The Walkman just turned 40 — here's how listening to music has changed over the years


walkman cassette

  • The Walkman, the handheld cassette tape player released by Sony in 1979, celebrated its 40th anniversary on Monday. For decades, it dominated the music industry.
  • Recorded music started nearly 150 years ago with the phonograph, an invention by Thomas Edison that recorded audio onto a rotating foil cylinder.
  • Listening to music has, of course, changed since then. Here’s a look at how we got to cordless headphones and streaming sites. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Watch any ’80s movie and you are bound to spot it — typically clipped to the hip or held in hand.

It’s the Walkman.

Though it was first invented 40 years ago, in 1979, the iconic cassette tape player defined the decade when legwarmers weren’t part of costumes and Reaganomics ruled the land. It was the first device that allowed listeners to take music with them on the go (hence, the name).

Since then, we’ve evolved to CDs, iPods, and the current age of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. It’s easy to forget how revolutionary the Walkman was for its time, and that it marked a pivotal moment in the nearly 150-year-old history of recorded music.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how we’ve listened to music through the years — from the 1800s to today.

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The phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. An article in The New York Times from the same year said the invention of the phonograph “will lead to important changes in our social customs.” But in 1877, the phonograph was nowhere near perfect — it was something Edison would continue to perfect over the next 50 years.

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times

It worked by producing sound into a horn while a tin foil-covered cylinder was rotated using a handle or gear. The vibrations shook a needle and recorded the audio on the foil. This was the “beginning for recorded music — or recorded anything,” The New York Times wrote. However, the phonograph only allowed the listener to play a recording once, and, as you can imagine, didn’t produce the best quality.

Source: The New York Times, The New York Times

Soon after, Edison rival Alexander Graham Bell seemed to perfect the phonograph when he patented the Graphophone in 1886 — using Edison’s technology but substituting a wax cylinder, which could be played many times.

Source: The New York Times, The New York Times, Britannica

Invented by Emile Berliner in 1888, the gramophone was the first device to record on flat discs and could be duplicated, “like waffles from a waffle iron,” according to The New York Times.

Source: The New York Times

At first, the records were made of glass. The invention of the record would establish itself as one of the main ways to listen to and record music for decades to come.

Source: Smithsonian Institute

By the 1940s, the most popular way to listen to music, the news, or even hear presidential debates live was through radio. It quickly became the best way to disseminate information and provide entertainment. This was the decade where the talk show soared. According to NPR, American families listened to the radio “for three or four hours every day.”

Source: NPR

In the 1950s, jukeboxes were everywhere — at its highest point, there were more than 700,000 across America, in diners, cafes, and nightclubs. However, the presence of the jukebox began to drastically decline just a decade later.

Source: The New York Times

While radio was still in its height of popularity, the record was inching toward dominating the way people listened to music by the mid-20th century. Records that were once made of materials like glass and wax soon became easier to manufacture using vinyl plastic — which effectively turned the act of listening to music into more of private hobby rather than a social or familial event.

Source: The Smithsonian Magazine

The 8-track did not have a long shelf life. Invented by Bill Lear in 1964, the popularity of the ‘Stereo 8’ format was quickly killed by the cassette player, introduced in the early 1970s, which allowed people to record their own audio using a similar device.

Source: The New York Times

In 1981, the New York Times wrote that the cassette player was “the most eagerly wished-for of all gifts.” The device allowed people to not only listen to recorded music, but easily make their own recordings, too. This gave birth to the mixtape era, in which people could record songs they heard on the radio.

Source: The New York Times

Maybe one of the most visibly iconic music-listening devices, the boombox made its rise in the mid-’70s as a way to play tunes anywhere, and loudly — each contained nearly “150 decibels of power-packed bass,” NPR wrote. It was in the ’80s when noise ordinances were introduced in major cities like New York, according to NPR. Soon, portable cassette players would reign.

Source: NPR 

Forty years ago, on July 1, 1979, Sony’s Walkman was released — and as the first portable cassette player, it revolutionized the way we listen to music. At the time, a Walkman cost $150, and it soon became one of Sony’s best-selling products, with over 400 million sold.

Former Sony Chairman Masaru Ibuka is largely credited with the idea for the Walkman.

Source: Business Insider

But the classic blue-and-silver Walkman didn’t take off right away in 1979. Sales were slow at first. As a marketing campaign, Sony employees would ask people in the streets of Japan if they wanted to listen to a Walkman, which boosted the device’s popularity.

According to The Verge, Sony ceased production of the classic cassette tape Walkman in 2010.

Source: History, The Verge

The Walkman did so well that by 1983, cassettes finally began to outsell vinyl records. But a new listening format was about to take off: the compact disc.

Source: Time

In 1982, we were introduced to compact discs — better known as CDs. The idea for it, according to Gizmodo, came from a meeting between two tech companies, Philips and Sony, in 1979. Both companies wanted something small, thin, and capable of holding approximately 74 minutes of audio.

The first CD player, however, was considered too expensive for the average consumer — it cost $1,000, equivalent to about $2,600 today. The product took time to make an impression on the public.

Source: Gizmodo

Sony’s first portable CD player was introduced just 2 years after the CD itself. The Discman was “the smallest and lightest CD player ever produced, and its sound invited comparison with almost any model, regardless of size,” according to The New York Times. In 1984, you could buy a Sony CD player for less than $200.

Source: The New York Times

The CD quickly became “the fastest-growing home entertainment product in history,” according to writer Greg Milner. CD sales surpassed those of vinyl records in 1988 and cassettes in 1991. The format’s peak came in 2000, when consumers bought nearly 2.5 billion CDs worldwide.

Source: The Guardian

But the digital age marked the beginning of the end for CDs. The introduction of Napster popularized the MP3 and, for the first time, allowed internet users to download and share music for free. The peer-to-peer service came under fire from the Recording Industry Association of America and was forced to shut down in 2001.

Source: The Daily Beast

The digital era pressed forward in November 2001 when Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced its first venture into music players: the iPod. The MP3 player cost $399 and was purported to be as easy and consumer-friendly as a Macintosh computer. Back then, an iPod could hold just 1,000 songs.

Source: The New York Times 

Since 2001, Apple has introduced 5 different types of iPods — Classic, Mini, Nano, Shuffle, and Touch. The company also released iTunes, its digital media player, in 2003.

Apple announced in May it will shut down iTunes with the next big update to the Mac operating system. A former executive vice president of Warner Music Group told the Verge in 2013 that iTunes “invented the digital music business.”

Source: Business Insider

The 21st century has seen the rise of YouTube, internet radio services like Pandora, and streaming services such as Apple Music, Tidal, and Spotify. The most popular streaming service, Spotify, has more than 100 million paid subscribers. Although digital music sales increase every year, the overall shift away from physical units has cost the music industry billions of dollars.

Source: Reuters, The New York Times

Although no one knows what the future will hold, there’s no doubt that recorded music has come a long way from its humble origins.