The History of Dance Music
In last week’s lesson we looked at the development of rock music during the thirty years between 1950s to 1970s, as well as a few recent examples from the last 20 years. This week, we are going to take a similar journey, charting the history of modern dance music, which has its roots in soul, Motown and disco.

1950s: Rhythm and Blues
In 40s and 50s, a style called rhythm and blues (R&B) was very popular. Like rock’n’roll, R&B had its roots in African American gospel (church) music and the blues. Many of these early R&B songs were based on traditional spirituals and gospel music, but with lyrics re-written in a secular (non-religious) style. Musically there were a lot of similarities between rhythm and blues, and rock’n’roll. However, while rock’n’roll became marketed towards white Americans of European descent, R&B very much kept its African American identity. R&B lyrics would often discuss issues that were particularly important to the black community at that time: the quest for freedom and equality, or economic hardship, as well as more universal themes such as love and loss. Let’s hear some rhythm and blues from one of its most well-known pioneers, Ray Charles.

And a slower take on the genre by the Nat King Cole, who was also a famous jazz pianist.

1960s: Soul Music, Motown, Funk

While R&B and rock’n’roll had similar roots, over time they became very distinct genres, each leading to very different styles of music. While rock’n’roll led to new genres such as prog-rock, punk, and metal, by the 60s R&B had evolved into a new style called soul. This genre tended to emphasise the singer, who would often weave complicated melodies over a more laid-back band. Soul tracks also commonly featured orchestral instruments such as strings and brass.

You may have noticed in the last lesson that many of the early rock bands tended to be men. Soul, on the other hand, gave us some of the great female singers of the 20th century such as Aretha Franklin, “the Queen of Soul”.

America being the huge country that it is, different styles of soul developed throughout the USA, which are often referred to by their place of origin. Here’s some Memphasis Soul, which often featured organs and guitars. Drums would often have a continuous ‘driving’ beat, while backing vocals may be “doo wop” (noises rather than words) in style. You can also hear a strong blues influence.

Across the pond, the UK also had its own style evolving, called Northern Soul. This had lots of energetic brass and upbeat rhythms that went on to influence ska music many years later. These songs were often by American singers, who didn’t have much success in the USA and didn’t realise they had a huge following in the UK until many years later!

Back in the USA, the most popular form of Soul by far was Motown. This style came from Detroit – the Motor town, which was home to the Ford car factories. Motown had a very polished and pop friendly style, featuring lots of orchestration that made it soundtrack friendly for Hollywood. This helped it to reach an even larger audience. Here are The Supremes, who were one of the most well known Motown groups from this time.

Another type of music was also developing out of soul at the same time: funk. This is a danceable style, based around strong bass lines, offbeat drum grooves, and discordant (clashing) harmonies derived from jazz.

And one from James Brown.

1970-80s: Disco
Throughout the 70s and 80s, the bassline driven groove of funk, along with the lush orchestration of soul led to a style that’s the basis of most dance music we hear today: disco. Its driving “four to the floor” rhythm (a steady bassdrum on every beat of the bar), and its “boots-and-cats-and” percussion remains the backbone of modern house and techno music.

Confused by “boots and cats”? Here’s why I mean:

Here’s some 70s disco from Earth Wind and Fire

Some disco artists kept a slightly more soulful, funky approach, such as First Choice.

Into the 80s now with a disco track by the Brothers Johnson. Can you already hear the influences on house music, in particular the strong beat and basslines?

This is all we have time to look at today – modern day dance music is a huge topic which we will cover in a future lesson. Next week we’ll finish off our study of rock music, looking at rock from the 90s up to today. The lesson after that we’ll return to modern dance music such as house, trap, and drum and bass. Let’s finish off with a more modern take on disco by Daft Punk, from 2013:

History of Electronic Music
Over the last two lessons, we’ve charted the history of rock and dance music, looking at their shared roots, and seeing how they gradually developed into new genres, from rock’n’roll and soul to metal and disco.

