The music of the 20th century: A sound walk through 100 years of history

The music of the 20th century

When we think about or try to mentally review what the music of the 20th century means to us, a mishmash of genres, concepts, and musical styles form different clouds in our minds. In essence, this is quite logical, considering the tremendous difference between the first 5 decades and the following 5. However, no one can deny that there was a natural evolution that ties them all together, especially thanks to the technological and social advances made in some countries after the end of World War II.

In this post, we won’t focus too much on the styles of 20th-century music, but if you’re interested in them, we invite you to visit our musical genres and their definitions category. Our idea is to show you a series of playlists with some of the most representative songs of these 100 years, ranging from classical compositions to songs of popular culture.

For us, in fact, avant-garde music is any music that paves the way for new sounds, even if they were later absorbed by more mainstream trends. In the end, that’s a merit, although it may seem like a punishment to many. So, in the following lines, you will find a series of Spotify playlists divided by decades, which have in turn been grouped based on our main criterion: the difference between the first 50 years and the subsequent ones.

Music in the First Half of the 20th Century

As we mentioned, we will leave a playlist for each decade, so we will start this first section by reviewing some musical works of the 20th century that are still highly appreciated today. Initially, given the circumstances, this selection will be more like a list of classical music composers, but as the years and decades pass, we will see how the line that separates the musical currents of the 20th century becomes blurred.

Music from the 1900s

While popular music has existed throughout human existence, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the gramophone appeared, allowing songs to be disseminated without the need for authors or musicians to travel itinerantly across the planet. Thus, in this decade, there are already recordings that have survived to this day. In any case, this playlist will be more like a testimony since there are hardly any recordings from these years on Spotify (beyond more recent versions and always in English).

Examples of these are “A Bird In a Gilded Cage” by Harry Anthony (in 1904) or “Just Plain Folks” by Ada Jones (in 1905). But above all, the famous “Auld Lang Syne,” a mythical Scottish song with lyrics by poet Robert Burns and performed in 1907 by Frank C. Stanley. In this sense, many of the themes of these compositions revolve around patriotic marches like “The Battle Cry of Freedom” (by J. W. Myers) and many others.

Regarding Spanish music, we can highlight names like Sr. Soriano, who in 1907 recited “Los Femateros De Zaragoza,” Sr. Gandía (“Emigrantes”), Sr. Moreno (“La Verbena De La Paloma”), or Sr. Vidal (“Zarzuela la ‘Marsellesa'”), but also the recordings of Profesores De La Banda Municipal De Barcelona, Señorita Blanca del Carmen (or Blanco, depending on where you read it), or María Luise Labal with her “Vidalitas De Campoamor” and “Golondrinas.” As you can see, we move between the couplet and the zarzuela, especially, but there is variety.

In short, the previously greater impact of classical music and folklore, with great names like Gustav Mahler and his “Adagietto. Sehr langsam,” as well as the great voices of opera (see Enrico Caruso), begins to be overshadowed by the music of other types of composers and orchestras, as well as jazz and ragtime in the United States, genres that would eventually cross borders.

Music from the 1910s

We have realized that if we continue writing as much as in the previous section, this entry will end up being much longer than we initially planned, so let’s summarize a bit more what 20th-century music consisted of. Enrico Caruso remained one of the great references by recording mainly romantic classical music by composers and works not recorded until then (as Alma Gluck also did), or at least not by someone as charismatic and popular. In general, the main characteristic of music at that time was the variety in instrumentation, from the use of orchestras to solo accordion performances (see Pietro Deiro) and bellicose patriotism.

Furthermore, we can confirm that in the 1910s, the genres are very similar to those of the previous 10 years. It’s as if time had barely passed. Military marches, popular songs recovered, and styles with their own roots were still there (like the polka, for example, or the foxtrot at the other extreme), although jazz was evolving a bit faster than most other genres. This explains its global growth shortly thereafter, although in terms of media and record sales, the majority were by white artists, um.

Music from the 1920s

For many, this decade is known as the “Roaring Twenties.” This is mainly due to the institutionalized American dream and technological advances both inside and outside the home. Going from horse-drawn carriages to cars and the accessibility for any family to acquire and consume, to a large extent. But undoubtedly, they were also happy thanks to the music of the ’20s and the associated dances.

That’s in the United States. In Europe, we can talk about happiness among those who saw the end of the Great War and did not lose or live in absolute poverty. It is clear that there was a resurgence of a desire to live, but the wear and tear that many experienced after spending four years in a trench warfare that changed everything compared to other wars can be felt in many songs from the 1920s in Spanish.

We will also see this in the music of the ’20s because bitterness is part of many singers, especially the French. Many of them are still legends today, with films about their lives that recall their great songs and these tumultuous times. Few would have guessed what would come a decade and a half later. And let’s not forget Latin American history, which also had its own share, and we can feel it with the tangos of the then still-known in diminutive Carlitos Gardel or the mariachis.

Music from the 1930s

Music from the 1930s was not as tumultuous and precarious because American music was dominant, but European music was actually preceded by the end of World War I and a decade that seemed to want to forget what many had experienced. The world was entering a kind of process of sad maturity or strange development that led to the end of a way of life that was gradually fading away after facing an endless trench warfare in Europe and a period of loss of wealth, consumption, and the American dream in the United States.

