Music is everywhere. It’s piped through shopping malls, grocery stores, headphones, and car stereos. You can enjoy anything from classical to punk rock with over a hundred genres in between. Music has been part of the human experience since prehistoric ages, but over time, it has been shaped and molded into many different forms by extraordinary people. Today, we’re taking a look at five of those important figures in musical history.
Chances are, you’ve seen a sheet of music at least once or twice in your lifetime. Anywhere you might see sheet music, the music is arranged the same way, with a bass clef, treble clef, and 5 lines in which the notes can appear. This method of arrangement is called “staff notation”, and was invented by Guido d’Arezzo. Widely considered the father of modern music, the 11th century Italian monk was also responsible for creating the “do-re-mi-fa-so-la” mnemonic. While living at the monastery of Pomposa, he noticed that singers had difficulty remembering Gregorian chants, which led to the creation of those methods we still use today.
When you go to see an orchestra play, the arrangement of the musicians is generally the same. The string instruments sit in the rows closest to the conductor, followed by the woodwind instruments, and finally, the brass, percussion, and keyboards in the back. During the early Renaissance period in Europe, this arrangement did not exist. Music was written with no particular instrument in mind, and groups of musicians played on instruments that were readily available. Enter Claudio Monteverde, and Italian composer who lived between the years 1567 and 1643. He had a specific makeup of instruments required to play in his opera, Orfeo, requesting 15 viols, 2 violins, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 coronets, 4 trumpets, 5 trombones, a harp, 2 harpsichords, and 3 organs. This makeup continued to develop into what we see today, but we can thank Monteverde for some sense of order and balance in a modern orchestral piece of music.
Back in the 1870s, if you wanted to hear your favorite band play you had to visit a concert hall. Today, while it can be fun to attend a live concert, all you really have to do is find the band’s recorded music on your computer, smart phone, or radio. We have Thomas Edison to thank for paving the way for these playback devices with the invention of the phonograph. This device, invented in 1877, was the first machine to record and play back sound. Up until that point, other inventors had created devices that recorded sound, but did not have sound reproducing capabilities. The recordings were intended to be visual representations of sound, and would not be played until 2008. The phonograph led to the creation of the vinyl record player, which led to the invention of the compact disk (CD), which brings us up to the present.
In early 20th century New Orleans, a new genre of music was forming. Jazz music, a blend of African American and European American musical styles, quickly spread from the South to the entire world, and has been lauded as one of America’s original art forms. The jazz era saw many incredible African Americans rise to fame, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington, but only one woman earned the title, “Empress of the Blues” – Bessie Smith. Her voice helped to shape the sound of jazz into “the blues” subgenre, and her performances contributed to the success of African Americans in the performing arts. Throughout the 20s she made more that 160 recordings with Columbia Records, and since her death, has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. Singers such as Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin, and Norah Jones have all credited her music as their inspiration.
If we’re talking about important musical figures, we most certainly need talk about The Beatles. In understanding why they were so revolutionary, we have to look at the American society of the mid-60’s. Prior to the Beatles arrival, the irreverent and anti-authoritative sentiment was felt, but was considered more as a sub-culture. Pop music was formulaic and “safe”. The Beatles arrived and changed the way pop music sounded. They seamlessly blended teen and adult culture, something that hadn’t been done previously. They also popularized the two-electric guitar rock and roll line-up, which is now the standard makeup of any garage band. The Beatles helped to jump start the personal liberation movement of the Sixties with their rebellious, new wave tunes. Their music sparked an awakening in both music and youth culture that can still be observed today.