Eight Ideas That Changed the Music of the Western World

I love learning why things are the way they are. In the case of the music we listen to today, I’m always trying to figure out how we got to now. What inventions, innovations and unrelated events led to today?  The BBC has narrowed things down to eight ideas that changed Western music forever. They are:

The Scale: Sometime around 500 BC, Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician, gave us the musical scale. Although humans had been making music for millennia, it wasn’t until Pythagoras codified discrete tones by using mathematical ratios.

Music Notation:  Up until sometime around 1000 AD, there was no standard way of writing down music. Credit Guido d’Arezzo for figuring out a way to plot notes on paper. For the first time ever, music had a storage medium other than human memory.

Everyone starts buying a piano: In the early 18th century, it started to become fashionable for homes to acquire a piano. The Industrial Revolution not only boosted wages but also provided the method for the manufacture of inexpensive pianos. You had to have a piano in the parlour.

Sound recording:  Edison + Berliner = The recording industry.

Public radio broadcasting: Before about 1922, radio broadcasting was about as chaotic as the Internet was in 1999: few regulations, poor quality control and almost no technical standards. It took institutions like the BBC to create some semblance of order.

Music charts: Charts are how the industry and the public keep score of what’s popular and what’s selling.

The birth of electronic music: When we finally learned to tame electricity into music, a brand new universe of sound opened up.

The Sony Walkman: Personal, portable music. It didn’t exist before 1979.

Read the full article (and see some interesting video) here.




Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “Eight Ideas That Changed the Music of the Western World

  • January 16, 2015 at 10:40 am

    How did “rapping” not get a mention? Even putting aside the cultural impact of rap and hip-hop, if you’re just talking about paradigm shifts and game-changers, it’s impossible to deny that the introduction of the vocal technique of rapping was one of those moments. Before that, speaking rhythmically did somewhat exist in music, but it was very different from what we now know as rapping, and it was generally one of a few very specific methods with a very specific intent (for example in country songs as a story-telling technique, or in jazz as a way of making sure the message isn’t hidden by the melody, both of which were used in novelty songs more often than not). Are the authors of the article actually that ignorant, or are there still people trying to treat rap like it’s just a phase more than 3 decades in?


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