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Throughout human history, there have been numerous theories about how music originated. The great naturalist Charles Darwin thought that music was related to sex. In his view, music evolved from the mating cries of birds and animals. Others have proposed that early humans developed singing as a way of imitating the sounds of nature or communicating over distances longer than those over which simple speech could travel. The philosopher Suzanne Langer has speculated that music, language, and dance not only were used together but also developed together in early rituals that combined those activities in a kind of early opera. In fact, however, no one knows how or when music developed.

Music was an essential element in many early cultures and civilizations. It is known, for example, that music was used in various ways by the Egyptians. Egyptian priests played seven-foot-tall harps in their temples to honor the gods, and the armies of Egypt were accompanied by drums and trumpets, instruments that have accompanied warriors in many parts of the world. It was held that the god Osiris had invented the trumpet, and for that reason trumpets were used in rites dedicated to him.

Music was also extremely important to the early Hebrews, Assyrians, and Babylonians. The first important instrument in their part of the world was the kinnor, a triangular harp that had between 10 and 20 strings. It was used by solo performers as well as in huge temple ceremonies that were said to include thousands of musicians. Reed flutes and drums of various kinds were also common. The shofar, a trumpet made of a ram’s horn, is particularly well known among Jews and Christians because, according to the Old Testament, seven shofars were used by the Jews to knock down the walls of the fortress of Jericho. The shofar is still used in Jewish temples.

In music as well as in politics, philosophy, and science, Western civilization has been influenced by the Greeks. The very word music has Greek roots, although it should be noted that what the Greeks called music included all of what are now called the liberal arts. Although we do not know what the music of the ancient Greeks sounded like, various Greek concepts live on in modern Western music. The names of the various modes in Western music are taken directly from the names of the modes used by the Greeks, such as Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian. The Greeks also developed a system of notation so that their music could be written down and remembered. Unfortunately, however, scholars have not been able to decipher that notation with any degree of accuracy.

In the West, music was strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, in the medieval period, the only places where formal musical education could be found were the Church’s song schools, which trained boys to sing in religious services. The music that those boys sang was called plainsong, plainchant, or Gregorian chant. The music, which had developed from true chanting, featured simple melodies that used specific scales, or modes, that were authorized by the Church. As the years passed, more scales were authorized and the music became more complex. Ultimately, polyphony, the combination of two or more melodies, came to occupy a dominant place in Christian music until the Renaissance had almost run its course.

During the Renaissance, which ran roughly from 1400 to 1600, the mass and the motet were the primary musical forms, but secular forms such as the German lied, the English madrigal, and the French chanson were also widely used, as were various dance forms. Renaissance composers had little knowledge of how to combine instruments for best effect. Instrumental music became more important during the Renaissance, but composers still generally wrote for instruments much as they wrote for voices, without taking into account the unique qualities of those instruments.

It was during the Baroque period (1600–1750) that instrumental composition truly came into its own, advanced by the efforts of such great composers as Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Handel, and Antonio Vivaldi. Harmony, which occurs when two or more notes are played or sung at once, took on new importance. The harmony that had existed during the Renaissance had been primarily unintentional, resulting when the simultaneous use of two or more melodies caused more than one note to be played or sung at once, but during the Baroque period composers manipulated harmony in order to achieve various musical effects. This rich musical era also saw the development of many musical forms, including the oratorio, cantata, aria, concerto, fugue, suite, sonata, and the prelude.

One of the most important developments in Western music, the creation of the opera, took place during the Baroque period. The opera is an art form that combines theater and orchestral music. In the early years of opera’s existence (from about 1600), there were many kinds of operas, but with the passage of time the form became relatively standardized.