In both lessons, we stopped our journey at the end of 70s. There is a reason for this – in the 80s, electronic dance music took off, which had a huge influence on other genres. Over the following decades rock, soul, and disco took on more and more electronic elements resulting in entirely new genres of music, including the modern ‘pop’ sound. So before we move on to modern pop music, let’s listen to the electronic music from which it grew.

The Pioneers
Electronic music really came into its own in the 80s, when developments in technology meant that electronic instruments and equipment became more portable, more affordable, and more reliable.

an early synthesiser from 1901. It’s a bit big to carry!

However, electronic music had been around for many years before then. For as long as recording equipment and noise generating machines have existed, musicians have been experimenting with using them in their compositions. Here’s a song from the 90s with an instrument called a ‘vocoder’ applied to the voice, which makes it sound like a robot.

Although it’s a sound we associate with modern music, this sort of technology goes way back!

In the 1940s, thanks to the invention of recording technology, a style called musique concrète emerged. This was created by recording and layering different sounds on top of each other, like a collage made from sound.

a picture like this, made from different materials such as books or photos, is called a collage.

This type of music pioneered a technique called sampling – taking pre-existing recordings and using them to make part of a new piece of music. Although this is example is from the 80s (many decades after musique concrete originated), it’s a good example of this style. Notice the layers of sound. This style is sometimes described as a soundscape rather than music (because it creates a landscape with sound). While listening, try to pick out all the different sounds and instruments you can hear.

Sampling was a fundamental part of the hip-hop, rap, and jungle movements which came many years later. Let’s have a look at how sampling in more detail.

Sampling – Hip Hop, Rap, Jungle, and Drum & Bass
In this next video I’m going to give you a demonstration of how sampling works, using one of the most influential five seconds of music ever: the Amen Break.

Now let’s hear some examples of the Amen Break in action. In this next video from the 90s, the sample is used in a hip-hop track by NWA.

Here’s another example from the 90s, with this typical example of the break used in a jungle track by Peshay.

This next video is a more recent example by Rudimental. In this track, the rhythm of the break is being performed live by a drummer.

It isn’t just drum loops that are sampled. You may know this song already.

But it could sound familiar for another reason, this track by Kanye West.

Here’s a more modern track being sampled, Machine Gun by Portishead. Listen to the beginning of the original then see if you can hear the sample in the next song by The Weekend.

Synths and Drum Machines – House, Techno, and Trance
Let’s pick up where we left off last lesson, looking at how disco led to house and techno.
Through the 70s, disco was generally performed by live musicians – singers, guitarists, bass guitar, piano, drummers, and other percussion. Throughout the 80s, disco gradually became more and more electronic, with synthesisers (keyboards) and drum machines taking more important roles.

Thanks to the invention of the drum machine, house music was born. Here’s one of the earliest Chicago house tracks from 1984.

While Chicago house had quite a dark flavour, by the 90s, a more soulful form of house had emerged – deep house.

Listening to modern artists like Disclosure it’s easy to still hear those roots.

While house was finding a softer voice, a harder style had also been developing in the Motor City – Detroit. Home to Motown, Detroit is famous for the Ford car factories in the state, where many of its residents worked. Inspired by these industrial, robotic factories, house music there kept the edgier sound of Chicago house and pushed it to harder, darker and more aggressive extremes. The result is a genre now know as techno. Here’s one of the earliest Detroit techno tracks by Juan Atkins.

And now an example of a modern techno track from two years ago. This track is much heavier than the Detroit style, with a much more thumping ‘kick’, but also features some deep house style vocals and synths.

In the 90s, another form of electronic dance music took off, called trance. Trance music is very similar to techno – heavy, fast, and mostly made with synths and drum machines. However, it’s much more melodic than techno, and with lots of hypnotic synths and catchy melodies, and often features singers and a song-structure as the main focus.

Over the next 10 years or so, trance had a huge impact on popular music, leading to a style called EDM (which is short for electronic dance music, but refers to this particular style, which is very poppy). Here’s a typical EDM song by Avicii from 2011. It’s a lot slower than trance and less intense but still features the singers, big breakdowns, and huge melodic synths.

