Marimba

Playing the marimba is a bit like playing concert piano pieces with four fingers. Percussionists love the rich tones and unique sound of the marimba, and listeners appreciate the extraordinary range of the instrument, which can be heard in classical concert halls and exotic island music. Find out what’s behind our fascination with this instrument of ancient origin.

Parts of the Marimba

The marimba is part of the family of pitched percussion instruments. It looks like a wooden xylophone stuck on top of inverted organ pipes. When the wooden tone plates, lined up like piano keys, are struck, resonating notes sound.

Many percussionists encounter the marimba when required to perform a keyboard percussion piece for regional and state competitions or as part of a music major. The first thing they have to learn is the parts of a marimba.

Longer, wider tone plates produce lower notes than shorter, thinner ones. A marimba ranges from 4 to 5 1/2 octaves. A four-octave marimba has 49 keys, while a five-octave one has 61. The keys are typically made of resonant rosewood. One row of keys is raised behind another, and a large frame supports the keys on rails. A full stand supports the entire instrument, including the resonator pipes that amplify each note.

Beginners start with two mallets to master the technique before moving on to performing with four mallets. Playing with four mallets allows percussionists to achieve chords and a fuller sound. The Pink Panther is a typical song new marimba players might choose for their first recital.

The Marimba Throughout History

The name marimba originated in Africa as did the instrument itself. It’s a commingling of two Bantu words, rimba — xylophone with a single bar — and ma — a great number of objects. In several African languages, ma-rimba describes instruments with many bars.

The marimba came to South America in the 16th century when Africans were brought there as slaves. Guatemalan Sebastian Hurtado designed a marimba with a wooden resonator pipe, which was an innovation over the gourds previously used.

In Mexico, the marimba is ubiquitous as a folk instrument and many versions are available. Some chromatic instruments feature 6½ octaves (C3’F8) with 79 bars. These impressive instruments, found in Mexico’s Chiapas region, are the largest in the world. They’re also found in Guatemala and Costa Rica where locals call them marimbas grande, meaning big marimbas. The Chiapas marimba is made in the shape of a table.

The name marimba was adopted by the concert and orchestra instrument inspired by the Latin American model. In 1910, the U.S. companies Deagan and Leedy developed and produced Latin American marimbas, adapting them to fit symphony orchestras in Europe and the United States.

Famous Marimba Players

A large collection of modern dance pieces featured marimba players and composers, including Domingo Bethancourt (1906-82), the Ovalle brothers and the famous Mariano Valverde (1884-1956) and Belarmino Molina (1879-1950).

Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro is one of a few players to enjoy an international career as a soloist. Born in 1975, Carneiro became one of the world’s premier solo percussionists. Pedro Carneiro studied piano, cello and trumpet before settling on the marimba as his chosen instrument. In this video, Carneiro plays One Study with his magical twists.

The marimba has proven to be an incredible chameleon over the centuries of its existence. It has morphed from a primitive instrument made of sticks and gourds to an incredibly complex modern invention that lets players pound out pieces as diverse as Mozart to tropical mariachi music.

Double Bass: Rhythm Through Time

Deep pulsating rhythm washes over you, throbbing like an external heartbeat as the music begins to flow through the room. As a rockabilly tune builds momentum, you see a quartet that includes drums, a guitar, a singer and a large violin-looking instrument that the musician is not only strumming but also slapping, spinning and even riding. That’s a double bass, and it’s an impressive instrument with a long and varied history.

Just the Basics

The largest stringed instrument played with a bow in modern symphony orchestras, the double bass is regarded as the only modern descendant of the viola da gamba family of instruments. It’s also the only one that is tuned in fourths rather than fifths. However, those facts are not the only things that make the double bass stand out.

Origin

Dating from when all stringed instruments began in the late 15th or early 16th centuries, the double bass was a common instrument by the 18th century. Composers used the deep tones of this large instrument to provide background or to double the cello parts of the piece.

Characteristics

The double bass is an impressively large string instrument. Only the octobass — sometimes referred to as the Gargantuan — is larger than the double bass, standing sixteen feet tall and needing two people to play it.

There are three standard sizes for the double bass. The largest of these stands roughly six feet tall. There are also three-quarter models and even smaller versions that are slightly larger than a cello and called bassettos.

The design for these instruments has never been fully standardized. There are two primary designs commonly seen, those that look like guitars and those that look like violins. Rarely a double bass is built with a design similar to that of a guitar. Much of the features of these large instruments are similar to those seen in members of the violin family including a tailpiece, F-holes, a bridge and a scroll.

The body of the double bass is hollow and constructed to selectively amplify the deep rich tones that it produces. Until the 20th century, the double bass had only three strings. However, most now have four strings that are tuned to the pitches of E, A, D and G.

Sometimes, specific genres add a fifth string to the double bass. For jazz bands, that string is generally added at the top of the register to provide higher notes. In a symphony orchestra, the string is added below the E string and is tuned to produce the C note.

Influence Across Genres

The double bass has found its way into many genres of music throughout the centuries. Starting as a favorite addition of classical composers, this versatile instrument has inundated the modern music scene from one generation to the next.

Stars of the Double Bass

From its beginnings in concertos composed by greats through its innovations within the areas of jazz and bluegrass music all the way to its place in the rockabilly movement, the double bass has seen it all. Each generation has celebrated great double bassists.

Classical

Listen as Rinat Ibragimov performs the Giovanni Bottesini Concerto for Double Bass No 2 in B Minor.

