American popular music has had a profound effect on music across the world. The country has seen the rise of popular styles that have had a significant influence on global culture, including ragtime, blues, jazz, swing, rock, bluegrass, country, R&B, doo wop, gospel, soul, funk, heavy metal, punk, disco, house, techno, salsa, grunge and hip hop. In addition, the American music industry is quite diverse, supporting a number of regional styles such as zydeco, klezmer and slack-key.
Distinctive styles of American popular music emerged early in the 19th century, and in the 20th century the American music industry developed a series of new forms of music, using elements of blues and other genres of American folk music. These popular styles included country, R&B, jazz and rock. The 1960s and 1970s saw a number of important changes in American popular music, including the development of a number of new styles, such as heavy metal, punk, soul, and hip hop. Though these styles were not in the sense of mainstream, they were commercially recorded and are thus examples of popular music as opposed to folk or classical music.
Early "popular" music
The earliest songs that could be considered American popular music, as opposed to the popular music of a particular region or ethnicity, were sentimental parlor songs by Stephen Foster and his peers, and songs meant for use in minstrel shows, theatrical productions that featured singing, dancing and comic performances. Minstrel shows generally used African instruments and dance, and featured performers with their faces blackened, a technique called blackface. By the middle of the 19th century, touring companies had taken this music not only to every part of the United States, but also to the UK, Western Europe, and even to Africa and Asia. Minstrel shows were generally advertised as though the music of the shows was in an African American style, though this was often not true.
Black people had taken part in American popular culture prior to the Civil War era, at least dating back to the African Grove Theatre in New York in the 1820s and the publication of the first music by a black composer, Francis Johnson, in 1818. However, these important milestones still occurred entirely within the conventions of European music. The first extremely popular minstrel song was "Jump Jim Crow" by Thomas "Daddy" Rice, which was first performed in 1832 and was a sensation in London when Rice performed it there in 1836. Rice used a dance that he copied from a stable boy with a tune adopted from an Irish jig. The African elements included the use of the banjo, believed to derive from West African string instruments, and accented and additive rhythms. Many of the songs of the minstrel shows are still remembered today, especially those by Daniel Emmett and Stephen Foster, the latter being, according to David Ewen, "America's first major composer, and one of the world's outstanding writers of songs". Foster's songs were typical of the minstrel era in their unabashed sentimentality, and in their acceptance of slavery. Nevertheless, Foster did more than most songwriters of the period to humanize the blacks he composed about, such as in "Nelly Was a Lady", a plaintive, melancholy song about a black man mourning the loss of his wife.
The minstrel show marked the beginning of a long tradition of African American music being appropriated for popular audiences, and was the first distinctly American form of music to find international acclaim, in the mid-19th century. As Donald Clarke has noted, minstrel shows contained "essentially black music, while the most successful acts were white, so that songs and dances of black origin were imitated by white performers and then taken up by black performers, who thus to some extent ended up imitating themselves". Clarke attributes the use of blackface to a desire for white Americans to glorify the brutal existence of both free and slave blacks by depicting them as happy and carefree individuals, best suited to plantation life and the performance of simple, joyous songs that easily appealed to white audiences.
Blackface minstrel shows remained popular throughout the last part of the 19th century, only gradually dying out near the beginning of the 20th century. During that time, a form of lavish and elaborate theater called the extravaganza arose, beginning with Charles M. Barras' The Black Crook. Extravaganzas were criticized by the newspapers and churches of the day because the shows were considered sexually titillating, with women singing bawdy songs dressed in nearly transparent clothing. David Ewen described this as the beginning of the "long and active careers in sex exploitation" of American musical theater and popular song. Later, extravaganzas took elements of burlesque performances, which were satiric and parodic productions that were very popular at the end of the 19th century.
Like the extravaganza and the burlesque, the variety show was a comic and ribald production, popular from the middle to the end of the 19th century, at which time it had evolved into vaudeville. This form was innovated by producers like Tony Pastor who tried to encourage women and children to attend his shows; they were hesitant because the theater had long been the domain of a rough and disorderly crowd. By the early 20th century, vaudeville was a respected entertainment for women and children, and songwriters like Gus Edwards wrote songs that were popular across the country. The most popular vaudeville shows were, like the Ziegfeld Follies, a series of songs and skits that had a profound effect on the subsequent development of Broadway musical theater and the songs of Tin Pan Alley.