UK Garage, Contemporary R&B, Dubstep and Trap
These genres also have their roots in the 90s, developing out of house, soul and rap. UK garage was a soulful form of house that often featured vocals similar to the 60s soul singers. A similar style, UK grime, had similar beats but tended to feature rappers rather than singers. Both styles had a garage beat – drums that sounded housey but were more chopped up and ‘bouncy’ than the usual “4 to the floor” found in house music. Here’s some UK Garage by MJ Cole.

And some UK grime from So Solid Crew.

In the US, singers like Beyoncé were also returning to soulful roots, but with hip-hop beats, in a style called contemporary R&B.

Over the 2000s, UK grime artists began exploring a much heavier sound, resulting in a completely new style called dubstep. In dubstep, the bouncy garage beat is much more exaggerated, and the bass often changes in texture and volume in time to the music.

Poppy EDM artists began to use this sound in their own tracks, resulting in a more commercial style of dubstep such as that written by Skrillex.

While EDM artists were making dubstep more commercial sounding, rap artists went the other way, continuing the original underground garage vibe with trap and drill, which brings us up to date with modern grime music!

We covered a lot today! There is still a lot of electronic music we didn’t get to cover, but hopefully you found some songs you like in there!

Modern pop music takes elements from many of the styles we’ve looked at so far – disco, hip-hop, soul, house, and rock music, as well as others. Now we’ve learned about these styles, we’re ready to begin looking at modern pop music. See you next week!

The Modern Pop Sound
“Pop music” has referred to very different sounds over the years. In the 50s and 60s, pop usually referred to rock’n’roll artists such as Elvis Presley and The Beatles. By the 70s, pop often meant disco, with groups such as Abba.

From the 80s onwards, hip-hop and electronic dance music started to make an impact on the pop sound. While different styles of pop music have always influenced each other to create new genres, from the 90s onwards pop was a mixture of so many different styles that “pop” had become a genre in itself. The 90s pop sound was a mixture of soul, disco, house, rock, and hip-hop. Over the 2000s-2010s, other styles like trance, drum & bass and dubstep also made strong contributions.

Some early pop groups like Take That started off as disco or dance artists. Here’s one of Take That’s first songs.

Over the next years other “boy bands” such as Westlife, Backstreet Boys, and Boyzone, dominated the music charts in the UK. While some songs drew from house and disco, others were more influenced by hip-hop.

Not all songs were influenced by electronic dance music. Many slow ballades drew from rock and disco, with a more laid-back vibe.

Other ballades drew on gospel and spiritual roots, with a more soulful feel.

In the late 90s, a girl group called the Spice Girls became hugely successful, ending the era of boy-band dominance.

In the US pop music was more influenced by soul, resulting in a sound called Contemporary R&B (contemporary means ‘modern day’). Here is Destiny’s Child, the girl group that launched Beyoncé’s career.

This song by Girls Aloud from the early 2000s is a perfect example of the mash-up of different styles that defined pop music from the 90s onwards. Like a collage of different genres and sounds, this song starts off with a jungle beat and bassline alongside Latin sounding string accompaniments, before dropping into a chorus with a surf-rock style electric guitar playing Middle Eastern scales.

Pop Music Over the Last Decade

In the 2010s, EDM had taken off, taking elements from trance (big melodic synths) and house (“4 to the floor” drum machines), and blending them with more poppy vocals and verse/chorus structures. The next artist I want to show you also uses some elements more traditionally associated with classical music – a string quartet:

Other pop artists are still inspired by a more retro disco sound, like this song by Dua Lipa, which has very classic sounding disco drums, strings, and bass, and also samples a jazz record from the 1930s. Here’s the sample first, then see if you can hear it in the Dua Lipa song which follows.

One of the biggest hits of the last few years blended modern trap style beats with traditional Latin music. Notice also the ‘autotuned’ effect on the rapper’s voice. This effect has been used a lot over the last decade and is a defining sound of 2010 productions. Like all musical trends, autotuning like this will go out of fashion fairly soon. But in 30 years time, when you’re all old, there will no doubt be a 2010s revival where producers are copying this effect to sound retro (old fashioned)!

Like the Amen Break that we looked at last week, this sample and melody has also been used extensively by other artists over the decades! You may also recognise it from other songs.