Music and Religion
Music and religion have been linked throughout history and in many cultures, and the link remains intact. In some cases, that link is easy to see, as it is when music is used to praise God or perform other religious functions. In other cases, the link is less obvious, as it is when musicians who perform secular music find that playing or singing connects them with God or enhances their spiritual lives in some other way. The great Hindustani sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar explained the Indian view of the connection between music and religion in the following passage from his autobiography, My Music, My Life: “Our tradition tells us that sound is God-Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realization of the self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. We are taught that one of the fundamental goals a Hindu works toward in his lifetime is a knowledge of the true meaning of the universe—its unchanging, eternal essence—and this is realized first by a complete knowledge of one’s self and one’s own nature. The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects, and the ragas are among the means by which this essence can be apprehended. Thus, through music, one can reach God.”

At the time of the early operas, the orchestra generally consisted of whichever instruments were available. By about 1700, however, various effective combinations of instruments had been determined, and by 1800 the orchestra had taken its modern form, which involves the grouping of similar instruments into sections, such as the brass section, the woodwind section, the string section, and the percussion section. The sections are positioned in such a way as to make the music as clear and as effective as possible.

The Classical movement in Western music began in approximately 1750 and ended by 1820. Its primary exponents were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert in his early period, and Ludwig van Beethoven in his early period. The Classical movement was characterized by formalism, simplicity, restraint, and little overt expression of emotion.

Composers who were part of the Romantic movement (1820–1900) rejected the restraint and formalism of the Classical composers and wrote music that attempted to express emotions in a direct manner. Among the foremost exponents of Romanticism were Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. In addition, the later works of Beethoven and Schubert are considered Romantic.

By the end of the 19th century, the French composer Claude Debussy had begun composing works that came to be called Impressionistic, a term that had originally been used to describe the work of French painters such as Claude Monet and Edouard Manet. The general idea of the Impressionist painters was to avoid detail and paint what a person might see at a quick glance. In effect, this meant focusing on the play of light as it hit objects rather than on the shapes of the objects themselves. Debussy’s compositions worked in a similar way, focusing on musical color and creating impressions that seemed to some listeners of the day indistinct and unfocused.

Although various movements existed in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, it is difficult to view 20th-century music in terms of distinct movements. While many 20th-century composers have attempted to find new sounds and harmonies (such as those resulting from the serial compositional techniques developed by the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg), many others have worked in one or more of the traditions that existed in earlier times.

The invention of forms of communication such as the telegraph, the radio, the phonograph, the telephone, the television, and the computer has made it possible for musicians to be much more aware of the activities of other musicians throughout the world than was possible earlier. Therefore, musicians and composers have become less isolated. A contemporary American composer may be influenced as much by pygmy music or the classical music of North India, for example, as by the music of the European masters.

To this point, the subject under discussion has been the tradition of Western classical music (a general term not to be confused with the specific term used earlier in reference to the Classical movement). Other music has developed and changed in cultures around the world, but it is more difficult to track because it tends to be taught and passed aurally without using any kind of notation or recording technology. But popular music and ethnic music of many kinds have had a tremendous influence during the 20th century. One of the most important developments occurred when people of African descent in the United States, Cuba, Haiti, and elsewhere combined elements of their traditional music with elements of Western music, creating various important hybrid musical forms. In the United States, that process ultimately gave birth to blues, ragtime, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, gospel music, and various other forms. These forms of music, all of which are important and all of which have spawned great artists, have spread throughout the world, combining with and affecting various other kinds of music. Many attempts have been made to combine apparently disparate forms of music, with varying degrees of success.

At this point, innumerable forms of music coexist more or less peacefully, and musicians and composers are free to explore any tradition of music that they find interesting. Of course, some kinds of music are more commercially viable than others. Classical music and jazz, for example, are far less popular than rock and country music are. Yet small, passionate audiences do support musicians who specialize in less popular areas of music.


There are many kinds of musicians, but some of the largest categories are these: instrumentalists (those who play instruments), singers, conductors, composers, songwriters, arrangers, orchestrators, copyists, and teachers.

