The common language of music brings people of diverse backgrounds together throughout the world, while also opening new doors to appreciation for the musical sounds and styles that distinguish individual regions and cultures.
Even a quick glance at the music of Africa, the world’s second-largest continent, will reveal a diverse set of traditions and expressions. Musicologists note a constantly diversifying blossoming of genres across the continent, with each culture producing notable musicians and distinctive forms of music.
Here are summaries of only a few of the African musical genres that are today both highly influential and particularly notable. All are worth taking the time to get to know and enjoy.
Afrobeat and Afrobeats
Afrobeat fuses the sounds of Western jazz and nightclub life into the centuries-old traditions of Nigerian music. Now often heard around the world, Afrobeat often incorporates beats common to other, non-African styles, such as hip-hop. The style is typically marked by strong vocal melodies backed by bass percussion, making it one of the world’s most danceable music genres.
Afrobeat’s ultimate origins can be traced to Ghana in the 1920s. In those days, local Ghanaian musicians seasoned their songs with calypso beats and even the popular Western foxtrot. Then in the late 1960s, a musician who would earn the nickname of the “Father of Afrobeat,” Fela Kuti—strongly influenced by American artist James Brown—put his own spin on the style. By the mid-1970s, it had become widely popular in Nigeria.
Fela, who died in 1997 at only 58 years of age, remains a legend among Nigerian music-lovers in particular. He has also influenced later generations of younger musicians worldwide, including Mos Def and Erykah Badu.
Afrobeats—a linear descendent of Fela’s 1960s and ‘70s Afrobeat—features heavily in Beyoncé’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift. She collaborated extensively with young musicians from Nigeria, Cameroon, and other parts of Africa, showcasing their talents in a way that brought many of them to the attention of a global audience for the first time.
The Sahara Desert region is the homeland of Gnawa music, which also goes by the names of Gnawi Blues and Ethno-Pop. Its beats are anchored in the traditions of the Gnawa community, which derives from groups of sub-Saharan peoples who were enslaved and first brought to Morocco in about the 11th century CE.
Over centuries of enslavement, during which they were typically forced to serve as soldiers, the Gnawa assembled themselves as a distinct people out of several previously unconnected sub-Saharan groups. They formed their own cultural traditions in the process and gradually gained their freedom.
Gnawa music originated in religious ceremonies—blending music, dance, and poetry—that resulted from a blend of the group’s highly spiritualized version of Islam and the local traditions of West Africa. In recent years, the tone of this music became more secularized even as it has gained popularity across Moroccan society.
Knowledgeable listeners often find parallels between Gnawa musical styles and the blues in the United States. Gnawa is especially distinctive in its use of drumming, metallic castanets, and the guembri, a bass lute with three strings. Gnawa music has gained so much popularity that the Moroccan government has established an annual festival in the city of Essaouira, dedicated to the style as one of the country’s prominent cultural heritage products.
Mali has gained a worldwide reputation as a focal point for blues music. As music scholars have pointed out, the blues is a uniquely African American art form, but one with deep roots in West Africa, deriving as it does from the spirituals and work songs brought to the New World by enslaved people centuries ago.
Many recent Malian blues artists, including the late Ali Farka Touré, have grounded their style in the music of their own cultures, rather than in that of the United States. Others are influenced to one degree or another by Western pop music. African American blues, traditional Malian sounds, and world beats all continue to play off against each other throughout this genre.
Other Malian blues artists include Afel Bocoum, who mixes musical traditions from the north and south of his country with the sounds of Western and Malian instruments.
One of the world’s premier annual blues events, Festival in the Desert, has taken place outside Timbuktu since 2001, highlighting the work of Tuareg musicians, blues artists, and others. With the festival suspended indefinitely due to recent unrest in Mali, organizers hope to showcase the talents of Malian blues musicians by promoting tours elsewhere.
Also known as Ethiopian jazz, Ethio-Jazz offers a one-of-a-kind melding of Western-inflected jazz, soul, Latin stylings, and Afro-funk with the often-haunting sounds of ancient Ethiopian music. Today recognized as one of Ethiopia’s most sought-after cultural exports, Ethio-Jazz dates back to the 1950s.
As it has developed over the decades since, this sound has expanded Africa’s—and the world’s—musical vocabulary. Its melodious sounds are anchored in ages-old Ethiopian ballads often evoking a sense of love, yearning, and nostalgia.
In the 1950s, Nerses Nalbandian, whose family had settled in Ethiopia as refugees from the 1915 genocide against Armenians, laid the groundwork for the development of the genre. Nalbandian’s uncle had led Ethiopia’s National Opera, and Nalbandian himself took up the baton after his uncle’s retirement.
He composed music for the country’s National Theatre, working out ways to preserve authenticity while incorporating local musical traditions in arrangements for big bands. His solution to this problem centered on adapting Western instrumentation while acknowledging the distinctive musical scales indigenous to Ethiopia.
Bandleader and composer Mulatu Astatke—also renowned as a keyboardist and vibraphonist—is another monumental figure in the history of Ethio-Jazz. Astatke, often credited as the “Godfather” of the genre who fully brought American jazz rhythms into traditional Ethiopian forms, is largely responsible for the recent popularity of Ethio-Jazz on the world stage.
A traditional three-piece jazz band consists of a piano or organ, double bass, and drums or another type of percussion to keep the beat. Renowned San Francisco Bay Area bassist, bandleader, and music educator Marcus Shelby offers a fine example of this standard jazz configuration in the many recordings and performances of the Marcus Shelby Jazz Trio.
Shelby’s ensemble expands to accommodate different types of performances and offers excellent examples of different configurations of the jazz band. His quartet adds a trumpet, and his quintet uses all these instruments plus a tenor saxophone. A typical configuration for the full Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra features all these instruments and more, with two tenor sax players, two on alto sax, a flute, piano, and drums, along with several clarinets, trombones, and trumpets. This complement of more than a dozen performers often features vocalists, which is typical of all types of jazz.