Two of the best-selling artists of the 2010s were Adelle and Ed Sheeran. Sheeran blended his singer-songwriter vocals and guitar sound with housey or hip-hoppy beats and synths.

Adelle had an even more stripped back approach, singing traditional ballades with just vocals and piano.

This kind of approach has more recently been used by Lewis Capaldi.

Beyoncé also explored more stripped back instrumentation in this country-pop song, Daddy Lessons.

Other Pop Trends
One thing pop music is sometimes criticised for is that it is unoriginal, recycling ideas again and again because it’s popular and people know it sells. This isn’t entirely fair as there is lots of very good, fresh sounding pop music, and no music is ever completely original. But I want to finish with a couple of funny videos which show two themes that are incredibly common in modern pop music: the ‘millennial whoop’ and the ‘I V vi IV’ (1 5 6 4, a chord progression which is used over and over again in pop music, ie C, G, A minor, F). Warning: once you watch these videos you will never be able to un-hear these trends! How many do you recognise?

Did the four chords sound familiar? We’ve had two songs using this chord sequence in this lesson alone – both Adelle and Lewis Capaldi both used the I V vi IV progression. Go back and listen to the choruses if you like to see!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these lessons looking at the history of music, and you’ve discovered some music you like along the way. There are so many other style we haven’t managed to cover, but we need to move on now – next week we’ll begin a new topic!

Rock Music: Prog, Punk and Metal

Last week we looked at popular song, largely focusing on its roots: folk music. Towards the end of the lesson, we charted the history of modern pop music, beginning with African American spirituals and ragtime, through blues and early jazz, to 50s rock’n’roll.

Many new genres began to emerge alongside rock’n’roll, including soul music, which ultimately led to disco and its various dance music descendants. We will look at the evolution of dance music in a future lesson. Today, we are going to focus on how rock music evolved over the decades and how it branched out to sub-genres like prog, punk and metal. Today is mostly about listening – we won’t have time for questions, so just sit back and enjoy the music, and take notes about the features of each style.

Let’s remind ourselves of the early rock’n’roll sound by some music from the 1950s by the ‘king of rock’ Elvis Presley.

The 60s – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones & Jimi Hendrix
In 1960, a band formed in Liverpool, UK, that changed the face of music forever – The Beatles. When they started out their sound was very clearly based on blues and rock’n’roll.

Over the next few years pop music became a lot more experimental, with bands looking for influences beyond rock’n’roll. The Beatles famously took inspiration from Indian music, for example.

By the end of the decade, their music had moved on a long way from its rock’n’roll origins. This song, Here Comes the Son, uses some complicated rhythms and patterns that would have been unheard of in blues or rock’n’roll, blurring the distinction between popular music and art music.

In previous centuries Britain had earned itself a nickname from other countries: “the land without music”. Between the 17 and 19th centuries, western music had been largely dominated by European countries, and by Germany and Austria in particularly (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert etc). At the turn of the century, American popular music came to the forefront with blues, jazz, and rock’n’roll. Finally, in the 1960s, Britain found its musical voice. The Rolling Stones were another band that gained success in the 60s, during the so called ‘British Invasion’ of British bands onto the worldwide stage.

While some bands like The Beatles kept a more laidback pop sound, other musicians like Jimi Hendrix were pushing rock to its extremes, using distortion and feedback effects to get powerful, edgy sounds from the electric guitar.

The 70s – Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath & Sex Pistols
In the 1970s, the Beatles broke up, and Jimi Hendrix joined the ‘27 Club’, passing away at the young age of 27. Despite their short-lived contribution to the world of music, their impact was enormous. That decade gave rise to prog-rock bands (short for progressive), such as Pink Floyd, who would continue pushing rock as an art form. New recording technology allowed for longer recordings, which Pink Floyd would take advantage of with their extended improvisations. New inventions such as synths also allowed for even greater experimentation with sound.

