Frequently Asked Questions
Licensing and Use of Sounds
Q. Can I post your phonautographic sounds on my website, include them in my news story, sample them, work them into a piece of electronic music, turn them into a ringtone, etc.?
A. Yes. First Sounds makes all these sounds available under a Creative Commons attribution (by) license. This means you can freely copy, distribute, transmit, and adapt them for commercial or noncommercial purposes as long as you credit FirstSounds.org. We do ask that you provide the First Sounds collaborative with a copy of any derivative work so that we can keep track of what people are doing with them.
Q. Can I get uncompressed versions of your recordings without losses due to mp3 encoding?
A. Our experiments have shown that the 128 kbps mp3 files available on FirstSounds.org are more than sufficient to convey all audio information in the original phonautograms.
Q. I've cleaned up your recordings using digital editing software. What do you think of my results?
A. Many of the mp3s presented at FirstSounds.org have been conservatively restored by Grammy Award-winning sound engineers. Others may process them further according to their own tastes, but we are unable to evaluate them individually.
About "Au clair de la lune"
Q. You say the lyrics of Scott's 1860 phonautogram are "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit." Aren't they really "Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot" ?
A. We have studied the sound very closely and certainly expected to hear the first line of the first stanza, "Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot," but did not. However, the first line of the second stanza is "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit." We believe that the singer is definitely singing "répondit" at the end of the line. The phrase could be "Pi-er-rot répondit" or "mon ami répondit"--neither version seems conclusive. Remember that Scott was trying to see what sounds looked like, so he may have chosen lyrics different from what we expect today.
Q. Who is the singer of "Au clair de la lune"?
A. We do not know for sure, but there are strong indications that it is the voice of Scott himself.
Provenance and Significance of "Au clair de la lune"
Q. How do you know that "Au clair de la lune" was recorded in 1860?
A. The phonautogram is inscribed April 9, 1860.
Q. How did you identify the song?
A. The title of the song--"Au clair de la lune"--is also inscribed on the phonautogram.
Q. Why is the discovery of "Au clair de la lune" significant?
A. Until this discovery, the earliest recordings of the human voice known to be capable of reproduction were those made by Thomas Edison in 1877, and the earliest surviving recordings of certain date available to the public for listening were from 1888. "Au clair de la lune" proves that the human voice was recorded on April 9, 1860 well enough to allow the results to be played back and recognized, and it pushes our audible past back from 1888 by nearly a generation. When played back in March 2008, "Au clair de la lune" became the oldest recognizable sound recording made from the atmosphere, the oldest recovered musical recording, and the oldest recording of audibly identifiable words.
Other Early Recordings
Q. I've read that Édouard-Léon Scott visited Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1863 and made a phonautogram of his voice. Have you found this recording, and if so do you expect to play it back?
A. The Lincoln phonautogram is an unsubstantiated rumor.
Q. I've read that sounds may have been recorded accidentally on prehistoric clay pots (or captured in the paint of on Old Masters' paintings, or dessicated dinousaur droppings and such). When can we hear these accidental recordings?
A. There has been a lot of speculation along these lines, but all experimental evidence to date suggests these accidental recordings to be highly unlikely. For instance, Discovery Channel's MythBusters, in Episode 62, were unable to make a decipherable voice recording intentionally by shouting near a straw as it traced a groove on the surface of a clay pot. On the basis of this experiment, they concluded that there was little chance of this having happened accidentally in antiquity. If you've seen a French-language video clip in which scientists appear to be recovering speech recorded on a prehistoric pot, it was probably Bilge Sehir's Vases Sonores (2005), intended by its maker as a piece of fiction.