John Brown, another widely accomplished and popular bassist, bandleader, and educator, performs throughout his home state of North Carolina and beyond with his big band orchestra. In the standard configuration of the John Brown Jazz Orchestra, the big band sound comes from five saxophones, four trombones, and four trumpets, plus drums, piano, and bass. The orchestra also sometimes brings in a vibraphone, clarinet, violin, and vocalists.
These are just two prominent examples of a universal truth: the standard jazz orchestra is a diverse group of instruments that together make beautiful music. After this tour around the full jazz orchestra, now we’ll take a look at a few of the great jazz band solos of all time:
Dizzy Gillespie (1917 - 1993), one of the greatest trumpet players the world has ever seen, and a master of bebop, delivered an especially notable trumpet solo with “Salt Peanuts.” Gillespie first performed his jazzy bebop composition (for which he shares composer credits with drummer Kenny Clarke) in 1942. He is accompanied by the great Charlie Parker playing alto saxophone.
Gillespie’s integration of bebop into a jazz composition was a major innovation for its time. The song is deceptively simple and effervescent, and it moves in a typically frenetic bebop style. Gillespie’s trumpet solo weaves against the background provided by the sax, trombone, drums, and piano. The tune includes witty vocal interpolations of the phrase “salt peanuts” as the only lyrics, repeated at musically opportune moments.
In later years, Gillespie’s inventiveness and stage presence earned him the nickname “Ambassador of Jazz.” He traveled the world on behalf of the United States Department of State to highlight his uniquely American art form.
As he performed “Salt Peanuts” over the decades, Gillespie branched out with a number of different vocal riffs on the original. Now-classic recordings from 1945 showcase Gillespie’s performance on the piece at its best, before a traffic accident a few years later sadly injured his mouth and put limits on his range.
Charlie “Bird” Parker’s (1920 - 1955) solo sax on “Ko Ko” is one of many jazz fans’ all-time favorites. One of the greatest improvisers and innovators of all time, Parker demonstrated a creative depth and range that easily places him alongside Ornette Coleman, Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane as the greatest of the great.
Along with Dizzy Gillespie, he is credited as a central figure in the creation and development of bebop. “Ko Ko” represents Parker’s first-ever recorded piece as a bandleader, and he took the opportunity to show the full capacity of the bebop form, evolving its rapid-fire chord changes and high-octane melodic escapades as he played. He developed “Ko Ko” as his own personal take on the popular 1930s Ray Noble dance tune “Cherokee,” and recorded it in its essential form in 1945.
On “Ko Ko,” Parker also shows off his understanding of rhythm and harmony to dazzling effect. Performing “Ko Ko” most notably accompanied by “Diz” on trumpet, Parker delivered a short tune with a simple compositional architecture. Recordings of the just-under-three-minute song give us an opening meld of sax and trumpet, followed by the two instruments exchanging eight-bar phrases to end abruptly with a final pop of sound.
Benny Goodman (1909 - 1986), one of the greatest clarinetists to ever perform, was also a noted bandleader and composer. The “King of Swing” created a wide range of now-iconic performances and developed his mastery of his instrument to a high art. One of his very early solo recordings, from 1928, offers an example of the range and power of the clarinet and Goodman’s musicianship.
This early version of “That’s a Plenty” (lyrics and music by Ray Gilbert and Lew Pollack) was recorded with piano and drum accompaniment when Goodman was not yet 20. He also recorded other performances of the song in later years. Although his playing had not yet reached its full capacity and the sound is less polished on the 1928 recording, Goodman’s raw forward drive in executing the piece is notable and exciting.
A number of fans and critics point out the influence of klezmer, traditional Eastern European Jewish band music, on Goodman, who was a child of Russian Jewish immigrants. “That’s a Plenty” and many of Goodman’s other performances certainly demonstrate echoes of the elegantly winding and infinitely danceable call of the klezmer clarinet.
Goodman kept playing “That’s a Plenty” in a variety of settings and with a variety of accompaniments well into his later years, including in a notable 1980 performance at the Aurex Jazz Festival in Tokyo.
Folk songs serve as a repository of musical and cultural history in countries around the world and are among the favorite ways for children and adults to learn music appreciation. In addition, it holds a place in music education through approaches like the Kodály Method, a system of music instruction named for its founder, the renowned 20th century Hungarian composer and musicologist Zoltán Kodály. It relies heavily on folk songs as teaching instruments for musical concepts and basic skills. The idea is that teaching children folk songs from their native lands and those of people throughout the world transmits a rich cultural heritage, along with a knowledge of rhythm, lyricism, structure, and form.
Folk songs encompass rural and traditional music that originated in a particular region and that were passed down orally from one generation to another. They have also been collected by musicians and music historians, such as Kodály and his colleague, composer Béla Bartók. They devoted years of their lives to traveling the Hungarian and Romanian countryside to collect thousands of traditional ballads and songs.
Similarly, the collection known as the Child Ballads is an anthology of English and Scottish folk music dating from the 17th and 18th centuries and amassed by Harvard professor and folklorist Francis James Child. It features numerous pieces, and modern musicians have adapted many for contemporary audiences. One example is Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.”
Here is a look at a few traditional folk songs that continue to be appreciated to this day:
The haunting English folk song “Greensleeves,” which dates from sometime in the 16th century, first became a registered ballad in 1580. Its simple and expressive lyrics proclaim the singer’s longing for “Lady Greensleeves,” and he laments that she spurns his affections. For the past four centuries, scholars and the general public have been fascinated by and have speculated over the song’s origins.
One theory ascribes the composition of its lyrics, tunes, or both to King Henry VIII, in reference of his mistress and later queen, Anne Boleyn. Most historians and musicologists dispute this idea and instead date the song to the later Elizabethan era. This is in part because “Greensleeves” contains Spanish or Italian musical elements that were unlikely to have reached England until the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
Patriotic Irish musicologist and historian William Henry Grattan Flood included the song in his 1905 book on the history of Irish music, in which he claim that it was of Irish origin. However, Flood was known for attributing numerous elements in anything that he fancied to Ireland, often with no supporting evidence.