Musicians play many kinds of instruments, but those instruments usually fall into specific categories. String instruments produce sound when their strings are either plucked or strummed, as is the case with the guitar and the mandolin, or bowed, as is the case with the cello, the viola, and the violin. Wind instruments, or woodwinds, produce sound when air is blown through them, as do brass instruments, which are sometimes called brasswinds. Some woodwinds have mouthpieces equipped with reeds. When the player blows through the mouthpiece, the reed vibrates, producing sound. Instruments such as clarinets and saxophones use a single reed, whereas instruments such as oboes and bassoons are equipped with double reeds. The flute, however, does not use reeds at all. Instead, it produces sound when a player blows air at an angle against a fixed mouthpiece. Brass instruments also generally have a fixed mouthpiece. Percussion instruments, such as drums, produce sound when they are struck by a hand or by an object such as a stick or a mallet. The piano, which produces sound when its strings are struck by hammers that are activated when a pianist presses the piano’s keys, is also considered a percussion instrument.

Singers use their voices to make music. In most cases, singers sing words, or lyrics, that are intended to match the music accompanying them. In some cases, however, singers use their voices as instruments. In Western classical music, singing without words is called vocalization. In jazz, some singers use a technique called scat singing, which involves using sounds in place of words.

Conductors “play” an orchestra, choir, or other ensemble rather than an instrument. It is the job of the conductor to ensure, among other things, that the musicians play the correct notes at the correct times, that instruments or voices start and stop at the right times, that instruments and voices are neither too loud nor too soft and are in balance with one another, that the music being performed is interpreted in an appropriate manner (which usually means honoring the composer’s intentions), and that the music has an impact - usually an emotional impact - on the listeners. Conductors must know the music they are conducting inside and out, which means that much time must be spent in preparation before the conductor works with the ensemble. Conductors use their hands or a baton to indicate the basic rhythm that is being played by the ensemble, which helps the musicians to keep together. Conducting is a demanding profession that requires a very high level of knowledge, expertise, sensitivity, and intuition.

A musical composer is a person who creates original music. Some composers, such as those who write orchestral music, write their music using notation, which ensures that their music can be played by musicians who can read that notation. In the case of classical music, the written music that results is very detailed. Some recording artists who are composers create music by giving oral or other nonwritten instructions to their musicians, using no notation whatsoever, yet the pieces they create are considered compositions. Many songwriters (composers who specialize in the song form) who record their songs give their musicians a lead sheet that consists of a melody and a set of chord changes, which gives the musicians basic instructions yet also allows them the freedom to interpret the music in specific ways of their own choosing. In many cases, composers or songwriters who do not read music and cannot write notation hire formally trained musicians to write down their songs, so that the written music can be used by others. Songwriters may write both music and lyrics or may write one or the other exclusively. Those who do not write lyrics work with a lyricist, who provides the words.

Words to Know

Audition: A trial performance that is used to test a musician’s suitability for a performing job.

Chanson: French for song; a song with repeating verses; a type of song for one or more voices that was popular from the 14th century through the 16th century.

Coda: A musical section that ends a piece of music, often with a powerful sense of finality.

Concerto: A musical form in which a solo instrument is accompanied by the orchestra.

Counterpoint: The simultaneous use of more than one melody (note that counterpoint and polyphony have the same meaning).

Gig: A performance engagement.

Harmony: The sonic phenomenon that occurs when more than one note is played or sung at once, resulting in a chord or some other harmonic structure.

Improvisation: Creating music on the spot, as opposed to performing music that was composed previously; sometimes called spontaneous composition.

Key: A scale that provides the harmonic material for a piece of music (a piece of music that is based on the C major scale, for example, is said to be “in the key” of C major).

Lied: German for song; a particular type of song of the Romantic movement, with piano accompaniment, in which a poem is set to music.

Mode: A scale that results when the notes of a given scale are played in one of a number of possible orders.

Scale: A particular set of notes arranged in an ascending or descending order.