Jazz & Bluegrass

  • Jimmy Blanton: Double bassist with Duke Ellington, he pioneered the use of the double bass in bebop music.
  • Ray Brown: Known in the jazz bassist community for his virtuosic technique of bowing.
  • Edgar Meyer: Bassist and composer, he received the 2002 MacArthur Award in recognition of his work in the field of music.

Rockabilly

  • Marshall Lytle: The double bassist for Billy Haley & His Comets in the 1950s, pioneered the energetic way that modern rockabilly bassists play the standup bass, including slapping, spinning and riding the instrument.

For centuries, the double bass has been holding down the bottom end for all kinds of composers in an endless series of combos, and it’s unlikely that it’ll be kicked out of the string instrument family. Too much is riding on that doghouse bass, including the bassist, on occasion.

Electro

Your heart beats, you get a surge of energy, a smile crosses your face and you have the undeniable urge to dance and move. You look at the crowd around you, and everyone feels the same. Everyone is excited, happy and dancing as hard as possible.

That’s the effect the electronic music has on its loyal audiences. Electrical music, also known as electro or techno music, is typically made by using synthesizers and other electrical equipment. This genre is most known as EDM (Electronic Dance Music).

Electro Music: Explained

Electronic music was only made possible in the 20th century with the evolution of digital music. This genre uses electronic instruments and digital technology to create songs.

Who Invented Electronic Music?

It might surprise people to know that electrical music had its beginnings in the 1920s. A Russian musician named Leon Theremin created an instrument he called the theremin. This instrument could create electromagnetic fields that generated sounds at different pitches when a musician moved their hands around the instrument.

A Brief History of Electro Music

1940s-1950s: Electro music has developed every decade into something new. After the 1920s invention of the theremin, the 1940s and 1950s saw an explosion of a musical movement called the musique concrete. Pierre Schaeffer became an incredibly popular performer using this style in 1951 Paris, setting the foundation for electronic music around the world. Musique concrete is the practice of recording and editing music on shellac, splicing and editing music together using mixers.

The 1970s: In the 1970s, disco took over the world. Disco is a form of electro music, using synthesizers and vocoders to create uplifting dance music. Italian artist Giorgio Moroder is considered a pioneer in disco and electro music. He produced songs for artists, such as Donna Summer, David Bowie, and (more recently) Daft Punk.

The 1990s: In the 1990s, with the rapid development of new technologies, new subgenres of electro music were created. As records, CDs, and tapes made distribution of music widely available, electro music became popularized.

Present Day: Today, electro music has continued to maintain its popularity. Festivals, such as the Electronic Daisy Carnival (Las Vegas), Tomorrowland (Belgium), and the Ultra Music Festival (Miami), bring in crowds of hundreds of thousands every year. Electro music is frequently on the Top 40 charts, and many electro artists have seen mainstream success.

Tomorrowland is the world’s largest electronic festival. Here is a recap of the event from 2018 that gives viewers a true understanding of what it’s like to attend an EDM festival:

Subgenres of Electro Music

Electronic music has seen many subgenres develop since the early 1990s.

House

House is probably the most popular subgenre of electro music. This music is easy to dance to and uplifting. It’s frequently featured in commercials, Top 40 charts and at large electro music festivals. Examples of popular house music artists include Daft Punk, Steve Aoki and Deadmau5.

Arguably one of the most popular electronic music songs of all time is Daft Punk’s “One More Time.”

Trance

Trance is set apart from the rest of electro music by it’s higher rates of BPM (beats per minute). Typically, trance songs range from a BPM of 120s up to 160s. Trance songs tend to be melodic with a static beat. If there are words in the trance song, it’s a subgenre called Vocal Trance. Popular trance artists include Above & Beyond, Armin van Buuren and Tiesto.

Deep House

Deep house music is a subgenre of house music that focuses on soft keyboard sounds, muted basslines and percussion elements. It’s considered softer electronic music with a tempo ranging between 120-125 BPM. Some popular deep house artists include Kygo, Kaskade and Jimpster.

Dubstep

Dubstep is an experimental subgenre of electronic music that’s defined by its overwhelming bass lines and repetitive drum patterns. The earliest known instances of dubstep music can be linked back to 1998 in London. However, it wasn’t until 2001-2002 when the term gained more mainstream success. Some recognizable artists in the dubstep genre are Skrillex and Bassnectar.

Electronic Music & Drugs

Electronic music has a history of drug abuse at raves and festivals. Often, electronic music is best enjoyed in crowds and with friends, as it brings on the insatiable urge to jump and dance around. Undeniably, the electronic music scene has adopted a strong drug culture. Attendees at electronic music festivals may find themselves experimenting with (or seeing others experiment with) alcohol, marijuana, MDMA, psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, cocaine and ecstasy.

One study surveyed attendees of EDM festivals. The results were that 75% report consuming alcohol at festivals, 13% have tried some form of MDMA, approximately 8.5% have taken psychedelic mushrooms and 8% have taken LSD at a festival.

Many of the electronic artists have spoken out against the drug use at these festivals. Popular EDM DJ Avicci died in 2018. He had developed pancreatitis due to excessive drinking. Towards the end of his life, he had stopped performing to focus on his health. Of course, electronic music didn’t cause Avicci to overdrink, but his job made it easier to excessively drink.

Popular EDM Artists Today

There are many EDM artists today that are considered mainstream, with their songs appearing on the radio frequently and achieving huge success. The top five richest EDM DJs are:

  1. Calvin Harris – $190 Million
  2. Tiesto – $150 Million
  3. Swedish House Mafia – $100 Million
  4. David Guetta – $75 Million
  5. Steve Aoki – $75 Million

Generally, electronic music is an uplifting and happy genre. It makes people want to dance, smile and have a good time. While electronic music does have a dark side with the excessive drug abuse association, it also has many positives. Crowds at electronic music festivals are kind and friendly to each other. The true goal of electronic music is to bring people together to enjoy music and escape life for a little while.