Tin Pan Alley
Tin Pan Alley was an area called Union Square in New York City, which became the major center for music publishing by the mid-1890s. The songwriters of this era wrote formulaic songs, many of them sentimental ballads. During this era, a sense of national consciousness was developing, as the United States became a formidable world power, especially after the Spanish–American War. The increased availability and efficiency of railroads and the postal service helped disseminate ideas, including popular songs.
Some of the most notable publishers of Tin Pan Alley included Willis Woodward, M. Witmark & Sons, Charles K. Harris, and Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern. Stern and Marks were among the more well-known Tin Pan Alley songwriters; they began writing together as amateurs in 1894. In addition to the popular, mainstream ballads and other clean-cut songs, some Tin Pan Alley publishers focused on rough and risqué. Coon songs were another important part of Tin Pan Alley, derived from the watered-down songs of the minstrel show with the "verve and electricity" brought by the "assimilation of the ragtime rhythm". The first popular coon song was "New Coon in Town", introduced in 1883, and followed by a wave of coon shouters like Ernest Hogan and May Irwin.
The early 20th century also saw the growth of Broadway, a group of theatres specializing in musicals. Broadway became one of the preeminent locations for musical theater in the world, and produced a body of songs that led Donald Clarke to call the era, the golden age of songwriting. The need to adapt enjoyable songs to the constraints of a theater and a plot enabled and encouraged a growth in songwriting and the rise of composers like George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. These songwriters wrote songs that have remained popular and are today known as the Great American Songbook.
Foreign operas were popular among the upper-class throughout the 19th century, while other styles of musical theater included operettas, ballad operas and the opera bouffe. The English operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan were particularly popular, while American compositions had trouble finding an audience. George M. Cohan was the first notable American composer of musical theater, and the first to move away from the operetta, and is also notable for using the language of the vernacular in his work. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, black playwrights, composers and musicians were having a profound effect on musical theater, beginning with the works of Will Marion Cook, James Reese Europe and James P. Johnson; the first major hit black musical was Shuffle Along in 1921.
Imported operettas and domestic productions by both whites like Cohan and blacks like Cook, Europe and Johnson all had a formative influence on Broadway. Composers like Gershwin, Porter and Kern made comedic musical theater into a national pastime, with a feel that was distinctly American and not dependent on European models. Most of these individuals were Jewish, with Cole Porter the only major exception; they were the descendants of 19th century immigrants fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire, settled most influentially in various neighborhoods in New York City. Many of the early musicals were influenced by black music, showing elements of early jazz, such as In Dahomey; the Jewish composers of these works may have seen connections between the traditional African American blue notes and their own folk Jewish music.
Broadway songs were recorded around the turn of the century, but did not become widely popular outside their theatrical context until much later. Jerome Kern's "They Didn't Believe Me" was an early song that became popular nationwide. Kern's later innovations included a more believable plot than the rather shapeless stories built around songs of earlier works, beginning with Show Boat in 1927. George Gershwin was perhaps the most influential composer on Broadway, beginning with "Swanee" in 1919 and later works for jazz and orchestras. His most enduring composition may be the opera Porgy and Bess, a story about two blacks, which Gershwin intended as a sort of "folk opera", a creation of a new style of American musical theater based on American idioms.
Ragtime was a style of dance music based around the piano, using syncopated rhythms and chromaticisms; the genre's most well-known performer and composer was undoubtedly Scott Joplin. Donald Clarke considers ragtime the culmination of coon songs, used first in minstrel shows and then vaudeville, and the result of the rhythms of minstrelsy percolating into the mainstream; he also suggests that ragtime's distinctive sound may have come from an attempt to imitate the African American banjo using the keyboard.
Due to the essentially African American nature of ragtime, it is most commonly considered the first style of American popular music to be truly black music; ragtime brought syncopation and a more authentic black sound to popular music. Popular ragtime songs were notated and sold as sheet music, but the general style was played more informally across the nation; these amateur performers played a more free-flowing form of ragtime that eventually became a major formative influence on jazz.