Or ask Fred Astaire, may he rest in peace: the absolute star of the decade, although in reality also of the next one, dominating the musical in cinema, dance on screens, and dance floors with his voice and the arrangements and compositions of Irving Berlin. However, this is not the only prominent name in the music of the 1930s. Antonio Machín, Marlene Dietrich, Carlos Gardel, the French Fréhel, and the first steps of the blues are also the protagonists of the decade.

Music from the 1940s

Speaking of music from the 1940s, one can find “Bésame Mucho” sung in both English and Spanish with the same ease as you find that the sum of one plus one is two. Or vice versa, with translations of English songs into Spanish, which is less common in the ’40s than, for example, in the ’50s, a decade where barriers break much more quickly than in the ’40s. For all these reasons, we recommend keeping your ears and mind wide open to dive into a sea of unique songs, generating unforgettable sensations and with a spirit that we have already forgotten.

The music of the ’40s had a very different color than what was known in the previous period of this 20th century; these were black-and-white songs, and that’s why their interest also lies in that mentioned initial evolution that goes from sadness to restrained joy when it comes to English-language music, but maintains a certain depression in the European zone, with singers like Édith Piaf or Amália Rodrigues leading that melancholy, although there was a bit of everything, of course. In Mexico, Argentina, and other parts of Latin America, the great exponents of music received great praise worldwide, giving concerts here and there and recording records at an incessant pace.

On the other hand, the music of this decade is also interesting for the variety of Latin genres, as we have already mentioned, and for its enormous success beyond its borders. Mambo, salsa, boleros, cha-cha-cha, or tango, all of them already successful in the ’30s, far surpass their predecessors in sales and number of hits.

Music in the Second Half of the 20th Century

20th-century music in Spain and the rest of the world represents a very drastic change compared to the previous 50 years. It is now the moment, fully, to unleash pop culture in all its forms. Let’s go through our decade-by-decade lists.

Music from the 1950s

After providing some context regarding the second half of the 20th century, it’s time to enjoy the changes that we already began to glimpse slightly in the first part. In this case, the main change that leads to new trends is the appropriation of rock and roll by white artists. Blues, from which rock draws, was a music played by black musicians, and it didn’t receive the same attention at the time. If you add to that the fact that the Eminem of the time had just started moving his hips (that is, Elvis Presley), the tsunami that swept away the previous music was impressive. As we have seen so far, the folklore typical of Latin and Spanish-speaking countries resisted new trends a little longer, but modernity was making its way. What’s good about it? That in the mix of rock and indigenous sounds, very interesting bands and singers would emerge.

In this playlist, you will find 100 songs from the ’50s in English, Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese. Voices like those of Amália Rodrigues, Louis Prima, Tito Puente, or Juanito Valderrama are just a few of the many you will find. And because man does not live by rock or Latin music alone, you should know that jazz also maintains a certain hegemony, within what it had until then. It is clear that we are not delving deeply into this genre, but between names and songs, in addition to its own improvised idiosyncrasy, it would deserve a full article to talk about it.

Music from the 1960s

After ten years of struggle, rock seems to finally prevail in the ’60s, with the explosion of the British Invasion by The Beatles or The Kinks, among others, giving rise to other sounds from them, such as progressive rock or psychedelia embraced by the hippies.

But there is such diversification during these years that the next decade will be even more so. We are witnessing the childhood of what would become the ’80s, what would become disco music, what would become punk. All of this began here, including glam. To a large extent, this is thanks to the existence of people like David Bowie, to mention one of the many pioneers of ’60s music. In this sense, the distinction between Anglo-Saxon music and Romance language music is starting to blur.

Music from the 1970s

We continue with music from the 1970s. From this moment on, there is only one big contrast between English music and Spanish or Romance language music: melodic songs are much more successful than in the United States or the United Kingdom, despite having huge names there like Tom Jones, who had already enjoyed many successes worldwide.

Punk is our favorite movement, but there are so many bands to highlight that it’s better to leave you with our list of famous old songs, where we feature more than 1000 songs. While you do that, listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival, who released a bunch of great songs in a short amount of time.

Music from the 1980s

In the penultimate decade of the 20th century, music takes off completely. Because in addition to the evolution of rock in the late ’70s, advances in electronic music meant a total leap forward in pop music, as well as in other genres and subgenres.

On the other hand, many songs from the ’80s in Spanish and English stand out for their ability to convey joy. On one hand, the Movida (a cultural movement in Spain), and on the other hand, everything that this movement wanted to encompass: new wave, new romantics, post-punk, and many others.

Music from the 1990s

In this last decade, we transfer the foundations and characteristics of 20th-century music to the 21st century, with urban music now completely dominating the scene alongside pop. Grunge dominates the rock genre with names like Nirvana or Pearl Jam, bringing a touch of sadness, as if we were experiencing a hangover after drinking in the ’80s. Because, in fact, it didn’t only happen in rock but was a widespread feeling. It’s as if the music of the ’90s (especially) returned to the spirits of the interwar period, anticipating what would come in September 2001, when the perception of a part of the world changed forever.

Another example of this bitterness can be heard in the beloved Radiohead, or we can see it in the maturity of Depeche Mode or The Cure. To us, it’s very striking. In fact, of the artists we knew in the past, only Cher and AC/DC remain strong and cheerful. Others, like U2, turn sad after giving us songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which was really something. So, here we end the small musical review of the century, hoping you liked our selections and are eager to discover more in our posts.

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