Parody Music

Parody is a fascinating example of where music and comedy cross — it has not always been that way. For a long time, parody just meant copying someone’s else’s work wholesale, with a view to create something that was the same only different. Having said that, it’s not clear how much that has changed.

A Not So Brief History of Parody

The meaning of the word parody has changed over the centuries. Aficionados of modern parody music may be surprised to learn that the earliest parodies are from the 15th and 16th centuries. These parody masses had nothing to do with humor. Instead, they’re better described as imitation masses, because they took ordinary secular pieces of music and turn them into masses. Admittedly, some of these masses were from traditional drinking songs and so on, but the majority of them were more serious forms of music.

These parodies were unsubtle. They didn’t just take a line or two and expanded and varied the music. They were more like Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby, in that maybe they changed a note.

It got to the stage where the Catholic Church banned the use of these parodies on the basis that they were lascivious and impure. The Italians followed these guidelines to the max, but the French were a little more lackadaisical, presumably because the Vatican City wasn’t right on their doorstep.

 the famous Basilica with a St. Peter stature in Vatican City

Ultimately, this period of parody stemmed from the fact that music hardly changed in terms of usable instruments and styles between the 12th century and the 16th century. A lack of innovation and invention ensured that composers were writing and rewriting the same pieces of music for decades.

The Baroque and Classical Period

This version of parody didn’t quite end in the 16th century. Instead, composers such as Bach still reused pieces of music, as seen in his Christmas Oratorio. However, with the invention of new instruments and the gradual development of new styles meant that fashions in music changed, and parody — as it was then — became unnecessary.

As a result, parody slowly shifted to mocking. Mozart apparently parodied various clumsy musicians and composers in Ein musikalischer Spaß (A Musical Joke).

Saint-Saens created Carnival of the Animals as a joke, parodying various composers and musical styles, but it quickly became one of his most popular pieces. Composers parodied included Offenbach, Rameau, Berlioz, Rossini and Saint-Saens himself. Of course, Offenbach was a well-known parodist himself, often parodying Gluck, Meyerbeer and Donizetti.

The Music Hall Era

The Victorians in particular appreciated parody, particularly when it was well constructed. Arthur Sullivan, as in Gilbert and Sullivan, created parodies of Handel, Verdi, Mozart and a variety of other well-known composers. These became the basis of the Savoy Operas, which included HMS Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, the Mikado and Utopia, Limited.

Outside view of the Savoy hotel

This form of comic opera served as a counterpoint to the badly translated European operas of the time, which often descended into farce and vulgarity.

Gilbert and Sullivan were not the only comic opera writers, but they are certainly the best-known. This is perhaps due to their skillful use of parody in their pieces, both in the creation of characters and in their music, resulting in familiarity while also laughing at what has gone before. The rampant nationalism of the Victorian era also had an effect, with the British becoming more insular and more determined to dismiss European influences.

Bringing Parody Into the Modern Era

As the 20th century rolled around, music became more ubiquitous, particularly with the invention of the phonograph, radio and television. Instead of being limited to a music hall, music became accessible to everyone. This meant that more people would be familiar with more songs.

A lot of parodies in World War I were originally based on church music, as many of the soldiers would have known the tunes. We Are Fred Kano’s Army, for example, uses the tune of The Church’s One Foundation.

As secular music became more mainstream, various musicians took advantage of this. Spike Jones and his City Slickers added various Foley effects to traditional songs to liven them up, and pianist Victor Borge created parodies of a variety of works. Peter Schickele did something similar, parodying various members of the Bach family with his PDQ Bach character.

One recurring theme is how the parodies of yesteryear became parodied again, like when Allan Sherman parodied Gilbert and Sullivan. Tom Lehrer also created similar parodies, but they were substantially darker, such as his Poisoning Pigeons in the Park. He also famously said “Always predict the worst and be hailed a prophet,” which gives you an idea as to the state of his maudlin soul.

Modern Parodies and Pop Culture

As the demarcation of music became ever finer, it was inevitable that parody would be pigeonholed into varying styles. You have various parody artists who keep the main theme intact but add funny words, often relating to their subject. Weird Al Jankovic’s Eat It, Amish Paradise and Tacky all fall into this slot, parodying Beat It by Michael Jackson, Gangster’s Paradise by Coolio and Happy by Pharrell Williams. So do the Wombles and the Smurfs.

Then you have parodies that keep the lyrics intact but changes up the musical style to create a humorous effect. Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine plays music in a classic lounge style, including songs such as Creep by Radiohead and American Idiot by Green Day. The Lounge Kittens do something similar.

You also have comedy rock and pop, which often parodies key elements of the genres. Tenacious D (Jack Black and Kyle Gass), Spinal Tap and the Axis of Awesome are all parody artists who parody their genres.

Ultimately, parody’s here to stay, and as long as there are musicians and bands, there will be people who wish to parody them. While the meaning has changed over the years, it’s finally settled into something that is more akin to comedy than music, even though it arguably requires far better musicality than just being a musician.

Rap

Rap music consists of rhyming (or rapping) over a repetitive beat produced by a DJ. The genre is part of a large subculture known as hip hop, a term that’s often used to describe rap music. Since it’s inception in the 1970s, rap music has steadily gained momentum and become synonymous with mainstream popular music. Today, rap artists such as Drake, Eminem, Travis Scott and Chance the Rapper frequently dominate Billboard charts.

