The oldest known recording of a piece of music is a haunting performance of the French folk song Au Clair de la Lune, and is a remarkable 150 years old.
The recording was made on 9 April 1860 by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, inventor of the phonautograph, the first ever sound recording device. The phonautograph transcribed sound waves onto paper as a visual representation, described by Science News as “a bunch of wavy lines scratched by a stylus onto fragile paper that had been blackened by the soot from an oil lamp”. But it could not play it back again, as audio playback was not even conceived at the time. To hear this song, we had to wait until 2008, when American historians from the First Sounds group found the recording in Paris and extracted it using modern computer technology.
At first, the voice was believed to belong to a woman or girl, but further contextual evidence suggested that the recording was being played too fast, and was more likely to be of Scott himself:
Despite the difficulty of knowing precisely how this recording should be reproduced, it is extraordinary to hear a voice from another era coming down to us.
• You can hear more of Scott’s phonautographs at FirstSounds.org.
• Read the original New York Times report (March 2008).