Prog rock music often revolved around ‘concept albums’, albums in which each track is somehow connected (either musically or with a story). One of the most famous examples of a concept album is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which looks at what “make[s] people mad”. Tracks are based on issues such as greed (“Money”), the non-stop march of “Time”, warfare (“Us and Them”) and politics “Brain Damage”), among others. These dramatic concept albums eventually led to bands such a Muse, who always base each album on a narrative idea and musical theme.

Pink Floyd also experimented a lot with electronics in their work, with tracks such as On The Run which features a synth and a drum machine.

Let’s jump forward a few decades to see where the concept albums and electronic experiments led with a track by Muse from their 2006 album Black Holes and Revelations, that is based around sci-fi themes like space and time travel, as well as politics.

And a more recent Muse track from a few years ago, Simulation Theory, which is the idea that we are all inside a computer program and nothing is real. This is a typical sort of theme for a Muse concept album.

Back to the 70s, While Pink Floyd and others were going down the ‘art-rock’ path, creating dramatic and complex long form music, an alternative form of rock started to emerge – punk. True to popular tradition, punks such as the Sex Pistols preferred a less-fussy approach, fusing upfront political lyrics with straight forward music that was easy to play and follow.

With this next song from The Clash, we start to hear a more refined punk sound that gave rise to more recent bands like Blink 182.

Again, let’s skip forward a few decades to hear some 2000s pop-punk from Blink 182, that blends punk instrumentation and structure with poppy lyrics that are less political and edgy.

And now a Blink track from 2019.

Alongside punk and prog, another big genre more aggressive genre was emerging – metal, that had the same high drama and production as prog, but with a heavier, more angry sound. Ozzy Osborne from the band Black Sabbath, was famous for his crazy on stage antics, most famously biting the head off of a bat during a live show! Guess he must have been hungry!

To finish off today’s lesson, let’s jump forward one more time to see some 2000s metal, followed by some more recent music by the same band, Slipknot. Slipknot continued the same aggressive, dramatic style as Black Sabbath, with even heavier screamed vocals. They also added masks and on-stage personas to add a new level of theatricality to metal.

And some Slipknot from 2014:

After hearing those quite extreme tracks, let’s finish up with one last track, to remind us where this journey started!

It’s incredible how music evolves, isn’t it? We didn’t have time to cover every decade and sub-genre of rock today, but we can look more closely at the 80s and 90s in the future, looking at Britpop like Oasis and Coldplay as well as the grunge and emo movements. Next week – soul, funk, and disco!

Last week we covered a brief history of classical music, looking at how it developed over the centuries. This week we will take a similar journey but focusing on popular song (which includes ‘pop’ music, as well as traditional folk music). This is a big topic that will take more than one lesson. Today we will look at traditional popular song, up until rock’n’roll. We will cover modern pop music next week.

You only need to listen to a few minutes of each video to the idea. There will be questions at the end of this lesson, where you will be asked to say which genre (style) a song is. You should also write down interesting facts or new words as you go.

Popular Music vs Art Music
To help us understand what is meant by popular music, let’s compare it to classical music. We will look at the differences between them, as well as how they are related and influential on each other.

Western classical music is a kind of art music that developed in the churches and palaces of Europe from around the 1400s. Classical music was mostly learned from notation (sheet music), which required musical training to understand. The music could be complex, long, and difficult to perform. It was often written for large orchestras, which meant that hearing a large-scale work like a piano concerto or a symphony would be a rare experience for most people.

The 18th century version of Spotify

Popular music of the same era was very different in these respects. There are exceptions to many of the following rules, but together they give an idea of what makes music popular.

  • It was usually taught orally (by showing and copying rather than through reading sheet music).
  • It tended to be built around the human voice and/or simple, affordable instruments, rather than large orchestras or expensive and complicated instruments like grand pianos.
  • Songs are normally short, lasting just a few minutes each, with a repetitive structure.
  • Musically easy to understand (though not necessarily easy to perform).
  • Pleasant on the ear, often with a catchy melody or ‘hook’. Not experimental or challenging.

Together, these traditions that define popular music make it accessible – more people will be able to listen to, perform, and enjoy popular song.

Irish trad (short for traditional) is a form of popular song. You may also know it as folk music. Folk music has a strong connection to its native land, using sounds and instruments common to that area. Here’s an example.

