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Home > Sounds > Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's Phonautograms

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's Phonautograms

The sound files of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville's phonautograms released during 2008 by the First Sounds collaborative were created using the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's virtual stylus technology, which sought to track the soot-scratched wavy lines as though they were standard record grooves.  However, Scott didn’t intend his phonautograms to be played back, and from a modern perspective his tracings are often “malformed”: the recording stylus sometimes left the paper and sometimes moved backwards along the time axis, violating basic assumptions of the “virtual stylus” approach and—for that matter—of sound recording in general.  For this reason, we supposed at first that many of Scott’s phonautograms—particularly the earliest ones—might remain permanently mute.

In late 2008, First Sounds cofounder Patrick Feaster of Indiana University, Bloomington, devised an alternate playback approach, graphically converting phonautographic wavy lines into the edges of bands of variable width and playing these back using software designed to handle optical film sound track formats.  This approach can’t correct serious malformations in Scott’s phonautograms any more than the “virtual stylus” approach can, but it’s sufficiently robust to let us hear something from phonautograms that are otherwise too compromised to process.  The phonautographic sound files unveiled by First Sounds since mid-2009 have been produced by Dr. Feaster using this approach.  For convenience, we’ll identify the two techniques as VS (“virtual stylus”) and VW (“variable width”).

During 1860, Scott furnished his phonautograms with 250 Hz tuning-fork calibration traces that allow us to compensate for the irregular recording speed of the hand-cranked cylinder.  Many phonautograms from 1857 also survive, but they lack the tuning-fork timecode, so in these cases we have no objective means of correcting for speed fluctuations, which are generally great enough to render sung melodies utterly unrecognizable.

In the following listing, we note in brackets the phonautogram’s position in Patrick Feaster, “Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville: An Annotated Discography,” ARSC Journal 41:1 (Spring 2010):43-82.  We also note, in boldface at the end of the description, the date the recording was first auditioned in public.

Au Clair de la Lune - By the Light of the Moon (April 9, 1860) [#36]

Scott recorded the French folksong "Au Clair de la Lune" on April 9, 1860, and deposited the results with the Académie des Sciences in 1861. It remains the earliest clearly recognizable record of the human voice yet recovered.  The words have been a matter of controversy, but the latest playback—unveiled in May 2010—establishes them as “Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot, prête moi—,” rather than “Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit,” as originally announced.  The latest work also reveals that Scott had allowed the cylinder to slow down—possibly to a complete stop—between the words “Pierrot” and “prête,” perhaps indicating a pause to check how much unrecorded space was left on the sheet. 

May 2010 release

Download mp3: Au Clair de la Lune (May 2010 release)

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Au Clair de la Lune - By the Light of the Moon (April 20, 1860) [#44]

Scott recorded “Au Clair de la Lune” at least three times.  This version, preserved today among the papers of Henri Victor Regnault in the library of the Institut de France, dates from April 20, 1860.  The performance is just as sluggish as the one from April 9, but it is considerably better-recorded, probably reflecting advances in the preparation of recording membranes.  Scott notes that the membrane was in its “natural” position, meaning at an angle like the human eardrum, and that his signal chain also included an “oval window,” apparently referring to a second membrane.  This time, the rotation of the cylinder didn’t slow down to a near-stop between “Pierrot” and “prête,” as it had on April 9—after all, Scott knew by now how much of the song he could fit on a sheet. 

May 2010 release

Download mp3: Au Clair de la Lune (May 2010 release)

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Gamme de la Voix - Vocal Scale (May 17, 1860) [#46]

The second complete Scott phonautogram we heard, this recording from Scott’s 1861 deposit with the Académie des Sciences documents a simple ascending vocal scale (“do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do”).  Like “Au Clair de la Lune,” it would have given Scott nice, long traces of sustained musical pitches for easy visual study.  Some of the notes are sung very sharp, enabling us to hear someone singing over a century and a half ago—out of key.

