Sunday, October 15, 2023

Paper is a tech-free way to preserve writing. Is there a tech-free way to preserve sound (e.g., music)

I blogged about ACM going mostly paper-free, and had some PROS and CONS about paper-free, in this blog here. One of my many astute readers named Abigail pointed out that paper does not go obsolete: we can still read books written many years ago without having to use some technology. (The first paper in Harry Lewis's book Ideas that Created the Future: Classic Papers in Computer Science was by Aristotle. See here for amazon link to the book and here for my review of the book). By contrast, there are stories of material being lost forever since they are on floppy disks. I wonder if pdf will suffer the same fate. 

However, that is not the theme of this post (do my posts have coherent themes?)

The point is 

PAPER is TECH-FREE and is good at preserving WRITING.

What about SOUND? Is there a Tech-Free way to preserve sound? I am thinking about music, though one can also wonder how old poetry was supposed to sound when read out loud. But back to music:

1) The Bible Psalms- we know the words, but not the medley. Psalms 45 has the following right before it: For the director of music. To the Tune of ``Lilies'' Of the Sons of Korah. A maskit. A wedding song. In my bible there is a footnote saying that maskit is Probably a literary or music term. Not helpful to a 21st century singer.

2) The first Rap Song is from the Bible, in 1 Samuel 18:7. The words are

Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands.

And again, we don't know the melody or the cadence or the rhythm. I have done a rendition of it for my Bible study group but they complained it was not authentic. They also told me to not quit my day job. 

3) When music went from 

Wax Cylinder to Vinyl and audio cassettes to CD to MP3 to Spotify (and similar systems)

some music was lost in each transition. Indeed, the inspiration for this post is the following personal story:

One of my hobbies is collecting and listening to  novelty songs (this has been mentioned in the following posts: here, here, here,hereherehere, here, here) Some are audio tape, some are CDs. A subgenre of novelty songs is Filk Music, which are folk songs with a science fiction (its been expanded to science) theme. They are often  sung at science fiction conventions. It is filklore that an early science fiction convention mistyped folk as filk and they decided to keep it.

I was thinking of a GREAT  filk song titled

Carl Sagan Ronald Reagan San Diegan Pagan (lyrics are here)

and I wondered

a) Do I have it in my collection? (Almost surely yes.)

b) If so can I listen to it? (If on CD then yes. If on audio tape, not sure.)  

c) In any case is it on Spotify or YouTube or...I have found obscure things on both  Spotify and YouTube  so this was plausible. Spellcheck insists I spell it YouTube not Youtube and I will of course obey the Spellcheck God.


a) It is on Bayfilk Crazies, an AUDIO TAPE that I have. YEAH!

b) I have one audio tape player in my house that I had not used in years. It didn't work. BOO!

(ADDED LATER- I found at Tape Recorder where PLAY worked, though neither FF or REWIND worked. So I got to hear my song! And I was ``forced'' to hear other songs I had not heard for a while. Some were excellent gems I had forgotten about. Others... not so much. But I am happy for now.)

c) So far I cannot find it to listen to ANYWHERE on the web. BOO!

(If you find such a place please leave a comment!)

d) It does not appear to be on CD. BOO! (Again, if you can find a place to buy it on CD let me know.) 

SO, is this great song LOST TO HUMANITY? I know the tune, so I could sing it on YouTube, but there are enough badly sung songs on YouTube and I do not want to add to that. 

But my more important point is MANY SONGS ARE BEING LOST TO HUMANITY!

4) For many old songs we DO have sheet music and lyrics so someone COULD reproduce it. That's great. Is it important to have the authentic real Elvis recordings, or is a really good 21nd century Elvis Impersonator good enough? That depends what you want. And if the sheet music is only online we may have the same problem we are pondering about paper. 

 Famous songs are re-recorded a lot (To see what the most recorded song of all time is, see here. Its not my version of Muffin Math, see here.) But for songs that are not quite famous, or only appeal to certain tastes, we are losing songs!

5) For the written word there is PAPER which does not go obsolete with technology (though there are fires, see the burning of the library at Alexandria). For music there seems to be NO such analog.

6) Video has the same problem. I blogged about that here


  1. Super enjoyed this. The answer to your question is yes there is! And actually it's in some ways a more universal system the writing because you don't need to know the language.

    Vinyl records are actually sufficiently analog that you can play them with a spinner and a piece of folded up paper. (google it and you should be able to find video) Records are/were made by simply impressing the shape of sound waves into the material, this wave can then be extracted without any specific knowledge of the "file format" because there isn't really one. (you do have to guess at the correct speed to spin, but that is fairly easy to verify)

    1. (Bill) Great! Though `Google it' might be hard if technolog changes to much.

  2. Sound is stored on wax or vinyl, not music. Music is written on paper or in MIDI files. You're concerned about the loss of sound recordings. I'm more concerned about the loss of music itself, which has been disappearing between the lines. (With AI it's posssible to recover music from sound recordings, but so far no one has bothered!)

