Backstage at the gong show

Music in its many forms is celebrated at this aural showcase in LA, writes Rob McFarland.

Listening to Amy Winehouse as she would have sounded in the late-1800s is surreal. Hearing her sing "I told you I was trouble. You know that I'm no good" doesn't have the same impact when it's coming from a gramophone.

From Mono To Surround is an intriguing exhibit in the recently-opened Grammy Museum that allows you to hear how technological advances have changed the way we listen to music. Select one of four well-known tracks then choose to hear it played through the original Edison wax cylinder phonograph, or stereo LP, compact cassette or high definition 5.1 channel surround sound. Predictably, there's a noticeable improvement in quality at each stage. Apart from the last. Switch from surround sound to the format in which most of us now listen to music MP3 through ear buds and there is a stark drop in quality. Technology has made our music more portable but at what price?

Interactivity is the driving force behind this museum and it has been used to great effect. Spread over four floors is an ear-numbing array of exhibits and displays.

The Grammy Awards have been presented since 1958 and, while the museum presents a comprehensive history of the awards, its wider brief is to explore the enduring legacies of all forms of music and the creative process of music-making.

On the top floor, I'm immediately immersed in a corridor of familiar video clips from the Grammys. Next up is a touch-sensitive exhibit called Crossroads, where I can view photos, hear songs and read stories from more than 160 genres. Another interactive display charts the times and places of key events in US music history.

Perhaps the most impressive exhibit is a series of eight self-contained pods where you use touch-sensitive screens to explore how choosing a particular voice effect or background beat can affect the finished recording. For a few minutes up-and-coming DJ Mix Master McFarland is in the house.

Also on the third floor is the Everything Grammy display, which showcases significant performances and events from the award's history. Displayed in glass cabinets are instantly recognisable costumes from artists such as Beyonce and Kanye West together with the infamous plunging green chiffon Versace dress that is said to have launched J-Lo's career when she wore it to the Grammys in 2000.

In addition to the museum's permanent displays, there is a dedicated area for temporary exhibitions. One of these, Songs Of Conscience, Sounds Of Freedom, brings together artefacts and rare photographs to explore the fundamental connection between music and politics. On display until the end of the year, this powerful exhibition has documentaries about influential music figures alongside artefacts such as lyrics from Patti Smith and the iPod of a US soldier serving in Iraq.

Despite the museum's impressive array of interactive exhibits, it is a handwritten letter from Buddy Holly to his mother while he was on tour in 1957 that provides the most telling indication of how attitudes have changed in the past 50 years. Holly writes: "...we are the only white act on the show. There's more Negroes here I think than white people, but as a rule they are real nice."

The writer was a guest of V Australia and California Tourism


Getting there

V Australia flies daily from Sydney to Los Angeles, from $1301.Phone 13 82 87, see

Being there

Grammy Museum, L.A. Live, 800 West Olympic Boulevard, $US14.95 for adults ($21), $US10.95 for children. See

Further information