Skip to main content

Listening to music is now a solo act

April 01, 2010

When you walk into one of the current exhibits at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, you might think you’ve wandered into a record store by mistake.

But that’s part of the idea of “Rewind Remix Replay: Design, Music and Everyday Experience,” on display through May 23 and originated and curated by Prasad Boradkar, associate professor of industrial design. He was joined in his efforts by curators Claire Schneider, Cassandra Coblentz, Claire Carter and several other staff members of the museum.

The exhibition, which fills two galleries, showcases the role that design plays in shaping our experience of music – how we make it and buy it – and how music acquisition went from “materiality” to “intangibility,” Boradkar said.

The exhibition also looks at how music has largely changed from a public experience to a private one, from buying vinyl records at a music store such as Tower, to downloading your favorite tunes with the click of a mouse.

“Thumbing through records was a very public experience. Now, people buy CDs through Web sites such as, and most of the record stores that exist are much smaller, specializing in indie records,” Boradkar said.

The show is organized around five objects: the boombox, electric guitar, synthesizer, turntable and personal portable stereo (which includes MP3 players and the Sony Walkman), and it reflects Boradkar’s interest in both design and music. “I’ve seen shows on design and shows on music, but not on music and design together,” he said.

The exhibit is filled with unusual – and historic – examples of the five music-making objects, from enormous boomboxes to guitars with shells that can be changed out, wall-mounted turntables, Yamaha’s latest synthesizer called the Tenori-On, and an unusual instrument called the theremin, which is played by manipulating amplified electric signals with the hands.

There are also numerous interactive stations, where visitors can try their hand at being a DJ, experiment with the Tenori-On, watch video clips that demonstrate the cultural significance of these objects and play some Guitar Hero.

The change in music acquisition and listening happened fairly rapidly, Boradkar said.

“Before World War II, most music profits came from sheet music sales and live performances. With rock and roll in the 1950s, and Elvis, the record store came into its own. Then, artists like Elvis began appealing to multiple marketing demographics, crossing over, and all formats were being consumed and produced," he said.

But the proverbial handwriting was on the wall for those earliest forms of music consumption. According to the New York Times, vinyl sales peaked in 1978, cassettes in 1988, and CDs in 1999, though the CD is still the biggest seller – though vinyl is making a comeback.

Design played a key role in the transformation of how music is bought and listened to, said Boradkar, who also is director of ASU’s InnovationSpace, a transdisciplinary laboratory where students and faculty partner with researchers, inventors, and businesses to explore user-centered product concepts that improve society and the environment.

Recordings and devices to play them back date to 1877, when Edison invented the phonograph. As records were evolving from Edison’s wax cylinder to beeswax discs dipped in zinc to shellac records and finally, to vinyl records, the phonograph began its march to dominance in the music industry, which would last for 50 years, Boradkar said.

For many years, phonographs were housed in large decorative cabinets, which were considered furniture and usually placed in living rooms for the family’s enjoyment.

Music became portable when designers came up with smaller – and cheaper – units such as the pocket radio, which was introduced in the early 1950s. (The Regency TR-1 sold in 1954 for $49.95.)

Corporations next brought out the boombox, which allowed people to both take their music with them and to broadcast their taste in music – and their chosen messages – to a wider audience. “They had big speakers. You made a statement. How flashy, how loud can you make it?”

Then, a watershed moment occurred in music consumption, Boradkar said.

“Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979 and at the time, people didn't know how it would transform the landscape of how we listen to music, how we would carry the music wherever we would go, how we listen to it wherever and how it led to the personalization of music instead of a shared communal experience," he said.

The first MP3 player in the United States – Rio from Diamond multimedia – came out in 1982, and the iPod followed in 2001.

“The iPod has been described as a cult object,” Boradkar said. “It has changed how music is shared, transported, distributed, stored and consumed. You can make your own sound track, your own customized cocoon.

“The private environment the iPod creates around its user is often seen as a barrier between the individual and the community, but it has also led to a new kind of shared virtual space, such as The meaning of the object doesn’t reside in the object, but in the space in between."

The iPod isn’t the end of the road, Boradkar said. Disc jockeys have dusted off their turntables and invented new ways of using them, and designers have jumped in to introduce turntables that will accommodate their new ideas.

“DJs set up two turntables with a mixer in between so they can have continuous music," he said. "They slow down or speed up the music, to distort the music, and sometimes they move the records back and forth to make scratching sounds. It’s the mis-use of the object to make it do new things.”

The new turntables, Boradkar said, offer the option of straight or curved tonearms, handles to make it easier to pick up the turntables, MP3 support, internal memory and electronic displays.

And, there are now boomboxes on the market that you can plug your iPod into.

What will we use in the future to play our music? One possibility is the Tenori-On, a brand-new musical instrument from Yamaha, which looks like an Etch-A-Sketch and is played with the touch of the finger.

No one knows for sure what the future holds. But, Boradkar noted, the design direction points to devices that are beautiful, useful – and, now more than ever, sustainable.

“Rewind Remix Replay” concludes with a living room setting with some “stereos” from the 1950s, where visitors can relax and think about all they have seen and heard – and jot down their thoughts for all to read.

“Too cool,” wrote one guest about the mind-boggling array of musical devices.

And perhaps, summing it all up, another simply penned, “Whooo baby!”