A Brief History of Contemporary Music
Today we are lucky to have every type of music available at our fingertips. With the push of a button, we can listen to the exact sounds we want to hear in that moment.
Music has come a long way over the past few centuries but many of the foundational parts of the contemporary tunes we enjoy today come from techniques developed long before our time. Take a look at some of the biggest advancements in modern music history, and how they impact the music we listen to presently.
Who doesn’t love rocking out to a great beat? The percussion sounds in some of the most popular songs of the past century have their roots in the prehistoric era. Of course back then the drums were rocks and the drumsticks were… well, sticks. These early percussive instruments were often representations of animals in religious celebrations. There are no written records of the exact music created in this time period, but some African tribes still emulate some of the sounds.
Percussion wasn’t the only type of music around in these prehistoric times though. Early versions of the harp, flute, and clarinet are believed to have been developed by Egyptians around 4000 to 3500 B.C. One of the most popular instruments of all, the guitar, first appeared with the prehistoric Hittites around 1500 B.C. Perhaps one of the most important developments in prehistoric times happened around 700 B.C. when the first vocal music was documented alongside instrumentals.
What we refer to as “classical” music began in Greek around 600 B.C. It was then that Pythagoras, a mathematician, first looked at music in a calculated way. He introduced the octave scale, still used today for all musical composition. In 350 B.C. Aristotle, another Greek, developed a musical notation system that is still the basis for the way notes are placed in measures and bars today.
For better or worse, religion has played a major role in the development of contemporary music. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was the largest patron of the arts, including music. Viewing music as an academic pursuit was an idea that dawned during this time period, as some of the world’s first schools for music were founded (most notably, the Schola Cantarum in European countries). It was the church modes that musical scholars created that later translated to the major and minor scales in use today. The Middle Ages also brought about polyphonic music as a preferred singing style to the Gregorian chants in existence prior.
Listing all of the important musical developments of the Renaissance would take an entire blog post (or more) in and of itself. Prior to the Renaissance, instruments were usually played alone. That changed as it became more common for several instruments to be played together to achieve musical goals. The modern classification of instruments as either brass, strings, percussion, or woodwind was first developed during this time frame.
Percussion saw some development and new instruments hit the musical scene, including the tambourine, bells, and the triangle. The reed pipe, recorder, and bagpipe also came into existence during the Renaissance. Some instruments like the transverse flute and panpipe were predecessors to other woodwind instruments that are widely used today.
It’s also important to note that the technology of the Renaissance played a major role in popular music seeing a global audience. Some of the first things ever printed on printing presses were works of music. The printing press made it possible for composers to actually earn money from their works and to see those works spread throughout the world.
Clearly music has come a long way since the end of the Renaissance era, but some of the most foundational elements of contemporary music were laid back then. Every development since then has built upon something created generations before today’s top composers, songwriters, and performers were born. As music progresses, many of its original tenets will remain the same, while other things break away from the past to take the art beyond its contemporary boundaries.