Early recorded popular music
Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph cylinder kicked off the birth of recorded music. The first cylinder to be released was "Semper Fidelis" by the U.S. Marine Band. At first, cylinders were released sparingly, but as their sales grew more profitable, distribution increased. These early recorded songs were a mix of vaudeville, barbershop quartets, marches, opera, novelty songs, and other popular tunes. Many popular standards, such as "The Good Old Summertime", "Shine On Harvest Moon", and "Over There" come from this time. There were also a few early hits in the field of jazz, beginning with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's 1917 recordings, and followed by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, who played in a more authentic New Orleans jazz style.
Blues had been around a long time before it became a part of the first explosion of recorded popular music in American history. This came in the 1920s, when classic female blues singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith grew very popular; the first hit of this field was Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues". These urban blues singers changed the idea of popular music from being simple songs that could be easily performed by anyone to works primarily associated with an individual singer. Performers like Sophie Tucker, known for "Some of These Days", became closely associated with their hits, making their individualized interpretations just as important as the song itself.
At the same time, record companies like Paramount Records and OKeh Records launched the field of race music, which was mostly blues targeted at African American audiences. The most famous of these acts went on to inspire much of the later popular development of the blues and blues-derived genres, including Charley Patton, Lonnie Johnson and Robert Johnson.
Popular jazz (1920–1935) and swing (1935–1947)
Jazz is a kind of music characterized by blue notes, syncopation, swing, call and response, polyrhythms, and improvisation. Though originally a kind of dance music, jazz has now been "long considered a kind of popular or vernacular music (and has also) become a sophisticated art form that has interacted in significant ways with the music of the concert hall". Jazz's development occurred at around the same time as modern ragtime, blues, gospel and country music, all of which can be seen as part of a continuum with no clear demarcation between them; jazz specifically was most closely related to ragtime, with which it could be distinguished by the use of more intricate rhythmic improvisation, often placing notes far from the implied beat. The earliest jazz bands adopted much of the vocabulary of the blues, including bent and blue notes and instrumental "growls" and smears.
Paul Whiteman was the most popular bandleader of the 1920s, and claimed for himself the title "The King of Jazz." Despite his hiring many of the other best white jazz musicians of the era, later generations of jazz lovers have often judged Whiteman's music to have little to do with real jazz. Nonetheless, his notion of combining jazz with elaborate orchestrations has been returned to repeatedly by composers and arrangers of later decades.
Whiteman commissioned Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", which was debuted by Whiteman's Orchestra. Ted Lewis's band was second only to the Paul Whiteman in popularity during the 1920s, and arguably played more real jazz with less pretension than Whiteman, especially in his recordings of the late 1920s. Some of the other "jazz" bands of the decade included those of: Harry Reser, Leo Reisman, Abe Lyman, Nat Shilkret, George Olsen, Ben Bernie, Bob Haring, Ben Selvin, Earl Burtnett, Gus Arnheim, Rudy Vallee, Jean Goldkette, Isham Jones, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Sam Lanin, Vincent Lopez, Ben Pollack and Fred Waring.
In the 1920s, the music performed by these artists was extremely popular with the public and was typically labeled as jazz. Today, however, this music is disparaged and labeled as "sweet music" by jazz purists. The music that people consider today as "jazz" tended to be played by minorities. In the 1920s and early 1930s, however, the majority of people listened to what we would call today "sweet music" and hardcore jazz was categorized as "hot music" or "race music."
The largest and most influential recording label of the time, The Victor Talking Machine (RCA Victor after 1928) was a restraining influence on the development of “sweet jazz” until the departure of Eddie King in October 1926. King was well known as an authoritarian who would not permit drinking on the job or severe departure from the written music, unless within solos acceptable by popular music standards of the time. This irritated many Victor jazz artists, including famed trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. Sudhalter, in Lost Chords, cites an example of a 1927 recording by the Goldkette Orchestra in which musicians were allowed considerable freedom, and remarks “What, one wonders, would this performance have been if Eddie King had been in charge, and not the more liberal Nat Shilkret. Since the Victor ledgers show no less than five recording sessions in January and February 1926, when King actually conducted Goldkette’s Orchestra, comparison between the approach of Goldkette and King is readily available.
