–28. https://doi.org/10.1558/pomh.v8i1.5