Music through the ages: The development of early 20th-century music

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Where words leave off, music begins.”

Heinrich Heine

The 20th century is quite possibly the most complex era in music history. Amid two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the uprising of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler came some of the most important developments in music history, both musical and technological. They include the birth of the genres as we know them now and the early beginnings of our recording and listening devices. Music has always undergone extreme changes, but I think we can all agree that once humankind developed technology, it boosted our music to new heights. Without the immense changes from the 20th-century music era, we would not be where we are now with how we listen to and experience music.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes

“Where words leave off, music begins.”

Heinrich Heine

The 20th century is quite possibly the most complex era in music history. Amid two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the uprising of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler came some of the most important developments in music history, both musical and technological. They include the birth of the genres as we know them now and the early beginnings of our recording and listening devices. Music has always undergone extreme changes, but I think we can all agree that once humankind developed technology, it boosted our music to new heights. Without the immense changes from the 20th-century music era, we would not be where we are now with how we listen to and experience music.

From the medieval era and the birth of the Gregorian Chant, the Renaissance era motet and hymns, then eventually to the Baroque era operas, cantatas, and oratorios, vocal music was the focal point. It was rare that instrumental music was prioritised until the Classical era.

The most influential composers of the time, notably Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert, all contributed to the way instrumental and orchestral classical music took form. One of the key differences from the previous eras was that Classical music resumed homophonic form (meaning music only had one melody), but it also created harmonies to match and compliment the melody. The Romantic era of music was less a developmental time for music itself and more a philosophical state of mind. While it developed other orchestral forms of work like the rhapsody, the nocturne, and the overture, it was generally a period where music was not as structured. It was free flowing and did not simply stay within the confines of Classical and Baroque conventions.

The revolutionary creation of the original record player, the phonograph, was an especially important part of music history. Invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, the phonograph was a piece of recording equipment that picked up sound waveforms and engraved, etched, or impressed a spiral groove onto a rotating cylinder. To recreate the sound, the grooves were used to make a playback stylus vibrate.

In the 1880s, Alexander Graham Bell improved on Edison’s phonograph and created the gramophone which used a cutting stylus that zigzagged grooves around a cylinder coated in wax.

Gramophone LP (Long Play) record
Photo: Alberto Bigoni, Unsplash

About ten years later, a flat disc with a spiral groove running from the periphery to near the centre of the disc was introduced to the gramophone. This was the original design for record players and played a major role in the music industry once gramophones became mass distributed. In a time where going to music concerts was reserved for the high class, gramophones allowed lower class people to experience music, sometimes for the first time.

Another ground-breaking invention for the distribution of music was the radio. The creation of radio was something that developed scientifically and which spanned decades of experimental investigation. In the 1880s, German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves, but it was Italian inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi who invented the radio in the early 1890s. As technology developed to allow for more widespread radio broadcasting by the 1920s, music lovers could buy and listen to live recordings or broadcasts of a range of music from all around the globe. This meant that more of the population had access to opera, classical, folk, and popular music that may not have been available to their social status or region.

The 20th century saw the move away from classical instrumental music into folk music. Folk music was a big part of peasant culture; it was the music of the people. What traditional music history seldom shows is that music was also made by common people as part of their work and leisure. Their work consisted of a lot of manual labour and music served a major purpose in helping them keep a rhythm going during repetitive tasks. It helped synchronise the pushes and pulls, and set the pace for activities like planting, weeding, reaping, weaving, and milling. During leisure time, singing and instrument playing were common forms of entertainment and history-telling.

Folk music was an oral tradition passed on through memory because a lot of peasants were illiterate and could not write. Folk music has long been researched and analysed based on its historical and cultural relevance to a variety of different cultures. Folk music, especially North American and European, gave birth to a whole heap of genres that we still listen to today.