Rap Music’s Sound

Rap music originated in the 1970s in the Bronx, but its sound is deeply rooted in the music of the griots of West Africa, whose vocal style is similar to rapping.

In the beginning, the genre was influenced by disco music and was often called disco rap in its early years. As the style evolved, DJs began to isolate percussion breaks from popular songs to create beats for MCs to rap over. The sound became reminiscent of soul, rhythm and blues, funk and Jamaican dub music.

Rap music’s sound has continued to change through the years as it moved toward the mainstream. It became a lifestyle for America’s youth, particularly those in poverty-stricken areas. MCs began to write honest raps about their life experiences, which were often laced with gang violence, drugs and sex. Today, there are many subgenres of rap music, including alternative, gangsta, dirty south and hardcore, each with its own distinctive sound.

The Origins of Rap Music

Although several recordings featured rapping throughout the 1970s, the music didn’t gain popularity until 1979, when The Sugarhill Gang recorded Rapper’s Delight, the first rap song to top the Billboard Top 40 charts. Many regard Rapper’s Delight as the first rap music recording; however, this is the subject of much debate. The song King Tim II (Personality Jock), a rap song by The Fatback Band, was released several weeks earlier.

As the 1980s emerged, rap music’s popularity increased. Run-DMC became one of the most popular rap groups, with songs such as My ADIDAS and It’s Like That. Acts such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five revolutionized the genre with politically aware and socially conscious songs such as The Message, which paved the way for some of the most influential political rap artists of the 1990s, while NWA, a rap group that embodied controversy, set the scene for the emergence of gangsta rap.

Rap Music in the 1990s

In the early 1990s, acts such as Public Enemy and KRS-One followed in the footsteps of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five with songs such as Fight the Power and Sound of the Police. These artists provided an honest reflection of the plight faced by young, black men throughout America during that time. Other notable socially conscious rap acts in the 1990s include Common, Tupac Shakur, Talib Kweli and Mos Def.

Rap Music on the Pop Charts

Throughout the 1990s, rap music became increasingly popular and found its way into the pop music charts. MC Hammer’s 1990 album Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em became the first rap album to sell more than 10 million copies.

The Wu-Tang Clan also topped the charts during the 1990s with songs like C.R.E.A.M., which helped East Coast rap music gain recognition. Alternative rap acts such as The Beastie Boys continued to achieve success throughout the 1990s and released chart-topping songs including Fight for Your Right and Intergalactic.

Gangsta Rap

As rap music continued to grow and evolve, gangsta rap became a more common style. Rap artists such as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg (formerly Snoop Doggy Dogg), Ice Cube, Ice T and Easy E were known for songs that featured controversial lyrics, and the rappers themselves were frequently associated with notorious Gangs such as The Crips.

Rap Music in the 2000s

Today, rap remains in the mainstream. You can hear the influence of rap music in all genres, including country, rock and electronic music. Artists like Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, Jay-Z and Kanye have gained international recognition for their talents and become household names.

Rap music is an ever-evolving sound that has continued to transform over the last few decades. Younger artists such as Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, G-Eazy, Lil’ Pump and Post Malone are shaping the sound of today’s rap music and paving the way for the future of the genre.

Rap Music Around the World

In countries around the world, including Brazil, Cuba, England, China, France and Belgium, rap music has gained a lot of traction. Artists such as Emicida (Brazil), Orishas (Cuba), Kaaris (France) and K’naan (Somalia) have brought positive attention to the rap music genre and garnered international attention for rap music in the countries that they’re from.

Collaborations between African rap artists and US mainstream rap artists have become common. Songs such as Scapegoat by Kanye West and African rap artist D’Banj, as well as Beautiful Onyinye, a song by Nigerian artist PSquare featuring Rick Ross, have bridge the gap between North American rap music and artists throughout the world.

 

Although rap music is a younger style than most, it’s history is certainly rich, and its sound is unique. Drawing inspiration from African and Jamaican music, its original artists created beats and lyrics that became some of the most popular and recognizable sounds for entire generations. While rap music has had its fair share of controversy, it’s a genre that consistently holds its place at the top of the music industry.

Grunge

bass guitar against a man's plaid pant leg and he's wearing sneakers

In stark contrast to an era full of cocksure posturing in glam rock and the sugarcoated vapidity of radio pop, grunge shrugged off its underground gigs in the late 80s to take center stage and define the sound of the 90s. The melodic roar of its thrumming power chords, chugging basslines and navel-gazing lyricism exposed the malcontent spirit of an unimpressed generation. As you’ll see, the bands who dominated the scene were more likely to give widespread popularity the middle finger than they were to embrace it as an answer to their rallying cry for rebellion.

Pacific Northwest: Birthplace of Grunge

Fans of the genre and the bands most closely associated with it frequently take issue with the name itself, considering it a dark mark from an industry machine keen to sort artists into convenient packages for easier marketing and promotion. While modern music historians still debate the finer points of how grunge came to be attached to a variety of bands with arguably different sounds and styles, they all agree that the definitive start of the Seattle scene began in the late 1980s on the progressive radio stations at the University of Washington and nearby Evergreen State College.

Grunge cassette deck

Sub Pop, a small, independent music label responsible for promoting dozens of Pacific northwestern bands and their first few albums, laid the groundwork for the scene when founder Bruce Pavitt began publishing his Subterranean Pop fanzine in the early 80s. His efforts to curate singles from a hand-picked collection of underground bands would become a subscription service called the Sub Pop Singles Club. Independent labels such as Pavitt’s and C/Z Records turned into proving grounds for bands like the Screaming Trees and Green River, who wanted to take their underground sound to the mainstream.