In 1935, swing music became popular with the public and quickly replaced jazz as the most popular type of music (although there was some resistance to it at first). Swing music is characterized by a strong rhythm section, usually consisting of a double bass and drums, playing in a medium to fast tempo, and rhythmic devices like the swung note. Swing is primarily a kind of 1930s jazz fused with elements of the blues and the pop sensibility of Tin Pan Alley. Swing used bigger bands than other kinds of jazz had and was headed by bandleaders that tightly arranged the material, discouraging the improvisation that had been an integral part of jazz. David Clarke called swing the first "jazz-oriented style (to be) at the center of popular music ... as opposed to merely giving it backbone". By the end of the 1930s, vocalists became more and more prominent, eventually taking center stage following the American Federation of Musicians strike, which made recording with a large band prohibitively expensive. Swing came to be accompanied by a popular dance called the swing dance, which was very popular across the United States, among both white and black audiences, especially youth.
Blues diversification and popularization
In addition to the popular jazz and swing music listened to by mainstream America, there were a number of other genres that were popular among certain groups of people—e.g., minorities or rural audiences. Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating greatly in the 1940s, the blues began rapidly diversifying into a broad spectrum of new styles. These included an uptempo, energetic style called rhythm and blues (R&B), a merger of blues and Anglo-Celtic song called country music and the fusion of hymns and spirituals with blues structures called gospel music. Later than these other styles, in the 1940s, a blues, R&B and country fusion eventually called rock and roll developed, eventually coming to dominate American popular by the beginning of the 1960s.
Country music is primarily a fusion of African American blues and spirituals with Appalachian folk music, adapted for pop audiences and popularized beginning in the 1920s. Of particular importance was Irish and Scottish tunes, dance music, balladry and vocal styles, as well as Native American, Spanish, German, French and Mexican music. The instrumentation of early country revolved around the European-derived fiddle and the African-derived banjo, with the guitar added later. Country music instrumentation used African elements like a call-and-response format, improvised music and syncopated rhythms. Later still, string instruments like the ukulele and steel guitar became commonplace due to the popularity of Hawaiian music in the early 20th century and the influence of musicians such as Sol Hoʻopiʻi and Lani McIntyre. The roots of modern country music are generally traced to 1927, when music talent scout Ralph Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Their recordings are considered the foundation for modern country music. There had been popular music prior to 1927 that could be considered country, but, as Ace Collins points out, these recordings had "only marginal and very inconsistent" effects on the national music markets, and were only superficially similar to what was then known as hillbilly music. In addition to Rodgers and the Carters, a musician named Bob Wills was an influential early performer known for a style called Western swing, which was very popular in the 1920s and 30s, and was responsible for bringing a prominent jazz influence to country music.
Rhythm and blues (R&B) is a style that arose in the 1930s and 1940s, a rhythmic and uptempo form of blues with more complex instrumentation. Author Amiri Baraka described early R&B as "huge rhythm units smashing away behind screaming blues singers (who) had to shout to be heard above the clanging and strumming of the various electrified instruments and the churning rhythm sections.. R&B was recorded during this period, but not extensively, and it was not widely promoted by record companies that felt it was not suited for most audiences, especially middle-class whites, because of the suggestive lyrics and driving rhythms. Bandleaders like Louis Jordan innovated the sound of early R&B. Jordan's band featured a small horn section and prominent rhythm instrumentation and used songs with bluesy lyrical themes. By the end of the 1940s, he had produced nineteen major hits, and helped pave the way for contemporaries like Wynonie Harris, John Lee Hooker and Roy Milton.
Christian spirituals and rural blues music were the origin of what is now known as gospel music. Beginning in about the 1920s, African American churches featured early gospel in the form of worshipers proclaiming their religious devotion (testifying) in an improvised, often musical manner. Modern gospel began with the work of composers, most importantly Thomas A. Dorsey, who "(composed) songs based on familiar spirituals and hymns, fused to blues and jazz rhythms". From these early 20th-century churches, gospel music spread across the country. It remained associated almost entirely with African American churches, and usually featured a choir along with one or more virtuoso soloists.