May 2009 release

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Excerpt from Ducis's Othello (April 17, 1860) [#38]

S’il faut qu’à ce rival Hédelmone infidèle / Ait remis ce bandeau!  Dans leur rage cruelle / Nos lions du désert, sous leur antre brûlant.... [“So it must be that to this rival faithless Hédelmone gave this diadem!  In their cruel rage our lions of the desert beneath their burning lair....”]  Scott hoped that his phonautograph would be used to capture the nuances of great dramatic oratory, and he repeatedly used this passage from Ducis’s Othello as a test recitation.  This particular example, from the Regnault papers in the library of the Institut de France, is the earliest record of spoken language we can play back at its exact original speed.  Even though the speech articulations were poorly captured, the intonations should faithfully reflect those of the original oration. 

November 2010 release

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Opening lines from Tasso's Aminta (undated, probably April-May 1860) [#45]

Chi crederia che sotto forme umane e sotto queste pastorali spoglie fosse nascosto un Dio? Non mica un–["Who would believe that under human form and under this pastoral garb there would be found a God? Not only a...."]. This phonautogram of the opening lines of Torquato Tasso's pastoral drama Aminta, from Scott’s 1861 deposit with the Académie des Sciences, is the earliest audible record of spoken Italian.  Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded it for the physicist Henri Victor Regnault, probably in April or May 1860, as a "study of the tonic accent," so he was more interested in capturing the intonation than the words. But there's a mistake in the recorded recitation. "I was wrong," Scott wrote at the bottom: "it should be umane forme." By apologizing for reversing the word order, Scott indirectly identifies himself as the speaker. 

May 2009 release

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Vole, Petite Abeille - Fly, Little Bee (undated, probably September 1860) [#50]

This is the only phonautogram Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville identified as made with an "amplifying lever," his last known phonautographic design change. It is therefore presumably also his last known phonautogram, dating from late September 1860 or maybe even later. Equally noteworthy is the content: a lively rendition of a song that is as much performance as experiment. When First Sounds first published this recording, the selection was unidentified, except that the final syllables seemed to be the same as the inscribed title–"vole, petite abeille," or "fly, little bee." It turns out to be "La Chanson de l'Abeille" from the comic opera La Reine Topaze by Victor Massé, first performed in 1856. Thanks to Peter L. Goodman for his help in the search, as well as to David Lasocki of the William & Gayle Cook Music Library. 

May 2009 release

Download mp3: Vole, Petite Abeille   

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Vole, Petite Abeille - Fly, Little Bee (September 15, 1860) [#49]

The first of Scott's alternate takes we heard, this phonautogram again features "La Chanson de l'Abeille" from Massé's La Reine Topaze but was recorded without the amplifying lever.  The sound quality is markedly different, even though both phonautograms were played back using identical methods.  On the other hand, the adaptation of the song itself is nearly identical in both cases.  Years later, performers would famously have to learn to cut pieces of music to fit the duration of a phonograph cylinder.  By comparing Scott's two phonautograms of "La Chanson de l'Abeille," however, we learn that a consistent abridgement of one song had already been worked out for recording purposes back in 1860. 

October 2009 release

Download mp3: Vole, Petite Abeille (alternate take)  

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Jeune Jouvencelle (August 17, 1857) [#9]

This phonautogram, preserved today in the Scott dossier at the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale, is the earliest known sound recording inscribed with a specific day as opposed to a month.  An inscription identifies the content as “song at a distance,” with the words “jeune jouvencelle” (“young little girl”) written at the beginning and “les échos” (“the echoes”) at the end—possibly referring to the lyrics of a song as yet unidentified.  Because of the lack of tuning-fork timecode, the sound file hasn’t been speed-corrected, and the fluctuations in cranking speed were so great during recording that the melody can’t be readily recognized from the uncorrected file.  

May 2009 release

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Diapason at 435 Hz--at sequential stages of restoration (1859 Phonautogram) [#33]

Scott attached another phonautogram to the "certificate of addition" he deposited with the Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle in 1859. We believe it to be a record made by a tuning fork vibrating at 435 Hz, then just adopted as the official French reference pitch. This is the oldest recognizable sound yet reproduced and is presented here at successive stages of restoration.

March 2008 release

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