And some Scottish traditional music, featuring an instrument that is strongly associated with that Scotland – bagpipes.

Nursery rhymes and lullabies are also forms of popular song, written especially for children. The famous ‘Pat-a-Cake’ is at least 320 years old, possibly older.

Although we talk about popular music being accessible and art music being more complex, there are lots of exceptions. Some classical music is very straight forward and easy to perform (sometimes called pop-classical), and some pop music is incredibly complicated and experimental (sometimes called art-pop or art-rock).

Yiruma is an example of pop-classical. He writes very uncomplicated music that gets called classical because it’s written for solo piano. However, in most ways his music closer to Celine Dione than Beethoven.

There is also a lot of crossover between art and popular music – classical composers taking inspiration from pop and folk music, and vice versa. When a classical composer writes music inspired by the popular music of their native land, it is called nationalist music – folk music, re-written in a classical style. Some famous nationalist composers include Ralph Vaughn-Williams (English), Béla Bartók (Hungarian and Romanian), and Frédéric Chopin (Polish). Let’s compare some of this traditional music to the ‘classical’ versions.

Greensleeves (England)

Romanian Christmas Carols

Mazurkas (Poland)

Sometimes the opposite happens, and pop or rock bands take inspiration from classical music. One famous example is the band Queen, who blend operatic singing and writing with rock instruments.

For the rest of the lesson, we’re going to look at the development of modern, western, pop music, and how traditional popular music led to the sound we recognise today. It all started with the blues.

African-American Music
In the 1800s, a style of music emerged out of the African-American communities in the US. This genre, called the blues, went on to have a strong influence on the popular music that followed, and eventually led to the sounds we now recognise as pop. The blues originated from a style of music called spirituals – music sung while working or in church. Slaves were often banned from using instruments, so spirituals would have been sung acapella (just voices, without instruments). Here is an example of a spiritual.

As the slave trade came to an end, instruments were more regularly incorporated into these songs, and the blues emerged.

Another style, called ragtime, also had a huge impact on popular music. Here’s a song by the famous ragtime composer, Scott Joplin.

And another by Lyons & Josco.

The upbeat rhythms of ragtime, along with the harmony and structure of blues, led to jazz and rock’n’roll, which in turn led to the pop music we know today. Here is some very early jazz from 1925. Can you hear the mixture of bluesy melodies and ragtime rhythms?

The history of pop is complicated, with lots of different styles branching out of jazz and the blues at the same time. On one hand you have music such as Motown and soul, which – via disco – led to the dance music we have today: house, techno, EDM, etc. On the other, you have rock’n’roll and its various offshoots: punk, metal, grunge, etc.

The development of rock and dance music are are big topics that will require a lesson each to cover. Let’s complete today’s journey from spirituals to rock with some early rock’n’roll from the ‘king of rock’, Elvis Presley.

You can clearly hear the blues and early jazz influences in this early rock’n’roll.

Now you’ve heard some examples of traditional popular music, let’s see if you can recognise the genre of these songs just by listening.

Is this song ragtime, spiritual, or rock’n’roll?

Is this song pop-classical, blues, or folk music?

Is this song blues, spiritual, or Irish-trad?

Is this collection of pieces an example of nationalist music or pop-classical?

And finally, is this song a spiritual, ragtime, or rock’n’roll?


  1. This famous piano piece is called The Entertainer, and is by the famous ragtime composer Scott Joplin.
  2. The band in the Irish pub are folk musicians. You may have thought it was classical because of the violin, but the violin (or fiddle, as it’s called by folk musicians) is common in lots of traditional music.
  3. This old song was an example of the blues. The guitar playing indicates that it’s probably not a spiritual.
  4. The Romanian Folk Dances by Bartók are famous examples of nationalist music.
  5. And finally, the last song by the Rolling Stones is rock’n’roll.

Music History – Introduction
Today we are moving onto a new topic – looking at different genres (styles) of music (for example, pop, classical, rock, dance music, jazz, hip-hop etc). In each of these lessons we will look in depth at one genre, understanding how it developed, and listening to examples. Your aim is to be able to identify a song’s genre and era by listening to it, and to be able to name some famous examples of music within that genre.

