What Is Music & How Did Music Begin?

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Music has been defined in hundreds of ways, including:

“An art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.”

“The art of arranging sounds in time so as to produce a continuous, unified, and evocative composition, as through melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre.”

“Vocal or instrumental sounds possessing a degree of melody, harmony, or rhythm.”

These are all accurate definitions. But where did music come from? When and where did it begin?

If you think of music as communication, perhaps it started with all creatures, including humans, communicating. To this day, we hear birds communicating with distinct melodies and tones and consider it music. Even today we refer to music as the “universal language.”

In ancient Israel a thousand years before Christ, King David composed and sang hundreds of songs called psalms. A few of them are cataloged in the old testament in the book of Psalms.

But music as we know it now, as having structure and form, may have begun in the 10th century with the Gregorian chants. These chants were organized and detailed with soloists and small groups singing distinctive parts. This lead to the need to notate and write down particular tones and passages.

Common rhythm notation began around the year 1200 and soon after, troubadours singing “folk” music starting to appear in parts of Europe. In the 14th century, sacred music (church music and hymns) was quite common (but secular music had begun to take hold as well). During the renaissance (around the year 1500) one of the most significant events occurred—the birth of the composer. The appearance of composers, of course, spawned instrumental music and the creation of the instruments such as the piano and lute.

1750 to 1820 is considered the Classical period with the piano being a composer’s instrument of choice. During this time, Mozart wrote his first symphony, Bach performed in London, and Beethoven was born. Many of the symphonies we enjoy today were written during this time.

By 1900, Scott Joplin had composed and published the “Maple Leaf Rag,” an event many see as the beginnings of the music we know today as popular music. Strauss and Stravinsky were active during the early 1900s, but with regard to popular music, a ground breaking performance occurred in New York in 1924, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” This was hailed by many as the first truly American composition (most compositions at that time were still derived from European forms). Not only was Gershwin a fine composer, but he and his brother, Ira, helped usher in the Broadway musical with “Porgy and Bess” being their most well-known.

Soon after, new musical forms were taking hold. Jazz in the 1930s (Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday), big band music in the 1940s (Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington), and rock-and-roll (Elvis Presley, Chuck Barry) in the 1950s. Other countries (most notably France and Spain) were creating their own popular music during this time (although their music were not as vibrant and as influential as the music happening in the United States).

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