Sonata: A musical form that contains the following three sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation (musical material is introduced and displayed in the exposition section, developed in the development section, and revisited in the recapitulation section).

Studio musician: A musician who earns a living by playing music that is recorded in a recording studio.

Tempo: Italian for speed; the speed at which a piece of music is played.

Timbre: The particular quality of sound of a voice or instrument.

Twelve-tone composition (also dodecaphonic or serial composition): The technique of using the 12 tones of Western music, arranged in an unchangeable order selected by the composer, as the sole source of a composition’s melody, harmony, and counterpoint.

World music: Ethnic music or music that has been influenced by ethnic music.

Arrangers generally create a musical background for a preexisting melody. An arranger may create an introduction and a coda (ending) for a melody as well as add countermelodies (additional melodies) to the original melody. In effect, the arranger composes additional material that was not provided by the original composer and ensures that the original melody is set off by its background in an effective manner. An orchestrator takes a piece of music, perhaps one that already has a basic arrangement, and assigns the parts to specific instruments in the orchestra or other ensemble. For this reason, the orchestrator must have a tremendous amount of knowledge regarding exactly what the various instruments can and cannot do. An orchestrator may decide, for example, that a particular melody should be played by a solo flute or by a flute and an oboe, so that a very specific sound will be achieved. An orchestrator must also know how to notate parts for various instruments. All the choices that the orchestrator makes will have a significant impact on the way the music will sound. Arranging and orchestrating are very closely related, and many professionals perform both tasks. Many composers also do their own arranging and orchestrating.

Copyists take the rough drafts of written music provided by composers, arrangers, or orchestrators and turn them into polished final products. Good copyists know how to determine the best way to write various passages of music in order to make them easily playable. As any musician who has tried to read a poorly written piece of music knows, the job of the copyist is critical. A performance may be ruined by badly written music, especially when the musicians are playing music that they have not had a chance to rehearse sufficiently, which is often the case. A copyist may have to rewrite parts that have not been written correctly. If a composer has written a piece of music intended for harp as if it had been intended for piano, for example, the copyist will recast the music in the specific notation that harpists use. Many copyists work on computers, but some copyists still work by hand. The copying required for a large orchestral work typically costs thousands of dollars.

Many musicians are teachers. Some teach full time in institutions such as colleges, conservatories, high schools, and grade schools, while many others teach privately or run their own small teaching studios. Many teachers teach because they love teaching; for others, however, teaching supplements their meager performance income and enables them to survive.

There are many types of music that musicians play, such as classical music, blues, jazz, world music, rock, pop, country music, and folk music. Some musicians play only one kind of music, while others play in a wide range of styles on various occasions. Some musicians spend most of their time playing concerts or club dates, while others, called studio musicians, play mostly for recordings.

Classical musicians may play in an orchestra or sing in a choir, perform chamber music (music for small groups such as string quartets and small vocal ensembles), act as featured soloists who travel from town to town playing with various orchestras, or work as studio musicians, providing recorded music for films, television, radio, compact discs, and so forth. Classical musicians must be highly trained. They generally begin studying music privately when they are very young. Later, they study in conservatories, and many of them obtain advanced degrees. Playing in orchestras and other ensembles is an essential part of their training.

Like classical musicians, good jazz musicians are highly trained, but their training is not necessarily as formal as that of classical musicians. Some jazz musicians study in conservatories and have advanced degrees, but many learn their trade by studying on their own, studying privately with other jazz musicians, and by honing their skills in various groups. The study of improvisation, the art of creating music on the spot, which is the jazz player’s stock in trade, requires a tremendous amount of harmonic knowledge as well as technical facility, intuition, good taste, and knowledge of the jazz tradition. Jazz musicians play concerts, festivals, club dates, and studio dates. In addition, many jazz musicians spend part of their time playing other kinds of music.

