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The Evolution of American Music

January 31, 2016

Humans have enjoyed creating and listening to music since the first civilizations settled. The toe-tapping tunes and slow-dancing serenades of the American culture have undergone a thorough evolution and continue to change, not only in style, but in motives. Some music heard on the radio today may contrast with the smoother melodies of a century ago, but the impact of over one hundred years’ worth of developing styles has made its mark.

“Music is an art form and art is supposed to challenge our thinking,” chorus and AP Music Theory teacher, Jennifer Maer said. “It’s supposed to be an act of expression but it’s also supposed to be a wrestle with life.”

To listen to the evolution of music from the late 19th century to the present day, click here.


A Global Prehistory

Our ancient ancestors created the first forms of music, with simple instruments such as hand-beaten drums, bone flutes and their own hands to create rhythm. Throughout history, though largely undocumented, various styles of music evolved according to the ever-changing social, cultural, political and economic conditions.

During the Medieval ages, the French troubadour poets facilitated the spread of lyric poetry for royal courts, where songs were recorded in songbooks. Troubadours remained predominantly secular, but in the centuries following, cathedrals across Europe utilized hymns in extravagant buildings that allowed for enhanced acoustics, producing a spiritual aura.

Instruments evolved into more sophisticated forms and sounds, arguably reaching a climax in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the rise of classical music. World-renowned artists including Bach, Mozart and Beethoven paved the way for the melodies that are now used to teach aspiring musicians.


Dancing Through Time

The turn of the twentieth century brought widespread change to music across the globe, but in the United States, a different and unique culture of its own.

The early 1900s ushered in ragtime, a genre dedicated to irregular rhythms and composed with a mixture of European and African American influences. African American pianist and composer Scott Joplin became known as the “King of all Ragtime Writers,” for his unique composing that drew from the fading classical era.

The end of World War I in 1918 resulted in the lavish, party-obsessed decade dubbed the Roaring Twenties. Even through prohibition, the upper class managed to smuggle alcohol, musicians and dancers into the grandiose celebrations represented in classic works of literature such as “The Great Gatsby,” a fictional novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Lively, upbeat tunes made their way across America in private homes, public vicinities and in the discreet speakeasies of the northeast. The Jazz Age was born.

Notable vocalists and musicians included the beloved Louis Armstrong, the ‘Empress of Blues and Jazz’ Bessie Smith and early country singer Jimmie Rodgers. Flapper girls, such as Josephine Baker, provided entertainment by performing flashy dances in short, tassel-ridden dresses. Swing and blues accompanied the early jazz forms.

“The style is a lot more fun [to play] and the band itself has better interaction and chemistry between the members,” sophomore and trumpet player Noah Milian said.

The Depression of the 1930s followed the rapid crash of the stock market. As with all businesses, most record companies went out of business, but jazz music successfully remained to keep spirits high. Legendary vocalists Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and the young Bing Crosby set the stage for future singers and songwriters with their influential lyrics and voices that reflected common struggles in society.

A wave of talent seemed to overcome America as a reward for the prior enduring decade of financial distress. African American artists – notably vocalist Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and musician Count Basie – continued to make a lasting impression on American music and culture.

The style of music that made women swoon made an impression overseas as well. French singer Édith Piaf sang in similar styles, utilizing her powerful voice to the most of its potential,  eventually making her mark in American music halls.

The 1950s was a decade overflowing with national change and technology. The Civil Rights Movement brought the voices of African Americans to the public ear. Television sets, electric appliances and commercial foodstuffs seeped into commonplace American life. Music experienced a shift toward modernity.

With the resurgence of the music industry arose the star known to every American, who flirted with the hearts of young girls and dazzled listeners with his sonorous voice: Frank Sinatra. Sinatra brought a nostalgic and romantic touch to music throughout the 50s and 60s, including collaboration albums such as Count Basie and Sinatra’s It Might As Well Be Swing.

Vocalists such as Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Perry Como made the shift from romantic dancing tunes to modern love themes a smooth transition, while young stars shocked America with Rock n’ Roll.

Influenced by avid Rock n’ Roll fans in his family, sophomore Michael Foos plays the guitar, piano and trumpet.

“I usually play post-fifties rock because of the technique,” Foos said. “Within the entirety of the genre there’s a lot of techniques and variation.”

The Beach Boys became the epitome of youth American culture, singing about love, California life and the social interactions of teens and young adults.

The arrival of the devilish Elvis Presley was even more shocking. Parents and grandparents outspokenly opposed the pelvic gestures incorporated into his performances, but for young women, he took the American male ideal to a new level. Presley began as a country singer (and occasional actor) but transitioned into a more romantic Rock n’ Roll artist as time wore on- a trend America continues to see.

“Elvis Presley was going to African American nightclubs, listening to the tunes and going out into the recording studio and basically copying the style and sound,” Maer said. “He was being hailed as this innovator when in reality he was just borrowing.”