“Greensleeves” is a unique tune, and its reprise is grounded in a melodic and harmonic formula called romanesca. This composition uses a descending descant musical formula built on sequences of four recurring bass chords that create a fluidly-rolling tune. Romanesca was common for singing poetry in the 16th and 17th centuries.
2. “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”
“Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (“On the Bridge of Avignon”) is among the best-known French folk songs and a staple of French children’s music programs. The repetitious lyrics tell of a dance on the Saint Bénezet bridge in Avignon, during which “handsome gentlemen” and “lovely ladies” dance all around while moving in the opposite direction from one another, then reverse direction. Scholars trace the song to the 15th century.
The bridge itself is named for a young shepherd who purportedly received a call from heaven to build it, and it was created over the River Rhône in the 12th century. In the late 1600s, a flood swept most of it away, although four arches still stand. These remains are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Sur le Pont d’Avignon” and its idea of dancing on a bridge has been discredited by historians, who point out that it was more likely that people danced under it on an island in the middle of the river. Scholars state that the song was first titled “Sous le Pont d’Avignon,” meaning “under the bridge of Avignon.”
3. “A Csitári Hegyek Alatt”
“A Csitári Hegyek Alatt” (“Under the Csitári Mountains” in English) is among the most popular Hungarian folk songs and composed in a style that approaches a traditional mode structure. The song’s lyrics relay a sad tale grounded in themes of love and jealousy.
Kodály included “A Csitári Hegyek Alatt” among his special arrangements of key Hungarian traditional pieces, although he added an additional verse. Additionally, the enduring popularity of the song is evident through its frequent covers by contemporary artists who perform it in various styles, such as the British band Oi Va Voi in their album Laughter Through Tears. Andor Kovács and Gyula Kovács made a jazz version of the song’s tune for their 2000 album Guitar-Drums Battle.
The artistry shown in a violin performance is highly individual and subjective. Most musicians can achieve competence in playing the instrument. However, if you have shown the interpretative sensitivity, technical virtuosity, charm of personality, or striking originality of expression that moves them into a class by themselves.
Here are short biographies of four outstanding performers whose dedication and talent have moved audiences over the centuries.
1. Niccolò Paganini
Niccolò Paganini (1782 - 1840) is perhaps the first musician who can be considered a virtuoso of the instrument. He remains venerated by violinists and the general public alike. His charisma garnered him a cult-like following during his lifetime. His impact on the entire later history of how the violin is played, and how violinists perform on stage, cannot be overestimated.
Born in Genoa, Italy, Paganini debuted as a performer the year he turned 11. As a young man, he toured Lombardy while also getting entangled in a number of romantic escapades. At one point he pawned his violin to settle his gambling debts. Biographers record the story that a French merchant then gave him a Guarneri in recognition of his talents.
Paganini was also a gifted composer. His 24 Capricci for Solo Violin remain staples of the classical repertoire. From 1828 onward, he undertook tours of England, Scotland, and the Continent, amassing a personal fortune in the process. It was Paganini who commissioned the great French composer Hector Berlioz to create the symphony Harold in Italy, although the virtuoso considered the work unchallenging and never performed it.
Paganini’s technique called on a wide-ranging scheme of harmonics and his talent for playing pizzicati. He made up his own innovative methods for tuning and fingering, and displayed a genius for improvisation. A whole raft of legends grew up around this Romantic-era figure, including one that says he got his extraordinary musicianship thanks to a deal with the devil.
2. Jascha Haifetz
Jascha Heifetz (1901 - 1974) started his career as a violinist when he was 5 years old. He was soon playing in Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw and performing complex works that included Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. At age 16, he enjoyed a spectacular debut at Carnegie Hall.
The young refugee from Lithuania gave a performance that one music historian has called “like electricity.” Heifetz showed not only an almost unbelievable level of technical proficiency in his instrument, but an immense warmth of feeling and interpretation to match.
Heifetz obtained United States citizenship at age 24 and thereafter toured the world. He commissioned a number of violin concertos and himself became a noted transcriber of great works by Bach and Vivaldi into pieces for the violin. Later in life, he taught at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
Heifetz was one of the undisputed 20th-century masters of the violin. PBS showcased his legacy in a special broadcast in its American Masters series that called him “God’s Fiddler.”
3. Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman, born in 1945, often tops critics’ lists of the greatest living classical violinists. He has an instantly recognizable bold and exuberant technique. He has remarked that the best technique doesn’t reside in the ability to elicit notes rapidly from the instrument, but in the capacity to evoke rich and surprising tone and color.
A renowned teacher and composer as well as a performer, the Israeli-born Perlman has become a pop culture icon. Between the years 1977 and 1995, he racked up 15 Grammy Awards. He is also the recipient of a U. S. Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor, and numerous other accolades.
Perlman has also made appearances on the children’s educational television show Sesame Street. In a 1981 segment, he movingly demonstrated the difference between “easy” and “hard,” walking onto the stage using crutches (the result of childhood polio) before taking up his violin to play a lively passage.
Perlman’s focus on teaching and philanthropy is exemplified in the Perlman Music Program he and his wife established in the 1990s. The program provides training and support to teen string musicians of exceptional promise.
4. Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn, born in 1979, is known for her dynamic, sensitive interpretations of works by a varied list of composers from Bach to Stravinsky. She began studying the Suzuki method at age 4, made her orchestral debut at age 11 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, performed on her first classical recording at 16, and has gone on to receive numerous international awards, including two Grammys before she turned 30.
In 2015, she received her third Grammy for her album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. In hundreds of live solo performances, she has been accompanied by the world’s premier orchestras.
