The Evolution of Music Listening

By Lily Tumbale, MusicWorx Intern
Edited by Theresa Kwong, Communications Consultant

When I was in my early teens, I decided I wanted a record player and got one for my birthday soon after. I was so excited to listen to music on this machine that many people, including my parents, had gotten rid of at garage sales decades before. When I moved to San Diego, I heard about a small bar/record store downtown that only played music in the evenings off of records with various guest artists. I started to think about how different of an experience that would be compared to listening to a live artist perform, or even compared to my own Spotify account at home.

Throughout my time as a music therapy intern, I have had many interactions sharing music with clients. Some would say, “Oh, I have that on a CD at home!” or, “I had all of their records!” and many would say, “I have that album saved here on my phone, let me show you!” I even found myself asking if some of my clients had seen some of the greats live before, and I was amazed to hear that almost everyone had been to at least one live concert too. I realized there are so many ways that we can connect and share with one another through various music platforms. 

With the current boom of streaming music, I wondered: How did we get to where we are now?

Evolution of Music Listening


The first form of music listening came to our ears with live music. The art form of music came from our earliest groups of people. This music was not considered organized like we might call the music we listen to today, rather, it used forms of clapping, drumming, and oral music with varying types of singing. 

Later, some of the more popular music appeared in churches. Many musical artists and writers began to write music as a response to God and to the church. It was used as a tool to unite people. 



In late 1877, the Phonograph was created by Thomas Edison. Its intended purpose was to advance the telegraph, and not necessarily to record and replay music. Thomas Edison tested his invention by singing a nursing rhyme and listening to its playback. However, the foil that the indents were created on would only last for a few replays. It was also not very accessible outside of the use of professionals and it was not as functional to use for the daily user. 

LP Records

With the development of commercial use of LP records, record stores started to grow in popularity. 

Broadcast Radio 

In the early 1900s, the radio began to be used for commercial purposes. Before that, radios had only been used for communication. With radio now being used to share music, listening to music at home was the new scene. 

Cassette Tapes & Walkman

Cassette tapes were used for music listening in any place, including the car. They gained more traction with the ability to record. It was common for people to record songs they heard on the radio to replay. In 1979, the Walkman was released. This device dominated the 1980s for its ability to listen to music anytime, with two headphone jacks for dual-listening. 


CDs, or compact disks, came out in the 1980s around a similar time as the Walkman. It began to gain popularity when big artists decided to sell their music on CDs. These included ABBA, Dire Straits, etc., and the CDs started to outsell cassette tapes. Additionally, the average person could record onto CD-RWs themselves and the popularity of websites for people to save music began to pop up to create custom compilations. 

MP3 & iPod

The population appreciated the portable design of the Walkman. With MP3s and iPods, they kept the same portable design, but included a new touch screen feature. This continued with Apple opening the Apple Music store. Although it cost money, it was legal unlike some modes of saving music previously. 


Youtube opened in 2005. Listeners would be able to browse and select what they wanted to listen to. Today, with streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music, listeners can download music, create playlists, and save and revisit their favorite songs with just a click. 


The history of music listening has changed very quickly. In just about a century, we have heard music on at least 5 different platforms. With the rapid technology developments over the years, it is likely that most of the population has used at least a couple of these various devices to listen to music. 

I can still remember sitting in a diner with my family getting to choose a song on the jukebox, and thinking that it was the coolest thing around. I have also heard stories from older people about using those same jukeboxes everyday with their friends, saying it was the best way to listen to music. Whether it be remembering the first LP you bought with your own money, dancing with your best friends, turning up the radio, or listening to “your song” together, memories become associated with the different systems of music listening.

How do we use this history?

Music has been a part of nearly all our patients’ lives. Having this understanding of where music has come from often brings the best stories from our patients and the strongest connections when interacting during music therapy sessions. When I ask my patients about listening to live music, I enjoy seeing their face light up as they relive that experience and song for a brief moment. Given their excitement, I will have to ask about the other ways they listen to music, as well as their favorite albums and/or radio stations. Furthermore, I am happy to give our patients an opportunity to listen to music outside of the session and explore new ways of listening to music today.



IFPI (2019). A global snapshot of music engagement. IFPI. 

Volo Museum (2020, June 19). The History of Music Machines. Volo Museum. 

Zantal-Wiener, A. (2017, March 8). From the Phonograph to Spotify: The History of Streaming Music. Hubspot.


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