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What is a Phonograph?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A phonograph, gramophone, or record player, is a device which is designed to play back recorded music. For almost 100 years, phonographs were essentially the only way for consumers to enjoy recorded music at home, except for the radio; record players began to be supplanted by cassettes, compact discs, and other recording and storage methods in the 1980s. However, working record players can be found in some homes, and they are the tool of choice for some musical artists, since they provide a unique level of flexibility which is not offered by other music playback devices. Some people also prefer the sound of a recording played on a phonograph.

To use a phonograph, someone places a grooved disc on a turntable which rotates at a constant rate. A stylus known as a needle is placed onto the disc. As the disc rotates, the stylus moves in response to the grooves, which are actually recorded soundwaves. With the use of a horn connected to the stylus, it is possible to hear the sound. Modern phonographs connect speakers to the needle for further amplification.

Various early attempts at the phonograph were documented in the 1800s, but the credit for the first one usually goes to Thomas Edison, who patented a working phonograph in 1877. Edison's phonograph had all the basic components of later record players, although the turntable had to be cranked by hand. Edison's phonograph also recorded sound on a cylinder, rather than a disc; many early phonographs used cylinders, and it was not until the 1890s that disc recordings were developed.

The history of the phonograph is quite fascinating. Before the advent of phonographs, there was no way to capture sound; the development of methods to inscribe and play back these cylinders and later discs marked a radical transition in society. For the first time, people could listen to music in the comfort of their own homes without requiring a band. Early phonographs may have been expensive and inaccessible to the lower classes, but they paved the way for the ubiquitous music playback devices seen in the hands of people young and old today.

Pressed discs of various musical performances continue to be produced today, and they are sold in specialty music and record stores for people who still own record players. Edison might have trouble recognizing a modern record player, since a number of features have been greatly improved since his day, but he could probably figure out how to spin a few tunes.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By TheGraham — On Jun 20, 2011

When most people think of the word "phonograph", they tend to imagine the very first Victorian phonographs, but the term technically still refers to what people think of as a more modern device: the turntable record player.

"Phonograph" just means a device that plays back sounds using a needle and a rotating disc etched with marks to preserve the vibrations of certain sounds -- such as a piece of music being played.

The turntable used to be the big thing in home music playback before 8-tracks, cassette tapes, audio CDs or MP3s. When many old songs refer to "this record" they are talking about the literal disc the song was originally on, so they're dating themselves a bit!

Anyway, the phonograph by the name "turntable" is still commonly used by DJs, who have developed a distinctive style based around interrupting the playback by scratching the discs and shifting the needle around. Because the image of a DJ scratching and manipulating the discs has become so iconic, many DJs prefer a turntable with a disc on it.

Most of these aren't actual working phonographs, but rather USB turntables that play MP3s while emulating the disc scratching and moving effects digitally when the DJ moves the physical disc on the device.

Isn't it funny how we go to such efforts to keep a style that is less technological than our own? We just can't let go of the appeal of the phonograph even now.

By aishia — On Jun 18, 2011

@hanley79 - Hey, why don't you try making your phonograph from scratch? If you could get hold of a trumpet-looking piece for the top, I would imagine that the box wouldn't be very hard to make with some simple pieces of plywood from the hardware store and a bit of woodworking ingenuity.

If you do take the "make from scratch" route (my personal favorite for getting items that I like the look of but don't care about the authenticity of), pay special attention to how you paint and finish the wood.

Look at phonograph history sites and phonograph photos to learn not only how they were originally produced, but also how they look when the paint and other materials get worn down a bit.

Ideally, you want to distress and wear the paint a bit to make sure that your phonograph doesn't look brand new, or it will stand out in an old Victorian house full of other actual old items.

As for putting an MP3 player into a phonograph box, just do a web search on "phonograph mp3 tutorial" and some tutorials should come up. Good luck!

By Bakersdozen — On Jun 14, 2011

If you're looking at phonographs for sale I advise you to try to buy locally, rather than online. This is important because it's best to examine and check certain things, to be sure it is in working order.

Firstly, check that it has a complete reproducer, the part that holds the needle. It's easy to see if it's not there, as there would just be a hole in the center! But it should have two parts, with the back section looking a bit like a fish tail. If this is missing you will have to buy an entire new reproducer, which will run to over $100.

Obviously the safest thing is to have the seller play a record for you, but even turning the machine on can be enough to know if the motor is running well. You actually want to be able to hear it making a noise!

There are several online sites which will help you with phonograph repair if necessary, but it makes sense to know what will need doing when you negotiate a price for the item.

By hanley79 — On Jun 14, 2011

@SkittisH - I've just started to plan how to redecorate my new house -- a traditional Victorian building that hasn't been restored, but does have all of the old cabinet knobs and stuff in the original styles.