Photo: Janine Robinson, Unsplash

Jazz and blues are some of the earliest and most influential modern popular music genres of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Music scholars can argue for hours around the origins of jazz and blues, because they are two very similar genres with deep roots in African American slave culture. But it is well known that jazz has established origins in New Orleans, U.S. and has links to both African American and European-American music.

The separation of slavery-born folk music from European folk music is best summed up by Malraux in 1966 (as cited in Stuckey, 1995) who says that “while European folk music sings of a lost paradise, African American folk music sings of happiness wrested away forever from the men who improvised songs on the banks of the Mississippi”. Slave songs themselves have an oral history and were a conduit for African American slaves to pass down to their children. The blues retains elements of these slave songs, having veiled content like complaint, rage, revenge, resistance, satire, and protest (Bayer, 2008). Blues also incorporated work songs, spirituals (a genre that merged African heritage with slave history), field hollers, shouts, chants, and simple, rhymed narrative ballads. Because of this, the blues genre kept hold of a lot of African American music practices and their important social functions, like complex rhythms, and elements of the supernatural. Probably the most characteristic feature of the blues is the 12-bar blues riff that was created in 1912. This riff features in almost every blues song, especially in music by Eric Clapton, but also in a lot of rock and roll such as Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog.

Pianist Jelly Roll Morton composed Jelly Roll Blues which became the first ever jazz arrangement to be printed and published in 1915. Called the Spanish tinge, Morton claimed that this Afro-Latin rhythm was essential to jazz and without it, you would never be able to get the right seasoning for jazz. A spin off was swing, an additional genre which kicked off an entirely new form of song and dance. Jazz and swing come from the same kind of syncopation and are described as being more of a feeling rather than anything able to be described. When jazz performer Cootie Williams was asked to define it, he said that he would rather try and tackle Einstein’s Theory!

The roaring 20’s was when jazz really came alive and was the dominant form of popular music at the time. The word jazz itself is derived from the slang word jasm which originally meant energy, vitality, pep, or spirit. The 1920s was a rough time, for Americans at least, as it was the time of the prohibition when the sales, production, and distribution of alcohol was banned. Naturally, a way around that was found, and underground speakeasies saw the rise of The Jazz Age. This gave jazz a pretty bad reputation. A lot of older folk saw it as highly immoral and a threat to older cultural values. Jazz had an additional post-war revival in the 1940s. During World War 2, swing jazz crossed the ditch to Europe with the U.S military where bands would travel and perform for the troops stationed over there.

Between the societal shift from the blues to jazz sat ragtime. While technically, blues and jazz shared the same African American roots, ragtime is what really made the genre popular. In the early 20th century, ragtime was the first African American genre to have an impact on mainstream popular culture. Dubbed the ‘King of Ragtime’, Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917) was an African American composer and pianist who wrote over 100 ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. His most popular and iconic ragtime song Maple Leaf Ragis one of the defining songs of the genre and was key in influencing subsequent ragtime composers with its melody lines, chord progressions, and metric patterns.

Ragtime also drastically affected dance bands at the time, creating new dance steps popularised by show dancers Vernon and Irene Castle in the 1910s. Ragtime was derived from African American marches, so it was usually written in a 2/4 or 4/4 rhythm. Typical music is written in standard 4/4 (1-2-3-4) compared to 2/4 which is a kind of syncopated rhythm where the emphasis is placed on the second beat of the music (1-2-3-4). It was this that is said to lead to the name ragtime, because of the ragged or syncopated rhythm. Ragtime went hand-in-hand with jazz and blues.

The beginning of modern music has such a complex history that it is impossible to provide anything other than a brief discussion on its origins. The influence that folk, blues, and jazz had on music was immense. Those three genres essentially created our music genre system as we know it now. Not only that, but the music technology developed during those times was revolutionary. Without the creation of the phonograph and the radio, the music industry would quite possibly look – and sound – totally different today.

 

Source: The music that is in one’s soul: On the sacred origins of jazz and the blues. Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry

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