What began on the independent circuit as the 80s came to a close would generate an explosive start to the new decade. Three genre-defining major label albums were released in 1991: Nirvana’s third album, Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s debut with Ten and Soundgarden’s hard-hitting Badmotorfinger. Fellow grunge rock idols, Alice in Chains, would follow these releases with Dirt the next year, solidifying the commercial success of an unsettling amalgamation that depended on a punk aesthetic and heavy metal heat with classic rock roots.

Influence on Mainstream Rock and Global Music Trends

Although the earliest harbingers of grunge, the Melvins, Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone achieved fewer accolades than these latter-day patron saints and sinners. Their influence established the trend of mixing muddy guitar licks with a messy, unfocused vocal style. Musicians of the time favored bluesy guitar riffs that were out of tune as often as they were on point, fused together by distortion pedals and the unmistakable thump of a bass-heavy backbeat, and needed little more than a stripped-down drum kit to complete a song.

Even though Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden became household names, they frequently paid tribute to their peers with covers at live shows and collaborations in the studio. Temple of the Dog, formed by members of both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam for a onetime album in memoriam of Mother Love Bone front man Andrew Wood, became one of the most well-known examples of this camaraderie when their album peaked at #5 on the Billboard 200 in 1992.

female swinging her hair playing guitar

Social ills and personal struggles featured heavily in the song lyrics and album themes of the time. Even as the regional sound gathered momentum and spread beyond the Pacific northwest, attracting global bands like Bush and Silverchair beneath its umbrella, the introspective drive to focus on taboo topics remained. With that came unwelcome attention to the intimate lives behind the music, exposing drug habits, bouts with depression and stints in rehab. However, these were realities rarely explored with such open and searing honesty as what Soul Asylum, Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox wrote and found relatable to their similarly conflicted audiences.

The Rich and Reluctantly Famous

Ask members of the grunge era’s most prominent bands what they would call their music, and they’d likely tell you it’s simply rock-and-roll. The antiestablishment attitude that fueled their work stands in natural opposition to any formal label or tidy categorization. Naming it anything else unnecessarily complicates their straightforward approach to music as a tool for the counterculture masses and a weapon against the banality of assimilation. Seen in this light, grunge is a dirty word used by outsiders looking in.

Still, the need to capture such a distinct period in music history deserves a name that fits its gritty, slacker-warrior vibe. Those at the forefront made their struggle with the limelight well known during their rise and fall from the industry’s grace. Before his death in 1994, Nirvana’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain, frequently railed against the expectations that fame placed on his performance during live shows, often playing out of tune or screaming a song’s lyrics to rebel against the demand for a studio-perfected sound.

Electrifying live performances showcased the true talent of many grunge bands.

Likewise, the impact grunge bands had on fashion at the time was notable for its cognitive dissonance. The mundane clothing and minimal accessories worn by the genre’s most visible bands were, like their music, lacking any flashy appeal and favored for their low-maintenance, low-cost aspect. That these looks would inspire haute couture on the fashion runway was seen as a particularly egregious separation between the message behind the music and the very machinations of mainstream corporate greed it sought to upend.

Despite the push-and-pull between the genre’s popularity and the resistance of those that defined it, the grunge era remains a pivotal point in rock-and-roll history. The unexpected rise of these disinterested and disenfranchised musicians who made up the disparate motley of grunge bands in the 90s continues to inspire budding artists in search of a sound that encapsulates that same strange blend of empowerment juxtaposed with vulnerability. The genre’s demand for authenticity and its willingness to plumb the depths of existential introspection remains a blueprint for making music that not only entertains you, but shoves you into a snarling, fist-pumping, head-banging alternative experience.

Folk Music: Songs of the People

a banjo and guitar musicians playing together

Music has been a part of the human landscape since before written histories began. Images of musical instruments can be found among some of the earliest cave paintings and are a prolific theme for many of these prehistoric galleries. This was the earliest form of folk music.

Today, folk music represents many points of view and groups around the world. From inspiring protest songs to patriotic Americana, folk music captures hearts and ignites the passions of those it embodies.

What is Folk Music?

Merriam Webster defines folk music as “the traditional music of the people in a country or region.” Commonly, it’s any style of music that can be sung or played by amateurs and professionals alike on whatever instruments are available to them and represents a community of people.

These broad definitions embody the spirit of folk music, all-encompassing and all-inclusive, it’s a genre that can be a little hard to pin down.

Where It All Began

Folk music is the earliest genre of music in that it’s the music of the people. Every culture had songs that represented their place in the world as they saw it. From the Norse epics to the ballads of Ireland, folk music has always been a part of the human experience.

black and white picture of man sitting on stool playing guitar

Origins & Influences

The earliest folk songs were not meant for enjoyment or entertainment but held ceremonial meaning. They were most often associated with events and activities like:

  • Calendar-based events
  • Religious holidays
  • Life cycle rituals like marriages
  • Working
  • Teaching the young the customs and mores

Spreading

Folk music spread much like folk stories did, orally from person to person. Many were passed down through families. Others were disseminated throughout the community and into neighboring groups. This is the earliest way that folk music spread.

Often, as time passed and the songs traveled to new groups in new cultures, they evolved to become new songs altogether. For example, a study conducted on the English ballad Barbara Allen found that there were 198 versions of this well-known story song.

As radio transmission and recordings became popular, folk music found a new way to spread. What was once an intimate song shared only by a few groups, became an anthem for all who identified with its message around the world.

