20th-century music

By Hayley White

“Music is the shorthand of emotion” – Leo Tolstoy

The history of music is loaded with astonishing advancements. Whether these are technological advancements or those of basic human thought and expression is irrelevant. What does matter, is that although music has changed consistently throughout the ages, it was during the 20th century that it was most redefined and moulded into what we listen to today.

During the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, vocal music and singing were central in the musicscape, but things changed drastically with the birth of the Classical era. This was when instrumental music really found its feet and some of the most influential composers began taking the music world by storm. They fell back on homophonic music (music

By Hayley White

“Music is the shorthand of emotion” – Leo Tolstoy

The history of music is loaded with astonishing advancements. Whether these are technological advancements or those of basic human thought and expression is irrelevant. What does matter, is that although music has changed consistently throughout the ages, it was during the 20th century that it was most redefined and moulded into what we listen to today.

During the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, vocal music and singing were central in the musicscape, but things changed drastically with the birth of the Classical era. This was when instrumental music really found its feet and some of the most influential composers began taking the music world by storm. They fell back on homophonic music (music with only one melody) and created harmonies around the melody that complemented the music.

The Romantic era was less a stage of musical development and more a stylistic period wherein music became centred around expressions of love and beauty. In a kind of cultural shift, music seemed to revert to vocalist-centric music with the uprising of folk songs. Folk music partly came from the songs peasants would sing to accompany their work. It was also a big part of their leisure time when peasants would play various instruments for entertainment and storytelling.

African American slave songs culminated in the birth of two further forms of popular music – jazz and blues.

Music technology also went through several big changes. In 1877, the phonograph (and later the gramophone) was a piece of recording equipment that developed into the listening devices we know as record players. The creation of the radio near the end of the 20th century meant people could listen to live recordings of music or radio broadcasts whenever they wanted, making music more accessible than ever before..

Photo: Jonathan Farber, Unsplash

The microphone is regarded as an essential tool for any musician, but microphones were not invented for singing and music production until the early 20th century. Microphones created in the late 19th century were all made for the telegraph – later the telephone. In 1916, E.C. Wente invented the first condenser microphone, also known as a capacitor or electrostatic microphone. The condenser microphone would go on to be the leading model for music production right up to this day. Microphone developments continued until the next big breakthrough, which was the wireless microphone. Around the 1940s, wireless microphones were invented by a man called Tom Arnold who later produced the show Aladdin on Ice. It is said he attached the wireless transmitter to one of the character’s costumes and it worked perfectly. From then came microphone developments that had greater directionality for television and film. Omnidirectional microphones would pick up sound from any direction; unidirectional microphones were only able to pick up sound from one direction, and bi-directional microphones could receive sound from both the front and back of the microphone’s position. These microphones are all still used today, either in radio stations, music studios, television shows, films, or live performances.

Photo: Martin Rajdi, Unsplash

In the mid-19th century, the nylon 6-string classical guitar was built. This guitar was much larger than all former inventions but drastically improved on volume, tone, and projection. This was due to the creation of a larger soundbox that naturally amplified the sound of the strings. The 6-string model has remained unchanged and unchallenged to this day. The introduction of steel strings at the beginning of the 20th century promised louder guitars, but forced guitar makers to adapt to a headstock capable of holding the stronger strings.

As jazz and blues became common in the early 20th century, guitar players found it more difficult to be heard over the collective noise of these big jazz bands. The acoustic guitar could never compete with the loud horns and drums in terms of volume, and so the electric guitar was born. But that was not just an expansion of an existing instrument, it was the creation of an entirely new one which Dunne (2019) says required “new skill-sets for the instrument to reach its full potential” (p. 14). As an incredibly versatile instrument, it dipped its toes into every genre of music there is (except classical), and ushered in almost entirely new genres of music.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, rhythm and blues (known today as R&B) and rock and roll dominated the musicscape. Up until 1957, rock and roll and R&B were used interchangeably. Like all other genres, they were a fusion of other styles, namely gospel, boogie-woogie, and shuffle rhythms. Post WW2, big jazz and blues bands were finding it harder to find jobs, so smaller groups of saxophones, trumpets/trombones, piano, bass, drums, and guitar were put together to form the basis of a standard rhythm and blues band (McCourt, 1983).