Before we look at specific genres in depth, we’re going to spend a couple of lessons looking at the progression of music from pre-historic times all the way through to modern day. First, we will look at the history of art music (classical). Next week we will look at the history of popular music

You only need to listen to 3-4 minutes from each video. There won’t be any questions this lesson, but you should write down facts about the different styles as you go along, as well as explanations of any new words you learn.

Pre-Historic and Ancient Eras
Humans have been making music for tens of thousands of years. The oldest musical instruments ever discovered were flutes made from bones and ivory over 40,000 years ago.

Around 1400 BC (2000 years after the invention of writing), humans began to notate (write down) music. Thanks to this ancient notation, we have some idea how this very early music would have sounded. This is the oldest song known to mankind, from an area we now call Syria. It’s a hymn for Nikkal, the wife of their ancient moon god.

Unfortunately, musicologists (people who study the history and theory of music) can’t even agree on how music was performed 300 years ago, let along 3000 years ago. It’s impossible to say exactly how this would have sounded, but we do have a very rough idea. Here is one interpretation:

Medieval Era (c.400-1420 AD)
Around 2,000 years later, in 1,000 AD, we begin to see the beginnings of modern sheet music – staff notation, which uses lines and dots to indicate pitch. Although it looks very different to today’s music and is very basic, musicologists can understand it well.

Left: early staff notation. Right: modern staff notation with exact notes, rhythms, and dynamics.

Renaissance Era (c.1400-1600)
As notation developed over the next few hundred years, so too did music theory. Some combinations of notes that used to be considered harsh sounding (or even evil) became accepted into the mainstream. Arising from these changes was a new harmonic language based on major (happy sounding) and minor (sad sounding) chords. These developments, along with increasingly precise notation, allowed complex new forms of music to emerge, and remain the foundation of music we listen to today.

Interesting fact: A pair of notes called a tritone was known as the “devil’s chord”. It was considered so evil sounding that the Catholic church banned it. Now we hear the tritone all the time, like in the first two notes of The Simpsons (the notes on “The Si” form a tritone).

Here’s a sample of some Renaissance music.

The Common Practice Period (c.1600-1900)
The next few centuries are known as the ‘common practice period’. This period, which gave rise to composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, is often referred to broadly as ‘classical music’ (spelled with a small ‘c’). Within the common practice period, we have three main eras: Baroque (c. 1580-1750), Classical (spelled with a big ‘C’, c.1750-1820), and Romantic (c. 1800-1910).

Baroque Era (c.1580-1750)
Baroque music is generally considered the earliest form of classical music as we know it today. There was an explosion of fantastically complex music during this era. Pieces of music would contain many musical themes all playing at the same time (counterpoint), while also adhering strictly to the newly established principles which had developed out major and minor harmony.

Orchestras were very small in comparison to later eras. Very little percussion was used in Baroque music, and the piano had not yet been invented. There was another invention in the Baroque era though, the pipe organ, which was used to great effect. These days, it’s common for Baroque music to be performed on a piano. Some people don’t like this because they say it isn’t authentic (it’s different to how it originally would have been performed). However, there is little doubt that Bach would have used a piano if he’d had access to one.

Music was generally for religious purposes or for dancing to. As a result, Baroque music often had a steady rhythm so that large groups of people could sing or dance to it. Composers would often take a very short musical idea and develop it with increasing complexity, such as JS Bach’s fugues (pronounced ‘fyoog’), are some of the most intricate pieces of music ever created.

Classical Era (c.1750-1820)
The Classical era (not to be confused with ‘classical music’ more generally), is most commonly associated with Mozart. Pieces from this era contained more contrasting moods and tended to focus on elegance and clarity (a step away from – or maybe even a rebellion against – the mind-boggling complexity of Baroque music). There tended to be a clear ‘melody’ which stood out, rather than lots of themes happening at the same time. Although it was simpler in this respect, composers were still pushing the harmonic language to discover new ways of expressing themselves through sound.