Folk Music in the 20th Century

This rampant spread led to a resurgence of folk music in the mid-20th century that changed music forever. The American folk music revival cemented American folk music as a part of mainstream musical tradition and introduced a whole new generation of musical innovators to folk music. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) assembled its Collection of Traditional Music to preserve folk music from around the world for generations to come.

woman playing vintage lute instrument

The Advent of American Folk Music

Folk music was nothing new to the U.S. People sang songs about their lives on the prairie, settling the west and farming the fertile fields of this country for generations. Slaves in the southern states sang beautiful songs of sorrow and pain and hope that carried them through their life in chains. Some even helped them follow the road to freedom in the north as guides along the Underground Railroad.

However, as New York heard music native to those in the Gulf states and Seattle discovered fiddle tunes from the lower Appalachian folk traditions, popular American folk music was born.

Protest Songs of the 60s

The 1960s in the United States saw an enormous resurgence in folk music fueled by a generation of dissatisfaction and exploration. What evolved was a new form of folk music with a familiar yet new sound. The protest song was born.

Folk music had always brought attention to social issues of the communities from which it sprang. Like the slave songs of the American south, they shed light on the injustices and problems plaguing humanity. However, this time around they were speaking to the whole world, and people were listening.

It’s hard to tell whether the music started the movement or if the movement started the music, but the season of discontent that was the 60s and 70s in America is synonymous with the folk music of the time. Songs about war and peace, love and hate, tuning out and tuning in.

Famous Names in Folk Music

Some of the most influential American folk artists in history came out of the 20th-century revival. Among them are names like The Grateful Dead and Johnny Cash as well as many more.

Woody Guthrie

Often borrowing from traditional melodies and popular rhythms of the times, Guthrie’s original songs set the precedent for American folk music with their breadth of subjects. His lyrics encapsulated all the important issues of the time and America in general. The plain and simple language he used put words to what so many across the country were feeling. His extensive catalog includes songs like This Land Is Your Land and House of the Rising Sun.

Bob Dylan

A name that goes hand in hand with American folk music in the 60s and 70s is Bob Dylan. His unique voice fit well with the messages of his folky songs. Considered the darling of the folk revivalists in the early 60s, he ignited controversy by playing an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He enjoyed a 30-year career with hit songs such as Subterranean Underground Blues and A Hard Rain’s Gonna’ Fall.

The Carter Family

This family of musicians and entertainers is known for inspiring many great folk, country and rock singers alike. Their blend of traditional folk melodies and gospel music created a unique and popular sound for folk music in America. Listen as this talented family sings the folk classic Wildwood Flower at The Grand Olde Opry.

Ani DiFranco

The new face of American folk music, DiFranco debuted in 1990. Her popularity and respect in the industry have grown ever since and today her name is synonymous with modern folk music. Her songs include Both Hands and Swan Dive.

Folk music has evolved and changed with humanity, but it still retains its base concept as music that represents the stories of people who sing them. This close connection to the human condition has kept folk music in the hearts and playlists of generations.

Rhythm & Blues

Vintage guitar and a neon sign of Blues on an old brick wall

The old saying warns those researching the old masters of rhythm and blues that you’ve got to suffer if you want to play the blues. That might be true, but those purists who love R&B music are willing to suffer greatly to enjoy hearing, singing and playing their favorite music, which speaks volumes about their dedication. That’s the way blues fanatics are — nothing else moves them.

The History of Rhythm & Blues

Like all forms of music, rhythm & blues has its own history that shows the myriad influences that helped create its sound.

exterior of an older building that a blues club

1930-1940

In dingy, basement bars, speakeasies and juke joints across the U.S., musicians were forging a new type of music in the 1930s and 1940s that was steeped in the rhythms of jazz and reflected the daily miseries of the common man or woman, as the case may be. At that point, it was called race music, which was later changed to the less offensive rhythm & blues or R&B.

Singers talked about lost lovers, unrequited love, being poor, hard work, low pay and all the conditions that have become associated with the depression known as having the blues.

Others celebrated finding new lovers, dumping untrue lovers and emerging from the cave of loneliness and depression, maybe even with a new pair of shoes, as R&B piano player and singer Al Kooper sang.

1950-1960

In the 1950s and 1960s, R&B began forcing its way into popular music. Rockabilly, which was the unwanted child of country swing and the frenetic form skiffle, was infused with blues and being enjoyed in the U.S. and the U.K. But Americans weren’t as interested in R&B as they were in the new rock ‘n’ roll coming from Memphis-based Sun Records in the form of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Sam Phillips knew he was onto something with Elvis. Phillips ran with Elvis until his untimely death.

That doesn’t mean American R&B roots and early performers like Robert Johnson were forgotten. They might have been in the U.S., but they were being discovered big time in Great Britain by teenagers like Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. These musicians imported it back to the U.S. in the form of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

These R&B lovers weren’t just casual fans. They were historians, obsessed by the new music they had found hidden among the waves of grain in America. Down in the South, R&B artists toured the Chitlin’ Circuit of small clubs in small cities for fans with big appetites for R&B’s early legends. Black performers were not permitted to play in a lot of clubs except these little-known outposts of R&B.

Bands like The Rolling Stones came and toured the U.S., bringing little-known R&B artists with them as opening acts. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Steve Winwood all formed bare-bones groups to play the blues like Cream, Blues Breakers, the Jeff Beck Band, Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group. America countered with the original old-time masters of the form and added mega talents like Roy Buchanan, Mike Bloomberg, BB King and Albert Collins. 

Johnny Winters and his brother Edgar are incredibly talented multi-instrumentalists. Fast Life Rider shows them tearing into the song together on guitar and sax. If this doesn’t get your heart pounding, check your pulse. You might be dead.

Johnny and Edgar Winter’s Fast Life Rider rendition shows their awesome skill.