Hahn has spent her career making classical music accessible to younger audiences. She has performed for films and with alternative rock groups, and has cut a string of successful classical albums, always with a warm and personal approach. Hahn’s popular social media accounts, a signature component of her educational mission, feature running commentary from the point of view of her violin case as it travels with her around the world.
In 2010, American composer Jennifer Higdon received a Pulitzer Prize for the violin concerto she wrote specifically for Hahn. Higdon created a piece combining technical virtuoso flourishes with deep, meditative flow, which she tailored to Hahn’s immense lyrical range and ability to negotiate complex changes in meter.
On June 7, 2020, Radio City Music Hall in New York will host the 74th annual Tony Awards, honoring Broadway’s best. This year will be the 20th time the Tonys have been presented at Radio City.
Radio City is one of the world’s most exciting and glamourous venues for performing arts. Events hosted there include vaudeville, movies, musical concerts, awards shows, and special programs of all kinds. As a result, it has become a beloved icon of American life, and a landmark site for visitors to New York. Here are nine of the most interesting facts you may not know about it:
1. It opened during the Great Depression.
Radio City Music Hall opened on a rainy night in New York City on December 27, 1932. That a new theater and entertainment venue of its size would open in the depths of the Great Depression testifies to the longing of people, even in discouraging or desperate circumstances, to find comfort and encouragement in the power of high-quality music and performance.
The venue was specifically designed to be a kind of people’s entertainment palace, a place that could bring beauty into everyday lives at an affordable admission price.
2. It has hosted over 300 million visitors since its opening.
Opening night saw thousands of people waiting to enter the stunning new Art Deco building. In the almost 90 years since then, some 300 million visitors have enjoyed great performances on its stage. Radio City continues to reign as the world’s largest indoor theater, and one of the most visually magnificent.
3. It was built by John D. Rockefeller.
It was John D. Rockefeller who decided to construct Radio City Music Hall. Rockefeller’s idea was to make it one of the cornerstones of his nascent entertainment complex at Rockefeller Center, located in an area he was in the process of renovating from its former rundown state.
Rockefeller had leased the Midtown Manhattan property from Columbia University, planning to pursue a collaboration to build a new Metropolitan Opera House. But disagreements over planning—and the financial crash of the Great Depression—killed the project.
Rockefeller decided to cut his losses and construct something the world had never before seen. He wanted to give New York City a large-scale entertainment complex, one so spectacular that it would attract commercial tenants and turn a profit even in the most difficult economic climate, when vacant properties were to be found available all over the city.
4. It was part of a partnership between Rockefeller, RCA, and Rothafel.
Rockefeller teamed up with RCA, the Radio Corporation of America. RCA owned both the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and RKO Pictures, whose movies were wildly popular across the nation.
Rockefeller and RCA were joined by S. L. “Roxy” Rothafel, a legend in the theater world. “Roxy” oversaw productions that blended movies, vaudeville, and show-stopping design. His industry savvy had brought numerous financially strapped theaters back to life.
This team of three then built Radio City Music Hall as the first venue within Rockefeller’s new complex. David Sarnoff, who headed RCA, was the one who gave it the name “Radio City.”
5. It was constructed in the Art Deco style.
Architect Edward Durell Stone was responsible for the imposing Art Deco exterior. However, it was the building’s interior that captivated audiences, both then and now. Designer Donald Deskey, who at the time was relatively unknown, provided the interior decor. The unlikely but inspired choice of Deskey resulted in the stunning entertainment palace we know today.
On that opening night in 1932, Deskey’s work thrilled audiences, particularly in contrast to the lackluster show that evening. One critic wrote that the building itself was so magnificent that it did not even require performers. Deskey’s Art Deco esthetic choices focused on bringing clean lines, structural ornamentation, and a European Modernist sense to the design.
Attendees first passed inside the building’s elegant lobby, then filed into the Grand Foyer. They could also enjoy eight distinct lounges with smoking areas. Each of these was created with a specific theme referring to another world culture. The entire building was, in fact, a celebration of humanity’s creativity in multiple fields: the arts, science, and industry.
Art was a focal point of the overall design. Deskey worked with expert technicians and craftspeople to fill the building with distinctive wall decor, draperies, carpets, sculpture, and murals. He also employed 20th-century innovations in technology in the form of industrial materials such as aluminum and Bakelite, which for seamlessly integrated with stone- and woodwork, gold foil, and marble.
Design enthusiasts continue to thrill to Radio City’s interior tactile richness, the variations in tone and color, and the vast interior spaces filled with sweeping, intricately lit arches that evoke the feeling of a sunset overhead.
6. It was constructed with the audience in mind.
Radio City’s grandeur covers a lot of space. Its auditorium stretches 160 feet from the stage to the rear. Its ceiling soars more than 80 feet high, and its marquee spans an entire city block.
There’s not a bad seat in the house, thanks to Deskey and his design team. A series of shallowly-constructed mezzanines are arranged in such a way that they don’t obstruct the orchestra section below them. Additionally, no columns block the ability to see the stage.
The famous “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ was custom-built for Radio City’s theater. It has so many pipes—ranging in size from only a few inches to some 32 feet long—that it takes 11 rooms to contain its many sections.
7. Its stage is state-of-the-art.
For performers and audiences alike, one of the central marvels of Radio City is its ingenious and technologically-advanced set of three hydraulically-powered stage risers. Radio City’s stage has won praise from theater experts and is still considered one of the most advanced and best-fitted-out stage spaces in the world.
An additional elevator-riser allows technicians to shift the whole orchestra section up or down. A turntable provides the flexibility of making quick scene changes while supporting numerous possibilities for special effects like fog, rain, clouds, and spraying fountains.
8. It has premiered hundreds of movies over the years.
Within two weeks of its opening night, Radio City hosted its first feature film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, directed by Frank Capra and starring Barbara Stanwyck. It wasn’t long until a premiere at Radio City was the best way to ensure a movie’s success across the nation.