The orchestra expanded in size with more performers of each instrument taking part, and started to include percussion more regularly. The piano was also invented around this time and was used extensively by composers, although it sounded quite different from the piano we know today. You can hear Mozart’s actual piano being played here in the first minute:

Here’s a recording of a piano concerto by Mozart, performed on period instruments (instruments that the composers would have used, i.e., from their time period).

Despite composing some of the most beautiful music ever written, Mozart famously found poo hilarious and even wrote songs about it.

Romantic Era (c.1800-1910)
The Classical era was short lived, in no small part due to innovations by Beethoven, who’s increasingly dramatic and emotional music broke free from the delicacy of Mozart’s time.
Beethoven’s visionary approach, pushing the boundaries of harmony and increasing the size of the orchestra, ushered in the Romantic era. His Ninth Symphony was regarded as a kind of miracle by composers who followed him. As well as inspiring a new generation of composers, the shadow of Beethoven loomed large, setting the bar terrifyingly high for those that followed (unlike Bach and Mozart who fell out of fashion and were not fully appreciated until after their death).

While the previous generation of composers had been considered staff by their wealthy (and often regal) employers, Beethoven insisted on being treated as a peer. He demanded status for his genius, and he was given it – the superstar musician was born.

The word ‘Romantic’ doesn’t mean lovey or soppy – Romantic era music often focused on dramatic themes that cover all sorts of emotions – love and loss, pleasure and suffering, life and death, comedy and tragedy. Music was often composed to tell a story (program music) and could be inspired by poetry and literature. Harmony was complex and took many unexpected twists and turns as composers pushed the 12-note scale to its limits.

Composers that followed Beethoven took these Romantic ideals to ever greater extremes – using increasingly complex and dramatic harmony – and began composing virtuosic (incredibly difficult) music to show off their superstar technique. Here’s a concerto written by Rachmaninoff, one of the last Romantic composers. It’s worth watching this one for a bit longer so you can see the virtuosic piano writing.

The Modern Era
In the 1900s, the Common Practice Era came to an end – musical language had been pushed to its extremes to the point that the rules that had governed the previous 300 years fell apart. It’s difficult to create something when there are no rules or boundaries to work with and to rebel against. Composers began experimenting with all sorts of different systems to establish new musical languages. The result is 100 years of music very different to anything that had come before.

Some composers continued to push harmony by creating their own rules compositional rules, for example serialism – a technique that meant every note must be treated equally, with no ‘main’ note. This contrasts with most (possibly all) music which came before, which would centre around a clear home key. The result is an alien sounding music that never quite resolves.

Some composers experimented with chance, others took inspiration from other cultures, or from technology and warfare. Some even began to question what the difference is between sound and music and would compose music which broke down this barrier. Here’s a snippet of a composition by the furturist composer Russolo.

John Cage famously wrote a piece called 4’33” (Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds), in which the performers didn’t play anything. You can see an explanation and performance here.

Composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass took inspiration from traditional African and Indian music, using their rhythmic patterns and the concept of repetition to create minimalist music.

Unlike some of the other modernist pieces we’ve heard today, minimalist music was easy for the wider public to understand and enjoy, and as a result has had a huge impact, inspiring composers such as Ludovico Einaudi and Yann Tiersen, as well as influencing film scores and popular music.

Post-classical Music
It’s not easy to define what our period of music is. There are no longer commonly accepted rules for music making – some continue to compose extremely complicated or experimental music like the Schoenberg piece we heard earlier, others have fused minimalism, electronic, and pop music together to create something that isn’t quite any of them. In this sort of music, the lines between classical and popular music have broken down completely. For this reason, some people it Post-classical music (meaning ‘after classical’).

Well, that was a long lesson – we’ve covered 40,000 years of music making, so well done for that!
I hope you now understand that ‘classical’ music covers many different styles, many of which sound nothing alike. Each era had its own character, defined by the accepted musical language of the day, as well as technology (new instruments, and the discovery of electricity). Next week we will take a similar route for pop music.

If you enjoyed any of the music we looked at today, I have a playlist for my students which features music from the Baroque era all the way through to contemporary, Post-classical music.