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Historical Effects of Music on Society

Annette McDermott
Jazz Singer

Music has helped people communicate, supported cultural ceremonies, represented strength and perseverence, gave a voice to the oppressed, and provided common ground to launch change and promote emotional healing. Each of the following musical genres has played a pivotal role in shaping aspects of the eras in which they existed.

Medieval Music

For much of the Middle Ages music was confined to the church and sung, or rather chanted, by monks. However, in the 12th and 13th century music expanded outside church walls. Troubadours and wandering minstrels played instruments and sang songs for royalty and peasants alike.

During this time, passing information from person to person, especially over long distances, was difficult. There were no newspapers, and writing materials such as parchment, ink, and quill pens were expensive and reserved for use by royalty and upper class citizens. As a result, music became an important means of communication and a way to record history among the lower classes. For example:

  • The Agincourt Carol was written when King Henry and his troops returned victorious to England from France after the Battle of Agincourt.
  • The Ballad of Chevy Chase tells the story of the Battle of Otterburn, a skirmish between Sir Henry Percy and James, Earl of Douglas.
  • It is said that Richard the Lionhearted wrote Ja Nuns Hons Pris to chronicle his experience as an Austrian prisoner and his abandonment by his subjects.

Classical Music

Music played a role in the political, economical, and religious events over the course of the extended period covered by the classical music genre. Thanks to the invention of the printing press and new discoveries in making instruments, learning music became accessible to the growing middle class. As time went on, the church had less and less influence on music and more secular music took center stage.

Pythagoras and the Healing Power of Music

Greek mathematician Pythagoras' study of classical music led him to discover the diatonic scale and the key to harmonic ratios. This study brought him to several conclusions:

  • Musical harmonies were "inflexibly controlled by mathematical proportions," according to Sacred Texts.
  • These harmonies could be adapted to all of nature's laws including the solar system.
  • The distance between the planets (spheres) that revolve around the sun gave off a distinct sound as they moved through the air. This theory is known as the "music of the spheres," and positioned music as a potential healing force.

Pythagoras was the first to use the healing power of music. Since it was thought that the same interval ratios that were pleasant to listen to would also be pleasant to look at, Pythagoras' theory carried over into later Western architecture and art.

Introduction of the Orchestra and Opera

The Baroque period of classical music (1600 - 1750) "laid the foundation for the next 300 years of musical expression," according to This period provided new forms of entertainment including the orchestra and the opera. During the Baroque period, people gravitated to music like they had not before, creating a demand for these new venues for musical entertainment.

Music and the Economy

As the economy improved in the 18th century, people made more money, had larger homes and better clothes, and wanted more music in their lives. Music was no longer restricted to the aristocracy and people wanted to enjoy music within the comfort of their homes. As a result, professional musicians were often brought in to middle class homes to perform and to teach their children. By the first half of the 19th century, conservatories cropped up in Europe and later in major cities across America.

Concept of Ownership

When Czech composer Dvorak "borrowed" melodies for his New World Symphony in the late 19th century, it sparked an unexpected debate according to The Guardian. Is it okay to merge the music of another culture, deliberately or unknowingly, with an entirely different style to create a new musical composition? This question had an impact for decades to come since white musicians often "ripped off" the music of black musicians. The notion was further challenged when Gershwin added jazz elements to otherwise traditional musical pieces. No matter what side of the debate one fell on, Dvorak opened the door to legitimizing American music to the Western world.

African Music

Music played a major role in African culture. Michigan State University's Exploring Africa curriculum matrix states that "ancient African society did not separate their every day life activities from their music and other cultural experience."

Cultural Importance

Music played a part in everyday activities in African societies from religious and death ceremonies to child rearing. People used music to pass down family histories and important cultural information, thus shaping the beliefs and superstitions of newer generations.

Music and Slavery

Southern slaves used music to verbalize the injustice of their plight and communicate their strong, resilient spirits. Their call and response type of singing was a way for slaves to pass the time while working in unbearable conditions, and later made its way into churches, becoming the foundation of many spirituals still sung today. Since most slaves could not read or write, music helped people remember important dates or pass down events of significance.

There are some reports that slaves also used music to send coded messages or instructions to one another, including along the Underground Railroad.


In the late 19th century, as saloons, brothels and gambling establishments gained popularity in the south, ragtime was born. According to the Parlor Song Academy, the music came from music played by blacks, and dances called rag dances, predominant in the black culture. It had a syncopated rhythm and "ragged" feel.

Helped Launch the Music Industry

Ragtime played a key role in developing the music industry as we know it today and had a trickle down effect on the economy. Prior to ragtime, music was poorly disseminated and performers and composers had little means of sharing their talents beyond their local communities. Thanks to the demand for ragtime sheet music and an increase in the number of homes with pianos, music stores became commonplace.

Economic Boon

With few exceptions, ragtime was the primary form of entertainment during the early 20th century. Scenic railways and amusement park rides emerged and mass transit became popular. Movie houses came on the scene and required musicians to provide background music, often ragtime, along with sound effects. All of this was a boon to the economy.


Arriving on the scene in the South around 1916, jazz replaced ragtime as the public's favorite entertainment pastime. Unlike ragtime and classical forms of music, jazz was (and still is) played by improvisation.

Jazz's popularity exploded after World War I, during an economic upswing. It "evolved into an integral part of American popular Culture," according to the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD).