Over the succeeding decades, some 700 movies have debuted at Radio City. These include King Kong in 1933, National Velvet (starring Elizabeth Taylor) in 1944, White Christmas in 1954, Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, and Disney’s original Lion King in 1994. In 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird also premiered at Radio City, the same theater where the film’s star, Gregory Peck, had ushered as a young aspiring actor.
9. It is has been home to the Rockettes since its opening.
Then there are the Rockettes. Previously known, among other names, as the Missouri Rockets, the all-female precision-dancing, super-high-kicking troupe got its start in the 1920s. The group landed in New York after a nationwide tour just as Radio City was preparing to open.
Discovered by none other than “Roxy” Rothafel, the Rockettes opened the first evening’s performance at Radio City Music Hall, and have been its most iconic performers ever since. In the late 1970s, when financial problems almost forced its closing, Radio City was buoyed back up on a wave of nationwide support led, in part, by the Rockettes.
Although in the segregated 1930s, the Rockettes’ line-up was all-white, today’s Rockettes are moving toward embracing the full range of American diversity and talent. Most recently, the 2019 Christmas Spectacular show saw several new dancers of color joining the team, as well as a “differently-abled” dancer.
A large number of researchers believe that, for people of any age, listening to music while performing tasks at home, work, and school can have a beneficial effect on learning, productivity, and satisfaction. Here are a few facts about this effect:
1. Music improves productivity when working on repetitive tasks.
One team at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom found that playing background music while engaging in repetitive tasks—think spreadsheets, counting objects, and reading email—not only makes time go by more pleasantly, it serves to boost productivity. The authors of the study note that this held true for their test subjects even when they were in the midst of a considerable amount of ambient industrial noise.
2. Music is most effective when it is considered pleasant or neutral by the listener.
A University of Miami music therapy professor discovered that when people hear music that they personally find enjoyable, they tend to start feeling better. Her test subjects—people who worked in information technology—reported finishing their assignments more quickly when listening to music they liked. Additionally, she discovered that the elevation in mood her subjects experienced propelled them on to come up with better ideas and insights related to their tasks.
She concluded that personal choice regarding musical selections is extremely important to the effectiveness of that music in heightening mood and productivity. She went on to observe that over-stressed individuals tend to come to over-hasty conclusions about work tasks. On the other hand, individuals who were able to select their own music could see multiple possible solutions to a problem.
Some investigators have discovered, however, that music we neither strongly like, nor strongly dislike, may be best for workplace productivity. A group of Taiwanese researchers at Fu Jen Catholic University found that extreme reactions—positive and negative—to music made it more difficult to maintain concentration.
3. Music triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.
Biology tells us that the act of listening to music we enjoy releases hormones called dopamine into the brain’s reward center. This is the same reaction we experience when we look at a beautiful scene, drink in the scent of a rose, or eat a delicious meal. One physician at the Mayo Clinic who has studied the way people at work gain focus from listening to music notes that it takes less than an hour a day to achieve the mood-lifting and mind-opening benefits.
4. Music is most effective at increasing productivity when it is instrumental.
One point seems to be consistent across a variety of research studies: the best music for concentration and productivity is wordless. Words that we can understand tend to distract the brain, since they pull us in the direction of trying to make sense of them.
One study found that almost half of office employees in the test group were distracted by human speech. Trying to tune out the background noise of others’ voices won’t work if the music has lyrics. It will merely cause the brain to shift its focus.
5. The tempo of Baroque music may facilitate concentration and learning.
The tempo of a piece of music has a strong impact on how well it facilitates concentration. Numerous studies have shown that music from the Baroque period in particular—think Bach, Vivaldi, Georg Telemann, Henry Purcell, and Jean-Philippe Rameau—aids learning and concentration, which contributes to longer-term retention of new information.
In fact, authors Sheila Ostrander and Lynn Schroeder wrote the book Superlearning 2000, an update to their earlier title Superlearning, to further outline exactly how to use the steady, even beats of Baroque music to learn foreign languages, new vocabulary, and a host of other facts, figures, and real-world skills. Fans of the Super-Learning books say that the techniques and helpful resources the authors offer have helped them speed up their learning, recall much more of what they have read, and fully engage both hemispheres of their brains.
Ostrander and Schroeder, who began putting the book together in the 1970s, drew on then-revolutionary research by top psychologists and neurologists. These scientists had discovered that listening to Baroque music in particular was capable of increasing the powers of a person’s concentration and memory. They posited that this was the result of the regular mathematical formulas that lie at the heart of the Baroque tempo.
6. Baroque music may facilitate the production of alpha waves in the brain.
The 50- to 80-beat-per-minute tempo of Baroque, researchers have learned, is comparable to an adult’s resting heart rate. This makes it ideal for stimulating the production of alpha waves in the brain. These alpha waves are known for inducing a mood of deep but focused relaxation.
When human beings are in an alpha state—with their brain waves’ frequency measuring from 9 to 14 hertz, or cycles per second—they are far from being passive or inattentive. A person in an alpha state is calm but alert, and is extremely receptive to taking in and processing new information.
Most of our daily lives are spent in the active beta state, with brain waves of between 15 and 40 cycles per second. This means the alpha state represents a significant reduction in our normal rhythms, giving us more time and space to notice things we may not have noticed before.
Most experts date the Baroque period in classical music from about 1600 to 1750, putting it between the polyphony of the Renaissance and the era of Classicism (the period after the mid-18th century distinguished by the works of composers such as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert).
Compositions from the Baroque period are typically marked by their grandiosity and drama as well as the numerous ways in which composers used the technique of counterpoint to express musical themes and ideas.
Developments in the music of this period parallel those in the other arts—for example, massive and ornate buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Caserta Royal Palace in Rome. Venetian Baroque-era churches, built with two opposing galleries, were ideal for the performances of two ensembles of musicians playing at the same time.
