Music has been with us in some form for as long as we’ve been a species. Yet what we think of as “music” in the West has a development time of just a few hundred years. This article will take you through the history of Western music from its early choral traditions through to the present day.
Early Western Music: Choral
Western music began not as an artistic movement, but due to the incantation of prayers being a musical act in the early church. Essentially, the western music tradition began as a form of chanting of biblical passages. This would then lead to musical accompaniments.
Renaissance Western Music
Renaissance music is a direct following from the earlier choral pieces. The pieces would be accompanied, and tend to use only fifths and octaves. This was when early musical forms started to take place – in the form of canons. Pachelbel’s Canon is the most famous of these pieces, and is still played today at weddings. It was originally written with a string quartet in mind.
Baroque Western Music
During the Baroque period, composers began to be considered as artists themselves. Still mainly creating pieces for the church, music began to be codified. It would be Bach who eventually worked out the various theories that would later become harmonic and rhythmic theory which underpinned every western piece since then. Bach would also write a set of studies which would become the standard for harpsichord and later piano pupils.
Classical Western Music
Bach created the rules of music in the Baroque period. Music then found a second renaissance, with composers such as Haydn and Mozart writing pieces which were creative and beautiful using the rules that Baroque period composers had discovered.
Classical music relied heavily on those rules, and used those rules of tonality to create symmetrical pieces which were designed as background for functions. It was during this period that operas and dance music such as Waltzes began to appear.
Romantic Western Music
The romantic period is said to begin after the death of Mozart in 1830. Whilst Beethoven had early works in the classical period, by the death of Mozart he had formed a different style – and this would later go on to be called “Romanticism.” Beethoven was the forefront of the larger romantic movement, one which included Brahms, Chopin, Schubert and Mendelssohn.
A huge figure in the late Romantic period would be Wagner. His powerful style and famous operas had a lasting effect, not only on the music world – where he would go on to influence cinema music, future operas and musical theatre – but also in the world of politics. His mythological operas were later used by nationalists in Germany to muster a German warrior spirit – which was influential in creating the environment which led to the World Wars.
Romanticism is based upon introspection, and as opposed to the measured, controlled symmetry of Classical Music, preferred asymmetry, hugely dynamic pieces and powerful motifs that drove the pieces forward.
20th Century Western Music
The Wagnerian influence would continue, with composers such as Carl Orff writing the ever-popular Carmina Burana.
However, modernity meant that classical music fractured during the 20th Century. As academics gained in recognition, music went through several stages – first modernism, where Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Weber would write music that was deliberately atonal so as to challenge conceptions of tonality – then postmodernism, where composers such as John Cage would write music that involved strange instruments, as well as no music at all. 4m33 is a perfect example of this, where the pianist is instructed to sit at a piano for four and a half minutes without playing anything.
The first movies played at cinemas often had an accompanying orchestra – as movies initially were silent. This changed rather quickly, and the silent movies of the time had sympathetic music long before the dialogue could be recorded.
Once sound was introduced to film, it began commonplace and even considered an art in its own right. Soundtracks from musical films such as The Sound Of Music would be popular in and of themselves, and by the time that Westerns were popular, composers such as Ennio Morricone had developed their own idiomatic styles.
With the advent of blockbuster cinema, John Williams became synonymous with film music. Using Wagnerian leitmotif styles and Strauss style overtures, Williams created epic music for franchises such as Star Wars, ET, Jaws and Jurassic Park.
He would be followed by idiomatic composers who attained huge success in their own right; Zimmer, Elfman and Newton-Howard among the bigger names.
Jazz and Blues Music
At the same time as the earliest film music became available; Jazz became the dominant form of music for huge swathes of America. Primarily listened to amongst the black community, Jazz was an entirely different style of music to classical music. It leaned heavily on atypical instruments, with brass being a massive part of jazz. The music was designed to be played for small ensembles, which would play in bars – it was dance music for the working class and black class (as blacks were a different class back then.) Jazz relied on self-taught musicians for the most part, and was original in that seventh chords and atypical tempos were used. Louis Armh2 became popular during the big band era, and had a be-bop style. Perhaps the most talented of Jazz musicians was John Coltrane, a saxophonist who originated in more traditional jazz styles and later expanded into more esoteric forms of music as his skill grew. He was considered the first “virtuoso” jazz musician.
Out of jazz and Negro spirituals, blues music arose. Blues music was the first guitar driven music, and would later pave the way for rock and roll, and later pop music in general. Blues music uses a standard 12 bar structure, as well as its own scale – the pentatonic major, or the blues scale.
Popular music arose from blues. Rock and roll took the structure of blues music and used simple chord constructions to create simple yet catchy tunes. This movement began in the US, but was quickly superseded by The British Invasion , where The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones and associate acts made rock music hugely popular – to the point where it was a global business. Now popular music has many genres and spans the whole globe, being an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Find out how to stream movies, television and music with a new service provider at an very reasonable price.