Rock and roll is a kind of popular music, developed primarily out of country, blues and R&B. Easily the single most popular style of music worldwide, rock's exact origins and early development have been hotly debated. Music historian Robert Palmer has noted that the style's influences are quite diverse, and include the Afro-Caribbean "Bo Diddley beat", elements of "big band swing" and Latin music like the Cubanson and "Mexican rhythms". Another author, George Lipsitz claims that rock arose in America's urban areas, where there formed a "polyglot, working-class culture (where the) social meanings previously conveyed in isolation by blues, country, polka, zydeco and Latin musics found new expression as they blended in an urban environment".
1950s and 1960s
The middle of the 20th century saw a number of very important changes in American popular music. The field of pop music developed tremendously during this period, as the increasingly low price of recorded music stimulated demand and greater profits for the record industry. As a result, music marketing became more and more prominent, resulting in a number of mainstream pop stars whose popularity was previously unheard of. Many of the first such stars were Italian-American crooners like Dean Martin, Rudy Vallee, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Frankie Laine and, most famously, the "first pop vocalist to engender hysteria among his fans" Frank Sinatra. The era of the modern teen pop star, however, began in the 1960s. Bubblegum pop groups like The Monkees were chosen entirely for their appearance and ability to sell records, with no regard to musical ability. The same period, however, also saw the rise of new forms of pop music that achieved a more permanent presence in the field of American popular music, including rock, soul and pop-folk. By the end of the 1960s, two developments had completely changed popular music: the birth of a counterculture, which explicitly opposed mainstream music, often in tandem with political and social activism, and the shift from professional composers to performers who were both singers and songwriters.
Rock and roll first entered mainstream popular music through a style called rockabilly, which fused the nascent rock sound with elements of country music. Black-performed rock and roll previously had limited mainstream success, and some observers at the time believed that a white performer who could credibly sing in an R&B and country style would be a success. Sam Phillips, of Memphis, Tennessee's Sun Records, found such a performer in Elvis Presley, who became one of the best-selling musicians in history, and brought rock and roll to audiences across the world. Presley's success was preceded by Bill Haley, a white performer whose "Rock Around the Clock" is sometimes pointed to as the start of the rock era. However, Haley's music was "more arranged" and "more calculated" than the "looser rhythms" of rockabilly, which also, unlike Haley, did not use saxophones or chorus singing.
R&B remained extremely popular during the 1950s among black audiences, but the style was not considered appropriate for whites, or respectable middle-class blacks, because of its suggestive nature. Many popular R&B songs instead were performed by white musicians like Pat Boone, in a more palatable, mainstream style, and turned into pop hits. By the end of the 1950s, however, there was a wave of popular black blues-rock and country-influenced R&B performers gaining unprecedented fame among white listeners; these included Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Over time, producers in the R&B field gradually turned to more rock-based acts like Little Richard and Fats Domino.
Doo wop is a kind of vocal harmony music performed by groups who became popular in the 1950s. Though sometimes considered a kind of rock, doo wop is more precisely a fusion of vocal R&B, gospel and jazz with the blues and pop structures, though until the 1960s, the lines separating rock from doo wop, R&B and other related styles were very blurry. Doo wop became the first style of R&B-derived music "to take shape, to define itself as something people recognized as new, different, strange, theirs" (emphasis in original). As doo wop grew more popular, more innovations were added, including the use of a bass lead vocalist, a practice that began with Jimmy Ricks of The Ravens. Doo wop performers were originally almost all black, but a few white and integrated groups soon became popular. These included a number of Italian-American groups such as Dion & the Belmonts, while others added female vocalists and even formed all-female groups in the nearly universally male field; these included The Queens and The Chantels.
The 1950s saw a number of brief fads that went on to have a great impact on future styles of music. Performers like Pete Seeger and The Weavers popularized a form of old-time revival of Anglo-American music. This field eventually became associated with the political left-wing and Communism, leading to a decline in acceptability as artists were increasingly blacklisted and criticized. Nevertheless, this form of pop-folk exerted a profound influence in the form of 1950s folk-rock and related styles. Alongside the rather sporadic success of popularized Anglo folk music came a series of Latin dance fads, including mambo, rumba, chachachá and boogaloo. Though their success was again sporadic and brief, Latin music continued to exert a continuous influence on rock, soul and other styles, as well as eventually evolving into salsa music in the 1970s.