A complex form
The concept of two voices or groupings in contrast with one another is a central idea in Baroque composition. Concertos (known in Italian as concerti grossi) featured a solo instrument or voice playing or singing along with a full orchestra. They were a favorite among Baroque composers.
Baroque music tends to emphasize a bass line set against a melody. A cello, for example, might deliver the bass, while a vocalist sings a melody.
The technique of counterpoint is central to the development and performance of Baroque music.
Simply put, counterpoint is the art of combination. A composer working with counterpoint will juxtapose two or more separate melodic lines in a single composition. In counterpoint, individual melodic lines are known as “parts” or “voices.” Each part or voice has a distinct melody.
The term “counterpoint” is sometimes incorrectly conflated with polyphony. Polyphony refers to the presence of at least two individual melodic lines in a composition. Although counterpoint evolved out of polyphonic music, counterpoint is a much more complicated technique. True counterpoint involves a complex handling of the several melodic lines of a composition to fashion an acoustically and emotionally meaningful and harmonious whole.
The organ and the harpsichord are perhaps the instruments audiences most acquaint with Baroque music. During the Baroque period, these instruments offered two keyboards, allowing the musician to transfer from one to the other to create the rich blending of the contrasting sounds.
A centuries-old technique that continues
Composers of the Classical period were usually steeped in the techniques of Baroque composition from their early years. Some, like Mozart and Beethoven, would go on to employ counterpoint extensively in their own later works, written well into the Classical era.
Counterpoint continues to find favor today among musicians, composers, and even mathematicians, who have devoted much effort to explaining its symmetry and intricacy in terms of numerical relationships.
The supreme artistry of Bach
Numerous critics and teachers have found the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach to represent a pinnacle of the development of the concerto grosso form, and of the Baroque style itself.
Bach created these works over the span of the second decade of the 18th century, one of the happiest periods of his life. The six compositions masterfully weave together the component threads played by a smaller orchestra and by several solo groups.
Music scholars point out that the scale of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 features so many soloists that it is more of a symphony than a concerto, in fact. Bach brought in oboes, horns, a bassoon, and a solo violin. And the third of these concertos features performances from no fewer than three cellos, three violas, and three violins. Unique among these concerti, Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 features not even a single violin; instead, it focuses on lower-voiced string instruments.
Three centuries after their composition, the rich-toned, lilting Brandenburg Concertos remain among the most popular and beloved works in the classical repertoire.
The art of fugue
Bach was a master of the fugue, and many musicologists revere his late work The Art of Fugue as one of his most significant creations.
A fugue is a piece of music—or a part of a larger composition—that offers finely tuned and mathematically pleasing use of a central theme (the "subject") and numerous restatements and reconfigurations of that theme. In a fugue, the subject is taken up by other parts that are successively woven together.
A fugue begins with an exposition, introducing the listener to the central subject. The subject then plays out in different parts, becoming transposed into various keys that serve as “answers” to the essential statement of the subject. A fugue can unfold over as many statements, restatements, and key changes as the composer would like, and can be as short or as long as desired, as well.
Baroque composers worth knowing
Gramophone magazine, one of the world’s premier authorities in classical music criticism, recently put out its 2019 edition of the Top 10 Baroque composers.
Bach heads the list, with the Gramophone team noting that he continues to enjoy a status in music equivalent to that of Shakespeare in literature or da Vinci in the visual arts. The publication particularly recommends Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as a supreme example of his musicianship and of the Baroque style.
Next comes Antonio Vivaldi, whose lavish, ornate compositions echo the culture of his native Venice at the time. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is perhaps the best known of his works today. This lilting, exuberant hymn to the beauty of earth’s changing seasons is known for its exquisite craftsmanship.
George Frideric Handel’s lively, upbeat Baroque compositions are other essentials for anyone becoming familiar with the era. His towering oratorio Messiah remains a not-to-be-missed composition for both music lovers and those devoted to the Christian faith.
The experts at Gramophone additionally nominate English composer Henry Purcell, composer of Dido and Aeneas and other operas, to this select group. Claudio Monteverdi, remembered as a bridge between Renaissance polyphony and the early Baroque style, also made the list, as did Domenico Scarlatti, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Georg Philipp Telemann, Arcangelo Corelli, and Heinrich Schutz.
A movie musical night can be one of the most enjoyable ways for families who love music to spend time together. Particularly when a child in the house takes voice or movement lessons, or plays an instrument, musicals can open up new doors for musical understanding and creativity. Whether you rent, buy, or stream them, these old-fashioned classic musicals offer great lyrics and danceable tunes, as well as engaging storylines that are suitable for all ages.
1. The Sound of Music
Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The Sound of Music (1965), starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, will likely top the list of favorite movie musicals for many families. One of the most recognizable and beloved of the great movie musicals, it tells the story of Maria, a young novitiate in a convent who starts work as a governess for a widower and his large family, only to fall in love.
Set in Austria at the time of the Nazi invasion that led into World War II, the plot offers a clear contrast between good and evil as the von Trapps struggle to remain true to their values and stage a perilous escape. The musical is based on the real-life experiences of Maria von Trapp, as told in her 1949 book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.
The many well-known songs from the musical include “Do-Re-Mi,” (“Do, a deer, a female deer…”). In addition to being one of the liveliest and easiest musical numbers for a young child to learn, the song is a great way to teach solfege, the art of training the ear to distinguish musical tones.
Other wonderful pieces on the soundtrack include the poignant coming-of-age love song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” the raucously funny “The Lonely Goatherd,” and the poignant “Edelweiss,” a folk song that the von Trapps use to express their love of their homeland and their sorrow at leaving it.
2. The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz (1939), based on the series of children’s novels by L. Frank Baum, is another widely beloved family classic, with a score by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E. Y. “Yip” Harburg.
Dorothy, who was whisked away from her home in Kansas by a tornado, finds herself in the magical Land of Oz. She makes friends with the Tin Woodsman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, and together they make their way down the Yellow Brick Road to find the wizard who can give each of them their heart’s desire; and in the case of Dorothy, a return to her home.
