A History of Music in California

California has played an integral role in the entertainment industry, but even before the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, California’s various music scenes have shaped culture and birthed new movements in music as an industry and an art form.

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The Early Sounds of Los Californios

What is it? Secular Spanish-language social music played by non-professional musicians and meant to accompany dance

Who started it? Californios, residents of Alta California

What does it sound like? Blended Mexican, Spanish, Native American, African, and Italian sounds

Notable musicians:

  • Francisco Amate
  • Manuela Garcia
  • Adalaida Kamp
  • José de la Rosa
  • Rosa and Luisa Villa

Fun Fact: The historian Charles Fletcher Lummis preserved numerous recordings of the Californios in 1903.


The Bakersfield Sound

What is it? The first genre of country music influenced by rock and roll

Where did it start? Bakersfield

What does it sound like? Down-to-earth lyricism, a defined backbeat, and electric instrumentation for a rawer sound
Notable acts:

  • Merle Haggard
  • Buck Owens
  • Dwight Yoakam

West Coast Jazz

What is it? A mellow, harmonic contrast to the East Coast’s hard-bop
Where did it start? Primarily in Los Angeles
What does it sound like? A blend of harmonies and experimentation with combinations of instruments and ensemble sizes with a renewed focus on arrangements and compositions instead of improvisation.
Notable acts:

  • Chet Baker
  • Stan Getz
  • Dave Brubeck


Surf Rock

What is it? The classic beach-y tunes of surfers in Southern California
Who started it? Started by Dick Dale with his 1961 single “Let’s Go Trippin”
What does it sound like? Heavily reverbed guitars, three-chord song structures, and rolling instrumentals reminiscent of crashing waves
Notable acts:

  • The Beach Boys
  • The Sunrays
  • Jan and Dean

Psychedelic Rock

What is it? Integrates elements of freeform jazz and Indian and Eastern music, fighting against verse-chorus-verse structure of traditional rock
How did it start? Evolved from new sounds discovered by British Invasion bands and folk-rock outfits in the mid-60s
What does it sound like? Experimentation with electronically altered vocals and instruments, with new sonic techniques including:

  • Fuzzy guitars with filtering, phasing, and swooshing
  • Use of sitar, tabla, and other Indian instruments
  • Extensive, improvised jamming

Notable acts:

  • Iron Butterfly
  • The Byrds
  • The Doors

The San Francisco Sound

What is it? A counterculture movement and descendant of psychedelic rock that grew from the streets of Ashbury and Haight
Who started it? A group of talented, skilled, and enthusiastic Bay Area musicians
What does it sound like? A rich, optimistic sound with elements of folk, blues, country, and rock filtered through psychedelia
Notable acts:

  • Grateful Dead
  • Jefferson Airplane
  • Moby Grape



What is it? The resulting fusion of rock and roll and country, inspired by the Bakersfield Sound
Who started it? The Beatles, The Byrds, and other rock bands playing country music
What does it sound like? Instilled honest storytelling of country with rock’s amplification, backbeat, and catchy hooks and melodies
Notable acts:

  • The Eagles
  • Poco
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Jackson Browne


What is it? R&B at its earthiest and most primal
Who started it? Rooted in James Brown’s post-1965 soul music
What does it sound like? A characteristic groove built on dynamic, syncopated rhythms, short guitar chords, powerful horns, deep bass lines
Notable acts:

  • Sly and the Family Stone
  • War
  • Tower of Power


Glam Metal

What is it? A mix between glam and hard rock with theatrical live performances, makeup, eccentric clothing, and pop styles
Where did it start? LA’s Sunset Strip
What does it sound like? A combination of glam rock (New York Dolls) and hard rock (Aerosmith, KISS, Van Halen)
Notable acts:

  • Motley Crue
  • Quiet Riot
  • Ratt


What is it? An aggressive, energetic genre that was as much a musical style as it was a reaction to politics and society
Where did it start? Punk was influenced by the sounds of garage rock and the minimalism of hard rock bands from the ‘60s (Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The New York Dolls)
What does it sound like? Three-chord songs comprising loud, fast, and simple melodies
Notable acts and origins:

Los Angeles

  • Black Flag
  • Youth Brigade
  • Bad Religion

Orange County

  • Middle Class
  • The Vandals
  • The Offspring

San Francisco

  • Dead Kennedys
  • Flipper
  • Green Day


West Coast Hip-Hop

What is it? An eclectic movement born out of the Watts Riots of 1965, the Watts Writers’ Workshop, and East Coast party rap
Where did it start? Throughout Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area
What does it sound like? With the rise of G-Funk came cheap synthesizers, deep bass tones, slow grooves, and female backing vocals
Notable acts:

  • Dr. Dre
  • Ice Cube
  • 2Pac
  • Snoop Dogg
  • Nate Dogg
  • Cypress Hill

Alternative Rock

What is it? The genre of bands existing outside the confines of “mainstream” rock
Where did it start? Built on post-punk bands throughout the mid-80s to mid-90s
What does it sound like? Blend of musical styles, including rock, jangle pop, post-hardcore punk, punk-pop, and experimental
Notable acts:

  • Blink-182
  • Weezer
  • Stone Temple Pilots
  • Incubus
  • Linkin Park

Indie Rock

What is it? An even quirkier, more low-budget spin-off of alternative rock, centering around a DIY attitude and the exploration of new sounds, lyrical themes, and emotions
Where did it start? Los Angeles, San Diego
What does it sound like? An eclectic mix of influences and styles, including electronic, folk, pop, rock, and more
Notable acts:

  • Pavement
  • Beck
  • Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
  • The Album Leaf

Where Californians Hear Their Favorite Tunes

Legendary Music Venues

  • Whisky a Go Go (Hollywood)
  • The Roxy (Hollywood)
  • Troubadour (Hollywood)
  • Belly Up Tavern (Solana Beach)
  • The Fillmore (San Francisco)

Favorite Music Festivals

  • Coachella (Indio)
  • High Sierra Music Festival (Quincy)
  • Stern Grove Festival (San Francisco)
  • Outside Lands (San Francisco)
  • Ojai Music Festival (Ojai)

Top Music Programs in California

1) University of Redlands

  • 17 Students
  • 1 degree program
  • Music

2) California State University, Northridge

  • 61 students
  • 4 degree programs
  • Music education
  • Conducting
  • Performance
  • Composition

3) University of the Pacific

  • 20 students
  • 2 degree programs
  • Music therapy
  • Music education

4) Thornton School of Music (University of Southern California)

  • 446 students
  • 15 degree programs, including
  • Conducting
  • Early music performance
  • Historical musicology
  • Organ studies
  • Keyboard and collaborative arts

5) San Francisco Conservatory of Music

  • 550 students (undergrad and grad)
  • 14 undergrad degree programs, including
  • Voice
  • Composition
  • Conducting
  • Collaborative piano
  • Chamber music
  • Harpsichord
  • Piano and Organ

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– https://lummis.loscalifornios.net/
– https://theautry.org/collections/spanish-songs-of-old-california-singers
– https://geniusrap.com/rap-articles/westside-story-the-history-of-west-coast-hip-hop.html
– https://www.craveonline.com/music/articles/477705-coachella-by-the-numbers-the-attendance-explosion-continues
– https://festivals.findthebest.com/l/222/High-Sierra-Music-Festival
– https://www.sfoutsidelands.com/home/