Directed Fashion Trends

As jazz's popularity increased, fashion had to catch up to its impact. Short hair and drop waist dresses perfect for dancing to moves like the Charleston, replaced stiff, Victorian style dress and long hairstyles. Fashion became more important than ever before. The 1920s saw an increased interest in fashion magazines, spurring the development of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

An Outlet for Women's Liberation

Jazz music "provided females of all ages with an outlet for rebellion," says UMD. Women rebelled against traditional roles and fought for recognition as individuals. Jazz offered women an outlet for their nonconformity. Within the confines of jazz halls and speakeasies, women could escape their long established roles of wives and mothers.

The jazz movement also opened the door for more women to enter the workplace. Women worked at jobs in the music industry and female performers paved the way for more women to pursue music careers.

Invigorated African American Culture

As jazz's popularity soared, it gained respect as an African American art form. However, this was a mixed blessing. While in many cases African American musicians were receiving the accolades they deserved and brought hope for a new prosperity, racial tensions in the 1920s still ran high. As a result, life was still difficult for African Americans. But thanks to jazz and their newfound respect and confidence, African Americans didn't back down and fought back. It's believed that jazz helped spur the equal rights movement among African Americans.

Rock 'n' Roll

Rock 'n' roll came on to the scene in the early 1950s. As white America adapted to black music thanks to jazz and ragtime, rock music emerged.

Race Relations

In a time when racial tensions still ran high, rock 'n' roll became a polarizing force in race relations. Because the genre brought black and white people together, it was a problem for people determined to keep the races separate. Others saw rock 'n' roll as an opportunity to support desegregation efforts based on common ground. Rock 'n' roll helped black musicians get play time on mainstream radio.

Protest Music

Although this type of music existed as early as the Revolutionary War with songs like Yankee Doodle, its popularity increased in the 1960s due to heart-wrenching and far-reaching conflicts like the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.

Protest songs gave youth and young adults an outlet for their outrage against injustices in the world. Despite efforts to squelch protest songs, artists continued to release new material. Artists like Barry McGuire and Bob Dylan voiced the concerns and attitudes of their generation.

Sex and Drugs

The expression "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" didn't appear from thin air. The post World War II baby boom had produced America's largest youth population to date. As kids and teens do, these kids rebelled against their parents' music preferences and moral codes. Many rock 'n' roll performers and bands lived a lifestyle immersed in sex and drugs. As teenagers became consumed by rock 'n' roll, they also strove to emulate its performers. This led to an increase in recreational sex and drug use.

Some notable performers died because of drug use, including Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. This caused some musicians to seek help in battling their addictions. By the 1980s, though some bands still lived the "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll" lifestyle, it was no longer in vogue and a "war on drugs" targeting America's youth had begun.

Fashion Influence

Rock music directly influenced fashion trends throughout the decades, as teens sought to copy the styles of their favorite artists. For example:

  • In the 1960s some rockers wore tee-shirts and leather, while the Beatles influenced styles with custom-made clothing and longer hair.
  • Rock musicians were among the first to adopt hippie styles including bell bottom jeans, peasant shirts, and handmade accessories.
  • The late 1970s brought disco fashions and polyester jumpsuits, hot pants, and maxi dresses.
  • Fashion in the 1980s included wide shouldered suits and women's "menswear" was popular as were mini skirts, leg warmers, leggings, slouchy tops, and acid washed jeans.
  • The 1990s was known as the grunge era of fashion. Long hair, flannel shirts, torn jeans, and combat boots or worn sneakers were hallmarks of this style.

Charitable Causes

Over the years, many rock 'n' roll musicians have leant their talents to charitable causes. They had the ability to rally thousands of fans together in support of a common cause. Successful charity events and recordings included:

  • Live Aid - Organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, 1985's Live Aid was a concert that aired in two locations, London and Philadelphia. It raised over $245 million for famine relief in Africa.
  • The Rock 'n' Roll Bash - Held annually in Maryland, the Rock 'n' Roll bash unites members of popular rock bands for a special concert. This "supergroup" performs to raise money for the Casey Cares Foundation, which provides programs for critically ill children.
  • We Are the World - A Christmas song recorded by 43 artists collectively called USA for Africa, We Are the World raised even more money for African famine relief.

Hip Hop and Rap

Hip hop rap culture began on the street by black youth as a way to express themselves. The genre has made its way from inner cities to the suburbs and can be found in advertising jingles for major corporations and on the big screen.

Effects on Style

Hip hop is not just a music genre but a culture. From its inception in the 1970s, hip hop has created a fashion style all its own.

  • Fashion trends include track suits, baggy pants, extra large t-shirts, ball caps, and expensive sneakers.
  • Hip hop culture has influenced major clothing brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Nike, Lagerfeld, and Reebok.
  • Many hip hop musicians have launched their own clothing lines and had a major impact on the fashion sense of their fans.

Link to Alcohol Use and Violence

Research shows rap and hip hop music may play a role in alcohol use and violent tendencies.

  • A study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of more than 1,000 college students concluded that "rap music was consistently associated with alcohol use, potential alcohol use disorder, illicit drug use, and aggressive behavior."
  • According to WebMD, a one year study published in the American Journal of Public Health on 522 black girls from non-urban, low socioeconomic neighborhoods found that girls who spent time watching "gangsta rap" videos are:
    • Three times more likely to hit a teacher

    • Over 2.5 times more likely to get arrested

    • Twice as likely to have multiple sexual partners

    • 1.5 times more likely to get a sexually transmitted disease, use drugs, or drink alcohol

Music Today

Today's popular music might be described as "anything goes." People of all ages listen to all genres from classical to hip hop. Music has earned its reputation as being the universal language and will continue to play a role in shaping societies and cultures throughout the world.

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Historical Effects of Music on Society