The Wicked Witch of the West does her best to thwart them, sending an army of flying monkeys to attack in a harrowing scene. However, after Dorothy and her friends defeat her, they reach the Emerald City and unmask the great wizard as a bumbling, ordinary man, with goodness triumphing over both the wizard’s cowardly bombast and the witch’s evil.
The now-iconic songs that Arlen and Harburg composed for the film include the sweeping ballad “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which became not only the centerpiece of the movie, with its theme of love and longing, but a lifelong theme song for star Judy Garland.
3. Singin’ in the Rain
Singin’ in the Rain (1952), starring the phenomenal dancer and singer Gene Kelly, alongside comic master Donald O’Connor and the multitalented Debbie Reynolds, offers a warm-hearted story, memorable protagonists, and plenty of exuberant songs that have captivated generations. As the late movie critic Roger Ebert wrote, there are few rivals for Singin’ in the Rain as a viewing and listening experience of pure fun.
The musical is set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, when silent films were being outclassed by the new “talkies,” leaving numerous former stars literally speechless when their real voices couldn’t match their onscreen images.
Kelly plays a matinee idol who dislikes his co-star and falls in love instead with the ingenue played by Reynolds. Arthur Freed’s lyrics and Nacio Herb Brown’s music enhance the charm of the book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The film also offers O’Connor’s bouncy, show-stopping rendition of “Make ‘Em Laugh,” a lively trio performance by the three leads in “Good Mornin’,” and the kinetic magic of Kelly in the title number, sloshing, dancing, and singing his way against the shadows of a dark and rainy street.
4. The Music Man
The lively sound of “76 Trombones” is only one of the highlights in The Music Man (1962), created by Meredith Willson for the stage and later for the screen.
Robert Preston plays the title character, a traveling salesman—more aptly, a charming con man—named Harold Hill. In the sleepy days of 1912, right before the town’s Independence Day celebrations, Hill descends on River City to persuade residents that only he and the new marching band he is forming can—at the town’s expense—save them from modern corruption, such as a newly installed pool table.
“Ya Got Trouble,” Preston sings in one memorable song in his portrayal of Hill, as he tries to scare and con the town. “Right here in River City....With a capital ‘T,’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”
Hill mesmerizes everyone in the town, with the sole exception being young “Marian the Librarian,” portrayed by Shirley Jones. As the holiday nears, the completely unmusical Hill is about to be discovered. But before he can take his ill-gotten receipts and flee the town, he realizes that he’s fallen in love with Marian. He also suddenly finds it in himself to actually do the thing he only pretended to be able to do—lead a band—and he and the town are saved.
Any family hoping to introduce their children to the wonders of onscreen musical theater will find much to enjoy in these four classics and in the many more made during this same era of the great movie musicals.
For many young children, the percussion instruments are the most fun to play and learn. Striking, shaking, or clanging these instruments produces an immediate response that the child can hear or sometimes even see. This easily grasped one-to-one correspondence between the child’s actions and the instrument’s sound is a big part of the appeal.
Playing a percussion instrument is also valuable because it helps people of all ages improve their physical coordination, dexterity, and motor skills. In addition, percussion instruments give music students the chance to let loose creatively in ways that few other instrument types can equal. Researchers have even learned that drumming and practicing other percussion instruments can reduce stress and even improve the immune system.
For all these reasons and more, percussion instruments are justifiably popular with student musicians, professionals, and audiences around the world.
The following is a closer look at a few members of this truly global family of musical instruments. This list focuses on some of the more seldom-discussed instruments in the percussion family, and thus omits the piano and the many types of acoustic and electronic drums that are popular in the U.S.
The boom of the timpani
In Sergei Prokofiev’s classic Peter and the Wolf, an imaginative musical romp through the instruments of the orchestra, the crash of the timpani announces the arrival of the hunters.
Timpani, also known as kettledrums, entered the Western musical world during the Middle Ages, imported by returning Crusaders and Arabic warriors arriving in western and southern European ports. Timpani came to be used in connection with trumpets to herald the arrival of aristocratic cavalry troops onto a battlefield.
Timpani consist of large, round, copper-bodied drums shaped like half of a sphere. Their drumheads consist of sheets of plastic or calfskin stretched tight across the opening. A player produces sound by striking the instruments with sticks or mallets made of wood or tipped in felt.
Timpani can be tuned to produce a variety of pitches when their drumheads are loosened or tightened via an attached foot pedal. In a typical orchestra, a single musician will play four or more timpani in a range of sizes and pitches. Playing the timpani calls on all the performer’s skills of attention and sense of pitch, since a typical orchestral piece calls for multiple tuning changes.
The xylophone’s flexible range
The xylophone’s early history lies in Asia, most scholars believe, before it spread to Africa and then to Europe. The instrument’s name derives from an ancient Greek word that refers to its wood-like tones.
The common denominator among the many types of xylophones available today is that the typical xylophone consists of a set of keys, or bars, organized in octaves, like piano keys. Affixed beneath the keys are a series of resonators, or metallic tubes, which produce the sound. Xylophones can be simple toys for the youngest children or sophisticated, multi-octave orchestral instruments.
The xylophone player strikes the keys with a mallet. Mallets are produced in varying degrees of softness or hardness; changing the pitch of the xylophone involves using a different type of mallet or changing the way one strikes the keys.
The xylophone’s close relatives in the percussion family include the larger and more mellow-toned marimba, the smaller and jingly-voiced glockenspiel, and the vibraphone.
The Jazz Age vibraphone
Invented in the 1920s, the vibraphone is distinguished by its metal keys and resonators and by the addition of little spinning discs, or fans, in its interior. These small discs are electrically powered and are arranged under the keys and over the resonators.
A player uses felted or wool-tufted mallets to strike the keys. He or she tunes the vibraphone by means of a motor that turns a rod connected to the discs. The resulting sound is the type of shifting, sliding pitch that’s referred to as vibrato when produced by the human voice.