Anyway, since it would cost too much to actually restore it Victorian style authentically, I've decided to veer in a different direction: Steampunk. Wouldn't an actual Victorian house restored into a Steampunk house be just amazing? I think so, and that's why I'm on the lookout for old Victorian style items to use in my decorating.

They don't have to be authentic, just to look like it, and I don't mind at all if they're used and old. One of the things I'm searching for is a phonograph for sale.

How much do you think a phonograph would cost? An actual antique phonograph might come at a discount if it doesn't work anymore, right?

Most likely I'll do exactly what you described there, and put an MP3 player inside rather than restore the phonograph to play like it used to. Thanks for the idea!

Are there any tutorials I could look at online somewhere for how other people have done it? If and when I do find an old phonograph to use as the shell, I want to know what I'm doing so I don't mess it up.

By SkittisH — On Jun 14, 2011

@Malka - Ah, yes, you've made a good point. The phonograph was invented right in the middle of the late Victorian era, so as with most things from those times, it has a rather artistic and elegant design. Victorians liked to look rich, and the phonograph seems to me to reflect that.

There are a certain group of people in the present who can particularly appreciate the beauty of the phonograph: fans of the Steampunk genre.

Steampunk, which is basically a combination of Victorian era design styles and steam powered simple machinery combined to make more complex things like robots, has captivated the minds of many people in recent times.

Thanks to Steampunk, the phonograph has made a sort of comeback. While the technology for actually playing music using a phonograph is very much outdated, Steampunk enthusiasts have made a hobby of putting modern technology into a wood and metal Steampunk outer shell.

The result? A device that is a phonograph on the outside, but has an MP3 player that plays nice clear music inside of the box. It's all of the beauty of a phonograph without the scratchy sounds or need to rewind!

By Malka — On Jun 14, 2011

The image and slightly crackly sound of a phonograph is one of those iconic images that sticks in your mind. Though recorded music playback methods have gotten far more sophisticated since then, few styles of player have ever looked so artistic and distinctly elegant and Victorian as the phonograph.

The sound quality isn't perfection, but I can tell you that I definitely prefer the lovely trumpet and box look of a phonograph over a little glowy MP3 player such as an iPod.

Disney's "Tarzan" has a phonograph in one scene, so kids these days are probably familiar with what one looks like, even if they don't know the name.

The cartoon movie "An American Tale" also features a phonograph -- actually, in the phonograph scene the main character, a young mouse, manages to fall down into the middle of the phonograph trumpet! It's a neat view of a phonograph through the eyes of a creature that finds it an enormous device.

By BabaB — On Jun 14, 2011

It took several people and many different experiments for the phonograph to come to the point where in 1877, Thomas Edison, was able to make a phonograph that could be easily used in the home. Edison's version was the first machine to be able to reproduce the recorded sound.

Basically, this is how it works. Wavy or curvy lines are etched into the cylinder or disk. Then as these go around, the needle traces the wavy lines and vibrates, producing sounds.

Some of the earlier attempts to make recordings involved using tin foil or wax coated paper on a cylinder with the needle moving in a zigzag fashion. It took a number of years to go through modifications to have a workable phonograph.

It's interesting that in the area of recorded music, we used basically the same equipment for over 100 years, before tapes, disks, and so on, became available to us.

By B707 — On Jun 14, 2011

When I was a child, we had a Victrola phonograph. It had one of those large horns on it.

Sadly, it was sold or given away. We had such a good time playing our little kiddie records on it. It was great fun cranking it up whenever it slowed down. It just amazes me - all the brilliant minds that started creating ideas that preceded recorded music. And then, Thomas Edison putting it all together.

Then on my 12th birthday, I got a record playing - just a small one with tiny speakers. I started with a collection of about 10 45s rock and roll songs. A popular song was on one side and an unknown song on the other. I didn't get too many albums until later when I got a stereo record player.

From there, recorded music changed and improved by leaps and bounds. The sound quality is incredible. I wonder what's coming next?

By bagley79 — On Jun 14, 2011

@honeybees - If you can't find a local place that sells replacement phonograph needles, there are places online that still sell replacement parts for old phonographs. You are fortunate that yours still works and is in good shape.

It is interesting when you think about the history of the phonograph and how far we have come. The portable way we have of listening to music today is much different from many years ago, but the love of listening to music has not changed.

By honeybees — On Jun 14, 2011

We have a Victrola antique phonograph in our home that has been refinished and still works. It makes a great conversation piece, and every once in awhile we will put a record on the turntable, crank it up and let it play.

It is interesting to hear the sound come out of the speakers, and this phonograph and cabinet have been kept in great shape through the years. The cabinet is roomy and has a few shelves for storing albums underneath. I don't have any extra needles, so hope I don't have to replace one for a long time.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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