1970-Today

Originally, R&B favored small combos with vocals, guitars, bass and drums. Pianos and organs were added, as was the mouth organ, and then the horns came. This morphed with gospel vocalizing to produce soul music, and a heavier R&B called funk. James Brown was the self-proclaimed minister of funk, as it said on one of his album covers.

Funk led to heavier, even funkier music from Parliament Funkadelics and Bootsy Collins that became the backbone for hip hop and rap. The music beds that the rappers perform over are pure R&B.

Modern blues artists run the gamut. Some are piano pounders, like Lee Michaels; some blow their horn, like Mr. Magic, Grover Washington; and others, such as Brian Auger, diddle the Hammond B-3 console organ, a strong contender for the official voice of the blues. Guitar is still number one, but the other instruments have their place.

Artists who are famous in other fields also play the blues. Keifer Sutherland, actor and musician, has his own version of the Gibson ES-335 guitar that’s perfect for R&B. Penn Gillette, master musician and juggler, plays jazz and R&B on his upright bass after his shows with Penn and Teller at his home stage in Las Vegas.

person playing a guitar

The blues is inclusive. A guitarist can entertain on his lonesome. Two-piece bands are outnumbered by trios and quartets. You can be good or even terrible, and you’ll still enjoy playing the blues. Cities across the U.S. have blues nights with open stages where people can play the traditional blues styles with old friends and people they’ve never met.

You might have to suffer to play the blues, but you don’t if you just want to enjoy other people playing them. The blues, in all its forms, is more popular than ever because people relate to the common topics and the clever, funny or sometimes saddening lyrics. For the true zealots, there’s no substitute for R&B. It’s a uniquely American art form, and the world holds it in the highest esteem. Every note is a reason, and every performer is an excuse to hear it again.

Jazz

A colorful illustration on a jazz player

Iconic jazz musician Louis Armstrong famously said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” That might be because, more than any other musical genre, jazz comes from a feeling and an attitude. Simultaneously improvised and highly structured, it’s intrinsically an artistic expression of the black experience in America.

The Origins of Jazz

Jazz originated in the late 19th century closely aligned with the traditional polyrhythms of continental Africa as well as European military marches, and developed alongside the blues, ragtime, swing and several other kinds of popular music. Unravelling the various threads of influence is a complex task. But most scholars agree that the true birthplace of jazz is with the black communities of late 1800s New Orleans. From the bars of Bourbon Street and the street parades of Mardi Gras, it would catch fire in cities as diverse as Kansas City, Paris, Amsterdam, Washington, Havana and New York throughout the early 20th century to become one of the most popular musical forms anywhere.

Piano keys, saxophone, and microphone surrounded by music notes

What Makes It Jazz?

Like any other form of music jazz is an amalgamation of melody, harmony, rhythm and syncopation played on a variety of instruments with or without accompanying vocals. What sets it apart is that room for improvisation is also a treasured and well-traveled component of most jazz compositions. This makes it hugely appealing to musicians, who appreciate the opportunity to create in the moment, on the fly, either solo or in a collaborative capacity with other musicians.

Different Styles

Throughout the 20th century, jazz has grown, evolved and morphed, spawning regional variations and fusion forms with other styles of music. From the traditional hot licks of Dixieland jazz in 1920s New Orleans to the bluesy 20s and 30s Kansas City jazz of Count Basie and native son Charlie Parker, to guitarist Django Reinhardt’s Parisian Gypsy jazz in the 30s, jazz proved to be a supremely fluid form.

In the 40s, bebop was developed by a younger generation of jazz artist as a super fast, virtuosic non-dance alternative to the swingier forms of previous decades.

Cool jazz and free jazz followed in the 50s and 60s, the former with an almost classical formality, the latter an anarchic pushing at boundaries by the likes of saxophonists Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and the orchestra Sun Ra Arkestra. Jazz-Rock fusions from the likes of Chick Corea, guitarist Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report would soon and inevitably follow.

Even over so many decades, jazz was never a genre in danger of codification or academic rigidity as new influences were constantly being added to the mix. The immensely popular Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz forms, born of the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, brought jazz back to its African roots, as well as introducing the rhythms and sounds of the congas and claves. And in the late 20th century, the London acid jazz scene introduced a whole new generation to jazz principles with the chart-topping popularity of artists such as Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai and Digable Planets in the US.

Check out The New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jazz Band playing the Dixieland jazz standard Bourbon Street Parade. 

Legends of Jazz

There are two kinds of jazz royalty: the musicians’ musicians and those that have become household names outside the music industry. And some — such as ragtime composer Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, John Coltrane, pianist Thelonius Monk and trumpeter Miles Davis — have managed to be both.

The cavalcade of jazz talent over the past century and a half is remarkable. Many of the earliest heroes of jazz were black musicians from poor circumstances (some early pioneers, such as Duke Ellington, were from families of slaves), but white musicians such as Jack Pettis and Bix Beiderbecke  also contributed to the evolution of the form. Beiderbecke is credited with making this very jazzy remark regarding the music. “One of the things I like about jazz is I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Jazz vocalists have a special place in the jazz pantheon of geniuses. From Billie Holiday to Nat King Cole, jazz crooners, with their unique phrasing and musicality, have had a huge impact on how popular singers sing to this day.

