Old Music



When I was young, radios were large, clunky devices. They probably weighed several kilograms.

Radios had (and still have) two frequency bands that you could listen to: AM (amplitude modulation) and FM (frequency modulation). FM was long range and sounded nice. AM was short range and had a lot of static. Each radio “channel” was called a station because they were transmitted from radio stations scattered across the country. I have never in my life listened to an AM radio station more than about one minute. Ugh! We turned a knob to tune the dial to the radio station’s station (radio frequency really). On a commercial break (advertisement), the radio announcer would say, “Stay tuned to this station.”

The invention of a very tiny semiconductor device called a transistor suddenly allowed electronic things to be miniaturized. The first transistor radio was about the size of two hands, but then it got smaller and smaller from there. Eventually, it became as small as a pack of cigarettes. Why, I could even put it in my pocket! Wow! Miraculous!

Radios were eventually put into cars with a big antenna on the outside to receive the radio signals. The first radios had large “radio buttons” that could be programmed to “remember” your favorite radio stations. They were designed so that when you pushed one button in, it stayed in, and all other buttons popped out. The radio had two knobs, a volume knob and a tuning knob. The radio stations were manually tuned by turning the tuning knob, which moved the dial pointer across the dial face until it was over the radio frequency (station) that you desired. Below is an AM radio because its radio band goes from 5 to 14 KHz. FM station frequencies go from 88 to 107 MHz. Every radio station in the USA has a four-letter “call sign” or station name. Sometimes radio station announcers will speak this call sign as a word like “95 Love”, which might mean frequency 95.0 MHz, call sign WLUV.

Records (or Vinyls)

In the good old days music was recorded on plastic discs called records. Today they are called vinyls but we used to call them records. They were made of hard black plastic (vinyl) with very, very small spiral grooves cut into the record’s surface on both sides. There were three sizes of records, based on how fast they were designed to spin or rotate.

Records spin on a spindle at some speed (revolutions per minute or rpm). Guess how fast a 45-rpm record rotated? 78-rpm record? The 45-rpm record held a single song on each side of the record. The 45-rpm record was called a single because it had only one song per side. The two larger sizes of records had around 10 songs on each side for a total of 20 songs. These larger-size records were called albums because they held multiple songs.

Record Players (or Turntables)

Records were played on a record player. Cute name, huh? It is now called a turntable.

The record player had built-in speakers, a volume knob, treble/bass knobs, and an on-off switch as a minimum. The arm that reaches over the record is called the playing arm. It had a diamond-tip needle on the bottom front edge that rested on top of the record. This “floating” needle was manually placed on the outer edge of the record. See that wide smooth area at the very edge of the record above? The needle would travel in a slowly spiraling groove on the surface of the record, playing music as it moved. The needle would slowly move inward until it reached the wide smooth area at the center, then the song was over, and the playing arm would automatically lift up, move to the far right and come to rest in a cradle. Once a record finished playing, you could flip the record, or turn it over. This was done by lifting the record up off the spindle and turning it over so the other side was facing up, then lowering it back onto the spindle. Then repeat the process to start this other side playing.

Have you been paying attention? Can you tell me what size record is on this record player? Does it have only one song or more than one song on it? Does it have songs on both sides of the record?


Some restaurants used to have a coin-operated jukebox. You would put money into it and select a song from a menu, and it would play that record for you. They normally played 45-rpm records (singles), not albums. Watching the jukebox select and play the correct record always fascinated me. It was like the first robot I ever saw in my childhood. Some restaurants today still have a jukebox, but I think they are all digital now — no fun to watch. The jukebox below contained two-hundred 45-rpm records that it could switch between, based on your selection.

Click this link to see a video showing how a jukebox swaps records.

Eight-Track Tapes (No Video, Just Audio)

Since records were easy to scratch and damage, other music media were invented. One was called the eight-track tape. It is shown below. The tapes were plastic cartridges that were inserted into a tape player, that is, into the silver slot below labeled “Cartridge” at the lower left corner of the tape player. You would push the tape in and it would start auto-playing. You would pull it out when you’re done. These tapes could contain many songs. These one-sided tapes contained a roll of magnetic tape that played in a continuous loop (no rewinding). (I think I remember this right.)

In the car, an eight-track tape player looked like this:

Audio Cassette Tapes (No Video, Just Audio)

Another medium for music was audio cassette tapes, or just audio cassettes. These were smaller than eight-track tapes. They could contain many songs. These two-sided tapes had to be rewound, ejected, and flipped over to play the other side.

Audio cassettes were played in cassette tape players. This one is a stationary desktop one.

These are portable tape players:

This is the car cassette tape player:

I am going to assume you know what today’s iPods, MP3 players, CDs (audio only) and DVDs (movies) look like. If not, ask!

VHS Tapes (Video!) (Probably Belongs Under Movies Instead of Music. Oh well.)

Finally, a medium was need for us to play movies. I have already talked about reel-to-reel film projectors in my “Good Old Days – Movies” blog. The next generation of movie medium was called the VHS tape. There was a similar medium called the Betamax tape but VHS won the “movie tape wars” and Betamax became obsolete (at least earlier than VHS tapes did). VHS tapes were very similar to audio cassette tapes but were larger. They could be played and rewound. Today we have Blu-Ray CDs.

Self Assessment (What Did You Learn?)

  1. Which contained more songs? (45-rpm record, cassette tape)
  2. Which of the following were one-sided only? (LP record, 8-track tape, cassette tape)
  3. What do FM and AM refer to? (radio, vinyls, cassette tapes, 8-track tapes)
  4. A turntable plays _____. (radio, records, vinyls, cassette tapes)
  5. A transistor is a _____ device. (very tiny, small, medium, large)
  6. Transistors allowed electronic devices to be _____ (greatly reduced in size).
  7. Which type of record rotated at the higher speed? (45-rpm, 78-rpm)
  8. What does “rpm” stand for?
  9. Which of the following music media could NOT be played in cars? (radio, records, cassette tape, 8-track tape)
  10. If a radio is tuned to 100 MHz, is it AM or FM?
  11. How many radio buttons can be pushed in at the same time? (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  12. What was made of diamond in this discussion? (nothing, record player needle, tape player head)
  13. What was made of gold in this discussion? (nothing, record player needle, tape player head)
  14. Which of these is still in use today? (radio, records, cassette tapes, 8-track tapes)
  15. What do you think the red button on a tape player was for? (I didn’t say in my discussion.)
  16. What is the difference in a cassette tape and a VHS tape?

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