Listen to early 78s.

Listening to very early sound recordings is a skill that may take you a little time to acquire. Recordings made before ~1925-26 were made by a purely mechanical system. Sound was gathered into a conical horn and was intensified as it came to the narrow end, which was about 0.5″ (12mm) across. The sound waves then entered a shallow chamber about 2″ (5cm) in diameter This had a very thin glass disc on the other side, which vibrated as the sound waves fell upon it. One end of a ‘see-saw’ lever was attached to the centre of the glass disc. The other end carried a sharp point  which engraved (or embossed) these vibrations to a rotating disc of wax. All this work was done by the energy in the sound waves alone. The musical range was very small, so the sound was pretty thin. Worse, the material from which the records were pressed was often coarse – and that added unwanted background noise when you played the disc.

Still, in 1900, it was regarded as marvellous that you could hear some music, speech or song ‘coming from nowhere’, even if it had hissing or crackling behind it.

The great problem is, of course, that because these old records sound pretty difficult to our modern ears, it has become commonplace for some people to dismiss them – to write most of them off. Such people say that there are so many deficiences in early recordings – both technical and aesthetic – that they mostly don’t merit serious study.

But please let me ask you a question. If it turned out that your great-great-grandfather had made a record in 1920, surely you would want to hear it? Of course you would! So immediately, you have discovered an interest in ‘old recordings’ – even if they are technically poor by today’s standards.

Below you will find a selection of old recordings, all made mechanically before 1926. I have made no attempt to choose ‘user-friendly ones’, but all of the discs are in good condition – it’s extremely difficult to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! Have a dabble, & see if you like any of them. You don’t have to listen to them all the way through; you can click on another, and that will start to play instead. You may well enjoy some of them? I certainly hope so. Happy listening!

So far, there is one or more sides under the following headings – just scroll down the page.


Further categories will be added later.


‘Bands’ may be of many different formats; but very frequently before 1920, the default studio band resembled most of all, a military band. We might say a ‘wind band’ today. They could provide enough volume to drive the early recording equipment in instrumental numbers, and often provided backing for vocal records and instrumental solos. We also have a category below for true Military Bands – those of a specific regiment. However, the distinction may be blurred, because in those days, many London-based regimental bandsmen were allowed to accept freelance engagements, and would have recorded with civilian studio bands like those under this heading.


CINCH MILITARY BAND. Cinch 5366, London 22nd January 1915.
“Great Snakes”, a Texas Two-step. (Ernest Reeves).
A studio band plays a delightful lilting ‘novelty intermezzo’, with a quote from ‘The Whistler and his Dog’ thrown in for good measure!





JOSEF JOACHIM (1831 – 1907). G&T. Paris, 1903.
Hungarian Dance No.2. Brahms.
Most celebrated 19th century violinist. Both his parents were born in 1790. Time span: 180 years!


PATHÉ FRÈRES ORCHESTRE. Pathé – side 1 of large set. Discs are 13.75″ diameter (actually 35 cm). Vertical cut. Paris, 1912.
ROMÈO et JULIETTE – Ouverture Prologue. Gounod.
Few strings, much reinforced by brass; but stunning impact for the time.


JAN RUDENYI (1889 – 1915). Pathé 2063. Paris, Ca. 1912. Vertical cut, centre start.
Vieuxtemps, Violin Concerto No.4, Finale.
Famous Australian violinist and actor; alas, died of pneumonia age 26.




VICTORIA KAVETSKAYA (1870 – ?). G&T. St. Petersburg, 25th September 1911.
“Under the Lime Trees”
A Polish soprano; excelled in Operetta. The melody line of the chorus  seems to us, an epitome of Belle Époque twilight.



WILL EVANS & CO. Comedy Sketch. Winner 3103. London, Ca. February 1917.
“Will Evans’ Fire Station.” (Both sides played as one file.)
From this, it seems likely that Will Hay of 1930s-1950s fame, based some of his comedy on Will Evans – cf  ‘Oh Mister Porter’.


SAM SPINDLER (= William Rochester) & COMPANY. Phoenix 0216. New York, October 1909.
“The Band Rehearsal”. (Comic descriptive.)
An Irish conductor instructs his ensemble, all of whom are German. (Most music teachers and many instrumentalists in the U.S.A. at the time were of German origin.)