Jazz and Pop Culture

Almost since its inception, jazz has enjoyed a broad base of appeal around the world. It even established cult niche markets in far-away places like Japan. In the 1970s, jazz cafes with highly curated jazz record collections were hugely popular in cities like Tokyo. And that popularity crossed over into other cultural products such as anime and tv commercials. In Paris, live jazz clubs were all the rage throughout the post war years, and American stars, such as Miles Davis, were revered as geniuses there. Today jazz is listened to and loved from Norway to Argentina, each country and community making the music their own.

young woman singing and playing guitar with drummer, bass guitarist and saxophonist in the background

In North America, jazz has been touted as America’s own classical music. It continues to impact everything from literature to fashion and everything in between. Informed by legendary jazz culture, movies like Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross, Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club and Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, and TV shows, such as Boardwalk Empire and Treme, feature talented jazz artists like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis who contribute theme songs and sound tracks.

Jazz music continues to attract new young fans today via mainstream hiphop groups like the Roots and A Tribe Called Quest who regularly sample classic jazz tracks.

Jazz is delightful in all its forms and has been an expression of humanity, freedom, creativity and joy for musicians and listeners from all kinds of backgrounds — truly the people’s music. Perhaps writer Kurt Vonnegut described it best when he said, “What is my definition of jazz? Safe sex of the highest order.”

What Is Indie Rock?

Indie rock is hard to define, but it wasn’t always that way. When the term was first coined, arguably back in 1977, it applied to rock bands that were independent of major record labels. Some indie bands put out their recordings themselves, and some were signed by tiny record labels that shared their DIY values.

Bands like the Replacements, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth were all indie bands by that strict definition, but once they were signed to major labels, the indie-rock label still stuck. The term indie began to define a sound and ethos; it wasn’t necessarily related to the record-label status of a band. That’s evident when you hear someone describe Coldplay as indie, most likely because of the band’s indie-like depressive sound and sensitive lyrics.

The Indie Ethos

In the world of indie music, anyone could start a band, teach themselves to play, lay down a record and head out on tour (which often involved playing makeshift shows in residential basements). Most indie rock bands don’t make much money but have loyal fan bases. Their quirky approaches to music designated them as not compatible with mainstream tastes, although the types of music span several subgenres, like noise pop, lo-fi, emo and slow core.

Indie rock showed up on the coattails of punk in the U.S. and U.K. It shared the same anyone-can-start-a-band philosophy with punk, but, for the most part, it had less focus on anger, destruction and confrontation, venturing away from a pure punk-rock sound toward an eclectic assortment of musical approaches. However, indie rock still explored raw and abrasive musical territory, and post-punk music can still get the indie label.

College Radio Airplay

Major radio stations didn’t play these bands, but their musical offerings filled, and still fill, the playlists of college radio stations — a fact that gave indie rock the alternate label of college rock. The Smiths, 10,000 Maniacs and the Violent Femmes were indie bands that received heavy rotation on campus stations during the 80s, a time considered by some to be the heyday of indie rock, when guitar-based jangle pop was the college-station sound in favor.

The Sell-Out Dilemma

Indie rock bands had a philosophy of DIY and musical experimentation that was outside of the mainstream. At one time, the scourge of every indie band was getting labeled as a sell-out, a negative term meaning the band sacrificed their artistic integrity in the pursuit of fame and fortune, usually by signing to a major label. Selling a song for use in a TV commercial could also threaten to decimate the hard-earned reputation of an indie band who otherwise worked for purely creative motivations.

However, that attitude of disdain toward selling out seems to have changed as its been observed that bands like Sonic Youth, the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie transitioned to major labels while still holding onto their cred. A major turning point happened in 1991, when former indie-rock band Nirvana achieved Billboard-topping success, proving that the counter-culture could get mainstream acceptance while sticking to their ideals. That wide-reaching success was evident with Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

man being held up by crowd in concert body surfing

As grunge and punk-inspired bands in the U.S. and indie bands in the U.K. entered the mainstream in the 1990s, the term indie was still used, but it identified bands that had perspectives as outsiders or part of an underground. Alternative was the word that people seemed to use the most often to describe the counter-culture bands with mainstream success.

The Indie Rock Sound

The indie-rock sound typically has more pop accessibility than punk. But, it has an unexpected, experimental element and often features noise that you don’t hear in mainstream pop or rock. The lyrics are wordy and sensitive, and the sounds can be distorted, depressive or all over the place stylistically.

Indie Rock Bands

Since the definition of an indie rock band includes bands on non-major record labels and ones with an indie sound, the list is extremely long and nearly never-ending. Some highly influential indie bands include:

  • The Jesus and Mary Chain
  • Sonic Youth
  • The Violent Femmes
  • Hüsker Dü
  • The Smiths
  • The Fall
  • The Butthole Surfers
  • Swans
  • Dinosaur Jr
  • Beck
  • Stone Roses
  • My Bloody Valentine
  • Ride
  • Pavement
  • Sebadoh

Starting in the 2000s, a new wave of indie bands have emerged, like Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, Belle and Sebastian and Death Cab for Cutie.

Indie Rock Labels

Independent record labels aren’t connected to the big three: Universal, Sony and Warner. The internet and digital music have made it easy to create an independent label, so it’s impossible to know just how many there are. Independent labels carefully curate the artists they let onto their roster, and they usually let them retain artistic freedom as well as the rights to their songs.

Some notable indie rock labels are:

  • Rough Trade: They brought us the Smiths
  • Kill Rock Stars: This is a grunge and riot-grrrl-heavy label based out of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Sub Pop: This label was the epicenter of 90s grunge with signed bands like Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Nirvana.
  • Domino: This London-based label had releases by Artic Monkeys, Sebadoh, Pavement and Franz Ferdinand.
  • Alternative Tentacles: Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys founded this San Francisco-based indie label in 1979.

The line between what’s indie and what’s not continues to blur. Some say that indie is a state of mind that connects the people who get it. Indie rock bands and fans form a music community where misfits and rebels are at home.