The vibraphone has found extensive use in the popular jazz repertoire of artists such as Lionel Hampton. The instrument’s first appearance in an orchestra was in the 1937 Alban Berg opera Lulu.
The cymbals – the orchestra’s alarm clock
The crashing of the cymbals in the orchestra makes everyone take notice. A set of these ultra-loud percussion instruments consists of a pair of large discs, ranging in size from 16 to 22 inches in diameter. These discs are typically fashioned of spun bronze.
A player hits the cymbals together, or in the case of suspended cymbals, strikes them with a mallet. In general, larger cymbals produce lower sounds.
The waterphone’s New Age appeal
The waterphone is a newer innovation in percussion. Patented in the 1970s and based on a Tibetan water drum and other instruments, the waterphone consists of a bowl of water, a resonator, and a series of differently sized metal rods. A player uses a mallet, bow, or his or her own fingers to produce sound by striking the rods.
The vibration causes the water to shift in the bowl, thus altering the shape of the resonance chamber and creating a whole range of gliding sounds and echoes. Musicologists have described the waterphone’s sound as mysterious and otherworldly, and the instrument is noticeable in many television and film soundtracks.
The triangle’s thousand-year-old lilt
The triangle is a simple steel bar bent into the shape of an equilateral triangle, with part of one corner left open. The player strikes the instrument with a simple steel rod.
In use at least since the Middle Ages, the triangle often featured an attached set of jingly rings until the early 19th century. As European audiences of the 1700s demanded music in the Turkish style, Western musicians paired the triangle, the cymbals, and the bass drum into an ensemble with the aim of replicating the popular Turkish Janissary sound.
The triangle’s piercing pitch is audible even over the sounds of a full orchestra. Accordingly, classical composers tend to use the triangle sparingly, often to add punctuation to a composition.
The study of an instrument is a long-term commitment. Students will need to feel comfortable with their choice and dedicated to getting the most out of their studies. With hard work, focus, and diligence, however, learning to play an instrument can be a way to enrich a child’s life well into adulthood.
The following seven tips can help parents, educators, and children identify the instrument that will be the best and most enjoyable fit.
1. Consider the child's age and development.
First, consider the child’s age. For particularly young children, consider the physical and developmental demands of each instrument. Children of this age may not have the physical strength, dexterity, or muscle fluency to manage certain instruments.
2. Consider the piano and the violin, particularly for younger children.
Expert teachers typically recommend the violin and the piano for children under 6 years of age. Both of these instruments serve as excellent building blocks for learning music theory and practice. They also assist with learning to play additional instruments.
The Suzuki Violin Method is one of the teaching practices that focuses specifically on the qualities of the violin as a young beginner’s instrument. Learning violin is made easier for younger children because the instrument can be fashioned in very small sizes. This makes it simpler and more intuitive for a child this age to manage fluidly and naturally.
The violin is also an excellent choice of instrument for teaching young music students to play in tune. Another advantage is that the act of bowing provides a kinetic manner through which students can learn the concept of musical phrasing. And, because the violin has no keys or frets, a young player can concentrate completely on the sounds he or she is creating.
The piano offers its own plusses as a first instrument. A child learning to play the piano picks up foundational skills of musicianship by becoming proficient in harmony and melody at one and the same time. Piano students gain experiential knowledge that will help them to better understand music theory.
3. Consider the child’s physical abilities and limitations.
An instrument’s design and its fit with a child’s physicality is also an important consideration. If a child’s hands are relatively small, for example, he or she may not have the finger span to become an accomplished pianist or a player of a larger stringed instrument.
For woodwinds and brass instruments, make sure that the embouchure—the place where the child places his or her mouth to produce sound—is a good fit. Keep in mind that some students take time to learn the best way to address this. The oboe has a double read mouthpiece and the French horn has a slender tube mouthpiece. As a result, these instruments present particular challenges regarding their fit against a player’s mouth.
For children who need orthodontic help, it can be better to select a stringed or percussion instrument. This is because blowing through any sort of embouchure may be uncomfortable or even painful.
4. Consider which instruments the child enjoys listening to.
Sound is an important quality as well. A child should enjoy the sound her instrument makes. Otherwise, he or she may be reluctant to continue practicing and playing it.
Experts point out that it is unrealistic to believe that, over time, a child will come to like the sound of an instrument he or she dislikes. Such a child may, instead, neglect lessons and resent practicing.
This is particularly important for parents to remember, because band directors sometimes encourage children to take on specific, less-popular instruments simply because one is needed in the ensemble.
5. Consider the child's temperament.
A child’s personality is another good indicator of the best instrument to select. For example, an outgoing child who enjoys being the center of attention will likely gravitate to an instrument that offers greater potential for front-of-the-band performance and solos. These instruments include the flute, saxophone, and trumpet. All are made to carry a central melodic line, rather than to play supporting roles.
6. Consider the social implications of the selected instrument.
One factor sometimes swept aside by adults can have a big impact on children. This factor is the social image of an instrument, and what that says, by implication, to peers about a child’s own image and personality.
Many children gravitate toward the instrument they perceive as having the most status among their peers. Unfortunately, that instrument may not be the best fit. Adults should encourage each child to take a fresh look at the instrument that actually seems best for him or her.
7. Consider your budget as well as any maintenance commitments.
Practical issues of cost and maintenance will also be on most parents’ lists when choosing an instrument. Take some time to go over a realistic timetable of maintenance with a child’s music teacher. A piano, for example, is one of the most expensive instruments, and needs to be tuned twice annually by a professional.
Remember that many music vendors offer monthly payment programs. A trial rental may also be a good option until a child is certain that he or she really likes an instrument. Some schools will facilitate free long-term loans of instruments for their band members.
It may also be worthwhile to explore options provided by nonprofit groups. For example, Hungry for Music supplies children in financial need with donated and carefully refurbished instruments.