But because most teenagers were looking for something different than what McCourt called the “crooners of the early fifties” (p. 10), big record companies began to look at the success of smaller, independent record companies. What they stumbled upon was R&B. For the most part, R&B was created by African Americans, for African Americans, but it still managed to whip up a huge white following because of its danceability and peppy tunes. This blurred the lines of racial segregation, so R&B suffered a major backlash and was sometimes banned from broadcasts. This was when rock and roll became big, and dominated by youth culture.

Kotarba (2001) defines rock and roll music in five ways: music that is created and marketed for youth or young people who consume music according to youth tastes; is guitar driven and amplified; has roots in African American music styles; is danceable; and sounds better when played or performed loud (p. 399). One of the most notable musicians from this time, known as the King of Rock and Roll, was Elvis Presley. The early ‘60s also saw the British invasion of music and British rock and roll bands like The Beatles and The Hollies became popular worldwide. It also brought with it British bands and musicians who were influenced by American R&B and blues music, namely The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac.

Today, we know pop music to be pretty much the same song reproduced a million times, but it was not always this way. ’Pop’ is the shortened version of ‘popular’ and, even though the terms are occasionally interchangeable, they do not always mean the same thing.

The term popular music sprang up in the UK and US during the 1950s and was used to describe the popular genre of music of the time. Popular music has always been subject to the whims of youth, especially during the ‘50s and ‘60s when high school and college students made the rock and roll genre popular and formed the basis for the future of the pop genre. As such, pop and rock music were one and the same up until the ‘60s when pop music split off and became associated with commercial music that was easily distributed and more accessible.

As we know it now, pop music is identified by short to medium-length songs, repeated choruses, hooks (short musical phrases intended to ‘hook’ in the listener), and tempos that are easy to dance to. As technology progressed, multi-track recording (developed in 1955 allowing music producers to layer separate recordings into a cohesive whole) and digital sampling (reusing a sound, whether that be a melody, rhythm, or speech) were also used to create and shape pop music.

Because of this, pop music was seen as progressive in the ‘60s. Stylistically, it absorbed most if not all of its elements from other genres. For example, its use of vocal harmonies came from gospel and soul, its instrumentation came from jazz and rock, backing from electronic music, and rhythmic elements from hip-hop. As popular music developed throughout the late 20th century, musicians like Elton John, groups like Abba, and boy bands and girl bands like NSYNC and Spice Girls emerged all over the place redefining pop. While Western pop music is prolific, so, too, is international pop music that has taken its inspiration from Western-derived pop styles. International genres like K-pop (Korean pop music) and groups like BTS and BLACKPINK have even grown Western followings.

From the 1960s and onwards, various stages of the rock genre dominated the musicscape. Some argue that rock was the most iconic and influential form of music ever to grace the earth. And I guess rock could also be viewed as quite possibly the most prolific genre of music in history, considering its many different stages of popularity from the mid to late 20th century until 2010, when it saw a decline in favour of hip-hop music. From the late ‘60s, rock music has been in direct opposition to pop music. Rock tended to focus on extended works and it was a common trend for rock artists to release an entire album as opposed to pop artists who would release singles. Rock also stressed live performances and progressive developments rather than recycling trends.

The ‘70s was a time for punk rock, featuring bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols. Punk symbolised the rejection of the mainstream and became a major cultural phenomenon in the UK. Despite its popularity, punk rock did not tend to sell well, and a new wave of musical acts like David Bowie, Blondie, and Duran Duran came about, pushing punk into the mainstream. It was around this time that MTV was launched, so a lot of these acts were drawn into the video age. Gradually, rock continued to evolve into new sub-genres like alternative rock, grunge, and metal.

Music is always changing and developing. Within the space of a handful of decades, our entire music system and the genres as we know them, were created, and then redefined. Arguably, some of the most important and influential genres of them all were jazz, blues, pop, and rock which you can always hear traces of in any kind of music you listen to. Without those four, could you imagine what music would be like today?

 

Sources: 1. Why Does It Have To Be So Loud? A Social History Of The Electric Guitar 2. Rock ‘N’ roll music as a timepiece. Symbolic Interaction 3. Bright lights, big city: A brief history of rhythm and blues 1945–1957. Popular Music and Society

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