The radical shift from traditional toward innovative styles of music continued into the 1960s. The British wave heavily influenced American music, with instant sensations, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, gaining popularity in the states with a little help from The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. Before the sexual incitement provided by MTV in the 80s, emerging bands showcased their talents on The Ed Sullivan Show, debuting in front of America on their home television sets, as the average American family was then accustomed to eating dinner in front of their black-and-white screens and watching the popular talk show.

The all-natural Janis Joplin, country phenomenon Johnny Cash, nostalgic Ray Charles and daring Jimi Hendrix all contributed to the rising new music styles. From soft rock to modern country and from African American tradition to electric-guitar rock, the nation possessed a new variety of musical expression- and a precursor to the following decade.

“Especially in the sixties, a lot of music was reflected by the Civil Rights struggle,” Maer said. “Janis Joplin came to the scene because of stuff that was happening. Some of the folk artists came to the scene as a reaction to what was happening.”

The 1970s were met with an explosion of artists, publicity, new styles and a growing industry for listeners and producers alike.

The emphasis on environmental protection and dissatisfaction with the needless loss of soldiers to the Vietnam War served as primary causes for the subject of most 70s songs. The rise of drugs and hippies facilitated a new culture, as demonstrated at the 1969 Woodstock festival in rural New York, surrounding soft rock with a mixture of instruments that now included the electric guitar. Artists became peacemakers and modern-day philosophers, singing about the never-ending theme of love and the social injustices of the day.

Gentle voices, like those of Carole King, Eric Clapton, James Taylor, the band Fleetwood Mac and the upbeat James Brown held slightly different styles with equally impactful messages.

Within the music world itself, the argumentative phrase “death before disco” emerged as an opponent of the groovy disco music, characterized by its sparkly attire and body-engaging dance that tempted crowds everywhere to have a good time.

Music took a turn towards the commercial in the 1980s as heavier rock and pop music dominated LPs and radios in every teenager’s bedroom.

Celerity pop icons Madonna, Michael Jackson and Pat Benatar forever changed music videos through their appeal on MTV.

Heavier rock music, as demonstrated by the sexually explicit lyrics of AC/DC, Guns & Roses and Aerosmith, created debate over lyrical appropriateness but had a substantial impact on American culture; today’s generations continue to listen to the same bands many of their parents grew up with.

“It’s harder to make [classic rock] music,” junior and musician Daniel Pita said. “There’s more of a meaning behind it, and there’s more to learn about it. It’s not one-dimensional.”

Country singers split from the more traditional tunes of Johnny Cash and moved toward a broader audience encompassing the modern stereotypes of American Southerners.

Vocalists also created a new spin with their voices, either alone like Billy Joel, or together like the harmonizing skills of Queen.

“Some of the greatest artists have been really creative individuals with a vision for the future or a vision for society where they wanted to see some change,” Maer said.

A new genre of music was yet to emerge in the 1990s. As America frantically stocked up on water for the Y2K crash, the frantic rush for supplies in anticipation for the crash of digital world, people bounced their heads to the beat of rap music and heavy metal, in addition to previously established pop and country tunes.

Rap groups such as Run DMC and N.W.A set an early example for the rap produced today; the Backstreet Boys and Vanilla Ice gave pop an edgy street-style spin. Sweethearts Mariah Carey and Britney Spears gave girls a pop genre they related to. Shania Twain introduced a sexy aspect to country.

“I like to play pop music, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Bob Marley,” sophomore and guitar player Sofie Hamersmith said. “I also want to start doing more country.”

“If you eat a diet of candy, you’re not going to be healthy; if you listen to a diet of what’s only on the radio, your brain and your soul and your heart aren’t going to be healthy either.” -Chorus and AP Music Theory teacher Jennifer Maer.

The new century did not rock the digital world as expected, but invoked slight musical changes. The Black Eyed Peas created music for the perfect party, while the young Taylor Swift tested out country before making her mark on young girls with pop music. Beyoncé proved not only that her voice and beauty inspired people, but her personality as well. Lady Gaga reigned over the first decade with a new and exotic approach to celebrity presence reminiscent of artsy 80s pop singers.

“I do hear a lot of influences nowadays,” Maer said. “Bruno Mars borrowed stuff from the groups of the 60s.  If you listen to Justin Timberlake, a lot of the stuff that he does is borrowed from Michael Jackson. A lot of Gaga stuff [is] borrowed from Madonna.”

Some of today’s artists are more expressive than others with their celebrity appeal, but besides the Biebers and Minajs, unique voices such as Adele and Ed Sheeran win the admiration of their listeners with the naturality of their voices, which departs from heart-thumping rap, techno-music and heavy metal sounds. Indie and alternative rock are among other emerging genres that appeal to a variety of American masses.

Some may complain about the lack of depth and meaning to modern-day pop, but they often mirror the narcissism of our society.

“A lot of the music on the radio is reflective of what’s happening in our society,” Maer said. “There’s a lot of self-indulgence.”

The music of American culture has come a long way with yet more innovation to be made. Stay tuned for the Spring Chorus show on May 19, 7 p.m., where  Maer’s students will sing through the decades.


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