WARWICK GREEN. Comedian w Orchestra. Phoenix 075. London, 1913.
“Who Killed Ragtime?”
To the tune of “Who Killed Cock Robin”, a humorous satire on the Ragtime Craze of the time, full of topical references to Suffragettes, politician Lloyd George, Daily Mirror sensationalism &c.




No distinction is drawn between Dance Bands and Jazz Bands; for in this era, there wasn’t any. They all played for dancing. No matter how jazzy the music, be it by King Oliver or Paul Whiteman, it was still intended for dancing.


UNCREDITED BAND. Tango. Disque Diamond 1020. Vertical cut. Paris, ca. 1921.
“La Tanguinette” (Heinz).  Tango Argentin.
Delightful lilt, and affinities to the recently popularised compositions of Ernesto Nazareth.


THE AMBASSADORS. Fox-trot. U.S. Vocalion 14620. New York, June 1923.
“When You Walked Out (somebody else walked right in)”.
Spacious and elegant playing from this jazz-orientated studio band, beautifully recorded for the time. Superb breaks on trombone from Miff Mole.


JOHNNY BAYERSDORFFER & his JAZZOLA NOVELTY ORCH. OKeh 40133. New Orleans, 17th March 1924.
“I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Riding Now”.
Hot jazz treatment of a ragtime-like sequence. Enthusiam reigns – they speed up quite a bit near the end!


FLETCHER HENDERSON’S ORCHESTRA. Fox-trot. Banner 1384. New York, June 1924.
“I Can’t Get The One I Want. (The ones I get, I don’t want.)”
A popular song played fairly straight by this African American band, but some good jazz is also heard. It was issued on twenty-four different labels, mostly in the U.S.A., but also in Europe.


VINCENT LOPEZ ORCHESTRA. Fox-trot. Lindström American Record A-4196-I. New York, January 1924.
“The One I Love (belongs to somebody else)”.
Nice melodic side from the U.S. OKeh label, with quite some depth in the sound.


THE TENNESSEE TOOTERS. Fox-trot. Vocalion 15022. New York, 8th April 1925.
“Kansas City Stomps.”
Jelly-Roll Morton’s fine composition, very nicely played from the stock arrangement.




A forgotten genre. In the days before radio & sound film, studio re-enactments of important events were sometimes made as cylinder and disc records. Battles, political speeches, interviews with famous people &c.


ROBERT CARR (as Ernest Gray), plus unknown announcer. Winner 2144. London. Issued July 1912.
“Stand to Your Posts.”
Memorial for the ‘Titanic’ disaster of April 1912.


Image kindly furnished by Mark Stephens.

UNCREDITED ARTISTES. Descriptive Record. Diamond 0.133. London. Issued February 1915. Vertical cut.
“The Battle of the Marne.”
One of the first major battles of the Great War, 1914 – 1918.


UNCREDITED ARTISTES. Descriptive. Winner 3190. London. Issued February 1918.
“An Air Raid” (Scene: Somewhere on the Coast.)
Probably the first recorded depiction of an Air Raid. An acquaintance of mine, as a child, heard this record in the 1930s and was terrified by it. He even remembered the woman crying: “Where shall I go!”




WILLIAM E. BATES: Cornet solo. Berliner 5000-X. London 24th January 1899.
“Du, Du” – with variations, piano accomp.
An old German song, this is the earliest recording here. Discs had only appeared in the U.K. in August 1898. Bates plays extreme pedal notes to demonstrate his complete command of the instrument.




MUSICIANS MORGAN AND RAINE. Cornet Duet w band. Silvertone 165. London. Originally issued April 1913 on Beka.
“Birds of the Forest.”
Corporal Morgan and Corporal Raine were members of His Majesty’s 1st Life Guards. This side is actually part of a session recorded by that band.


HORATIO BOTTOMLEY (1860 – 1933). Speech. Bulldog 210. London, 1915.
Bottomley was a charismatic public figure, prominent from the 1890s until the early 1920s. A demagogue, you can hear his recording of part of a speech he gave in aid of recruitment for the Great War (1914 – 1918). This is almost certainly the only commercial recording he ever made. One wonders whether Winston Churchill was influenced by Bottomley’s speaking style; Churchill was 14 years his junior.

British disc records of the 'Acoustic' Era.