How 'Jingle Bells' by the Singing Dogs Changed Music Forever



Let's, for a moment, consider "Jingle Bells" as performed by the Singing Dogs.

With jaded, 21st-century ears, it's easy to dismiss as Yuletide kitsch. It topped a 2007 survey of most-hated Christmas songs, but there was a time when listeners marveled at it—Dogs! And they're singing!

It's time we give the Singing Dogs their due. Created in Denmark in the early 1950s by a self-taught ornithologist and released in the U.S. in 1955, the record marks a turning point in how we listen to music. I'll explain.

The late '40s and early '50s were a heady time for music recording, thanks largely to the defeat of the Nazis. Germans had perfected magnetic tape recording and they kept it under tight wraps. Live-sounding broadcasts of Hitler's speeches confounded the Allies: How could der Fuhrer be in so many locations at once? Besides having the capability to run for longer stretches of time than the phonograph (allowing for uninterrupted stretches of propaganda), the new tape technology had much higher fidelity. Previously, broadcasts of recordings sounded like recordings; the new tape recordings did not. Toward the end of the war, American soldiers retrieved some rather sophisticated tape recording machines, known as Magnetophons, from an abandoned radio station outside of Frankfurt. Mystery solved.

Perhaps most revolutionary about the new technology was the ability to cut, splice, speed up and slow down tape, which allowed for audio illusions that were impossible to create before. The technology led to a post-WWII frenzy of experimentation. At the highbrow end of things, academics in Paris immersed themselves in tape music compositions. In the U.S., Les Paul and his then-wife Mary Ford worked in a more populist vein, baffling radio audiences with multiple layers of voices and guitars. In the middle of the cultural spectrum were the Brits, whose haunting new sound effects added another dimension to radio dramas.

In Denmark, the makers of the Singing Dogs record embraced this new sonic world with equal giddiness. The record was the work of Carl Weismann, a pioneer in bird song recording who convinced Danish State Radio to furnish him with some decent equipment.

Dogs often chased Weismann from private property during his field recordings, leaving the day's results marred by angry barks. On a lark, he took razor to tape to edit out the barks and then painstakingly spliced them together. He tweaked tape speeds to correct the pitches. The arduous process of achieving even a simple melody probably shortened many composers' forays into tape music. (Today, it just takes a few minutes with the right apps.)

Before "Jingle Bells," Weismann recorded a collection of traditional Danish songs assembled from dog barks for a children's TV program in 1949. This places him right in the thick of early tape music experiments; one year prior, Pierre Schaeffer invented musique concrete—the manipulation of non-musical sounds into music—a movement that presaged record scratching and sampling.

The Journal of Acoustic Ecology refers to Weismann as "effectively the first composer of musique concrete in Denmark." The description doesn't exactly fit, as the Singing Dogs run afoul of some key points in the rather elaborate philosophy of musique concrete (Schaeffer tended to talk about composing more than actually compose). But Weismann's record did use many of the same ideas and techniques.

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William Weir is a writer living in New Haven, Conn. His articles have appeared in Slate and other publications.

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