    1. P.S. I was a huge fan of Star Trek and Dr Who in the '80s. My friends and I had the Star Trek Comedy album[1] and I fondly remember Banned from Argo from that. I also loved Star Trekkin' by the Firm,[2] which I saw on TV while vacationing in Australia in 1987. I recently put together a Spotify playlist of best-selling novelty songs.[3]


  3. (bill) Thanks! I have all of the things you point to on YouTube and Spotify, but on AUDIO TAPE (except White and Nerdy which I have on CD) so GREAT, now I can listen to them without having to find them on CD (I checked- (1) does not seem to be on CD, not sure about the others). You are preserving music for the next generation!

  4. Vinyl is almost as low tech as paper, but far more than sheet music. and easy to create machines to play them.  Paper crumbles after years without great care taken.  If you wanted it to be more resilient, make "vinyl records" out of titanium.  While you're at it, use titanium and raised 0s and 1s to create more permanent versions of digital files.

  5. Vinyl records store the result of the conversion of waves into mechanical movement.
    If you did wanted an image of the real thing, you may ask yourself whether it is possible to make a hologram of sound waves in a similar manner to light waves holograms.

    Surprisingly, you can make holograms with Vinyl technology.

  6. Another good question is: "Is there a free-tech way to preserve tech?"

  7. Calf-skin vellum lasts 10 times longer than paper - should we use that? Longevity of any technlogy is only part of the story. There is primarily the question of re-copying before the medium wears out. We only have many items because someone re-copied them. The issue is the rate of change of technologies rather than the longevity of any one - one has to be able to copy before things obsolesce.

    In principle, if we simply upgraded all of our old records to new ones, we'd be fine. A key loss with paper is density. Many large institutions use microfiche for archival storage because of the information density issues with paper. Newspapers do this also because low-grade paper disintegrates... and even good paper gets moldy or burns. You are also a lot more likely to be able to store things a long time in a well controlled facility if what you are storing doesn't take up a lot of space.

  8. I'm surprised no one has mentioned this earlier. The Voyager spacecraft carried vinyl records specifically as a tech-free way to communicate sounds to alien civilizations. The records were actually made of gold, not vinyl, but I think it's the same principle.

  9. Paper is not "tech free".

    It just feels that way because it's ubiquitous.

    A lot of research went into developing the paper and inks that we take for granted.

    If you want the writing to last centuries, then you need acid-free papers that won't crumble, and inks that won't fade or blur on that paper. You'll also need to store it somewhere to protect the paper from humidity, sunlight and paper-eating bugs.

    1. (Bill here) You raise many interesting points that I missed:
      1) tech-free means 2 (probably more) things.

      Easy to manufacture- so paper is NOT tech free

      Easy to use (without any other devices) so paper IS tech free.

      SO- is there anything that is tech-free in both senses?

      2) I said casually that paper `does not go obsolete' unlike, say floppy disks. BUT as you point out, paper can deteriorate.

      3) You didn't say this but you inspired this thought: What did Aristotle use? Was paper available yet? Parchment? How about Euclid? Perhaps it is amazing that we have those books.

    2. Bill wrote: "Easy to use (without any other devices) so paper IS tech free."

      Not so fast, there. Inks and pens (and even pencil lead) are pretty high-tech these days. And paper isn't paper without printers, and that's a whole nother kettle of high-tech fish. (The color inks ("dye inks") in the early HP printers faded horribly almost immediately. For archival-concerned photographers, "pigment inks" were a life saver. Epson claims their "dye inks" are archival nowadays, but no one believes them. And printer inks are the most expensive lquid known to man, by a long shot.)

      Just as everyone thinks of "film" as being low-tech analog, these things are not. Film is seriously hairy chemistry, and some amazing manufacturing technology. (Kodak is said to have hired visually persons, since they didn't mind working with the lights out.)

      But I did want to write a response on requirements for long-term storage, which turns out to be a nasty can of worms. Essentially, if you don't have someone maintaining and thinking about and caring about and actually checking your data/books to be saved, it's going to be gone in a twinkle (well, probably won't be around 30 years from now; I went freelance in 1990, and don't have any of the stuff I did back then, which included a life program in assembler (30x30 blocks stored in 30 words and calculated 30 cells at a time in parallel*) packaged into a "DOS extender". It was great fun watching it run twice as fast every year for 10 years or so.)

      If not thirty, then 50 years is the sort of time frame that data is going to lose its interest/luster. What were the formats being used then, who was using them, what sort of intellectual context were they in. The more you think about it the more depressing it gets.

      *: Interestingly, I coded it first in C, and noticed an optimization that I wouldn't have noticed simply thinking about it and coding it in assembler. Nowadays, of course, you can't outcode the compilers, but you could in my time, you whippersnapers.)

  10. (Bill) AH- so you are saying that pens are analogous to the CD player, and pens DO take technology to produce. Pencils also. Good points.

    As for storage--- after reading your comments and some others I am AMAZED that we (not sure who ``we'' are) have managed to preserve Aristotle, The Bible, The Illiad and the Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh (I read that one in High School). Some (all?) of those were originally on clay tablets which might last a long time so long as you don't drop them. And of course, we have also LOST a lot of stuff as well, probably 99.99% of stuff written before (say) 0BC is lost (is 0 BC = 0 AD?).