Blues, folk, rock, pop, world music, and country music performers tend to be, but are not always, self-taught. Instead of studying music formally, they learn by playing in bands, picking up information from other musicians, and studying privately. Many of these players do not read music. Yet more and more young players in these categories are choosing to attend schools of music, hoping to increase their marketability by increasing their skills, which is a wise move for most players.

Generally speaking, blues, folk, rock, pop, world music, and country performers make money by playing in clubs, at concerts, at festivals, and by doing studio work. They also make and sell recordings, which is a major source of income. Some artists are primarily recording artists - in fact, some do not perform live at all - whereas others make most of their living by performing. The most popular of these performers also make music videos, which serve to publicize the musicians and, with luck, increase sales of their recordings.


According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment of musicians will increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014. Most new wage and salary jobs for musicians will be in religious organizations, where the majority of these workers are employed. Slower than average growth is predicted for self-employed musicians, mainly due to the large number of people competing for recognition in this field.

Competition is extremely intense in virtually all fields of music. Although extremely talented musicians have a better chance than others do of becoming successful, even those musicians have no guarantee of success. People skills, business knowledge, and a knack for self-promotion have become more and more important.

Commercial music has experienced lower sales in recent years, as buyers have found new places to spend their money. The boom that the recording industry experienced after the introduction of compact discs in the 1980s has died out, and the industry continues to look for new superstars who will be able to sell many millions of CDs. Music sales have rebounded somewhat in recent years as a result of the growing popularity of purchasing and downloading music via the Internet. In fact, the purchase of downloadable singles and albums grew by 163.3 percent and 198.5 percent, respectively, from 2004 to 2005, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Outside the commercial mainstream, many artists have found that they can make a decent living by catering to small, devoted audiences. In addition, advances in technology have made it possible for musicians to buy or rent at a relatively low price the equipment they need to produce their own recordings. Many artists now sell their own recordings by direct mail and through the Internet, avoiding the large record companies and producers that pop musicians must court. Self-production ensures that artists can make their own creative decisions and pocket a higher percentage of their earnings than they would receive if they worked with record companies.

For More Information

The following organization is the largest musicians’ union in North America. Its membership does not include singers.

American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada

1501 Broadway, Suite 600

New York, NY 10036-5505

Tel: 212-869-1330

AFTRA is a labor union whose membership includes musicians and other television and radio performers.

American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA)

260 Madison Avenue

New York, NY 10016-2401

Tel: 212-532-0800

Email: [email protected]

The following organization is a labor union that works on behalf of classically trained singers, dancers, and choreographers.

American Guild of Musical Artists

1430 Broadway, 14th Floor

New York, NY 10018-3308

Tel: 212-265-3687

Email: [email protected]

The following organization was founded to provide leadership and service to orchestras as well as to educate the public regarding the importance of orchestral music.

American Symphony Orchestra League

33 West 60th Street, 5th Floor

New York, NY 10023-7905

Tel: 212-262-5161

Email: [email protected]

For information on music education as it relates to careers in the music and entertainment industries, contact

Music & Entertainment Industry Educators Association

1900 Belmont Boulevard

Nashville, TN 37212-3757

Tel: 615-460-6946

Email: [email protected]

The NEA, which supports arts projects by providing grants to artists, among other activities, is an excellent source of information about American music.

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)

Arts and Education

Education and Access Division

Nancy Hanks Center

1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20506-0001

Tel: 202-682-5400

The Sphinx Organization seeks to encourage young minority musicians to pursue classical music. Its Web site offers information on a variety of competitions, scholarships, and other programs.

Sphinx Organization

400 Renaissance Center, Suite 2550

Detroit, MI 48243-1679

Tel: 313-877-9100

Email: [email protected]

See Also

Music and Recording Industry; Composer; Musical Conductor and Director; Musical Instrument Repairer and Tuner; Musician; Music Journalist; Music Librarian; Music Teacher; Music Therapist; Pop/Rock Musician; Singer; Songwriter

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