Country: Nashville Sound
Beginning in the late 1920s, a distinctive style first called "old-timey" or "hillbilly" music began to be broadcast and recorded in the rural South and Midwest; early artists included the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and his North Carolina Ramblers, and Jimmie Rodgers. The performance and dissemination of this music was regional at first, but the population shifts caused by World War II spread it more widely. After the war, there was increased interest in specialty styles, including what had been known as race and hillbilly music; these styles were renamed to rhythm and blues and country and western, respectively. Major labels had some success promoting two kinds of country acts: Southern novelty performers like Tex Williams and singers like Frankie Laine, who mixed pop and country in a conventionally sentimental style. This period also saw the rise of Hank Williams, a white country singer who had learned the blues from a black street musician named Tee-Tot, in northwest Alabama. Before his death in 1953, Hank Williams recorded eleven singles that sold at least a million copies each and pioneered the Nashville sound.
The Nashville sound was a popular kind of country music that arose in the 1950s, a fusion of popular big band jazz and swing with the lyricism of honky-tonk country. The popular success of Hank Williams' recordings had convinced record labels that country music could find mainstream audiences. Record companies then tried to strip the rough, honky-tonk elements from country music, removing the unapologetically rural sound that had made Williams famous. Nashville's industry was reacting to the rise of rockabilly performer Elvis Presley by marketing performers that crossed the divide between country and pop.Chet Atkins, head of RCA's country music division, did the most to innovate the Nashville sound by abandoning the rougher elements of country, while Owen Bradley used sophisticated production techniques and smooth instrumentation that eventually became standard in the Nashville Sound, which also grew to incorporate strings and vocal choirs. By the early part of the 1960s, the Nashville sound was perceived as watered-down by many more traditionalist performers and fans, resulting in a number of local scenes like the Lubbock sound and, most influentially, the Bakersfield sound.
Throughout the 1950s, the most popular kind of country music was the Nashville Sound, which was a slick and pop-oriented style. Many musicians preferred a rougher sound, leading to the development of the Lubbock Sound and Bakersfield Sound. The Bakersfield Sound was innovated in Bakersfield, California in the mid to late 1950s, by performers like Wynn Stewart, who used elements of Western swing and rock, such as the breakbeat, along with a honky tonk vocal style. He was followed by a wave of performers like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who popularized the style.
Soul music is a combination of R&B and gospel that began in the late 1950s in the United States. Soul music is characterized by its use of gospel techniques with a greater emphasis on vocalists, and the use of secular themes. The 1950s recordings of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and James Brown are commonly considered the beginnings of soul music. Solomon Burke's early recordings for Atlantic Records codified the style, and as Peter Guralnick writes, "it was only with the coming together of Burke and Atlantic Records that you could see anything resembling a movement".
The Motown Record Corporation in Detroit, Michigan became successful with a string of heavily pop-influenced soul records, which were palatable enough to white listeners so as to allow R&B and soul to crossover to mainstream audiences. An important center of soul music recording was Florence, Alabama, where the FAME Studios operated. Jimmy Hughes, Percy Sledge and Arthur Alexander recorded at Fame; later in the 1960s, Aretha Franklin would also record in the area. Fame Studios, often referred to as Muscle Shoals, after a town neighboring Florence, enjoyed a close relationship with Stax, and many of the musicians and producers who worked in Memphis also contributed to recordings done in Alabama.
In Memphis, Stax Records produced recordings by soul pioneers Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Don Covay. Other Stax artists such as Eddie Floyd and Johnnie Taylor also made significant contributions to soul music. By 1968, the soul music movement had begun to splinter, as James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone began to expand upon and abstract both soul and rhythm and blues into other forms. Guralnick wrote that more "than anything else ... what seems to me to have brought the era of soul to a grinding, unsettling halt was the death of Martin Luther King in April 1968".
Among the first of the major new rock genres of the 1960s was surf, pioneered by Californian Dick Dale. Surf was largely instrumental and guitar-based rock with a distorted and twanging sound, and was associated with the Southern Californiasurfing-based youth culture. Dale had worked with Leo Fender, developing the "Showman amplifier and... the reverberation unit that would give surf music its distinctively fuzzy sound".
Inspired by the lyrical focus of surf, if not the musical basis, The Beach Boys began their career in 1961 with a string of hits like "Surfin' U.S.A.". Their sound was not instrumental, nor guitar-based, but was full of "rich, dense and unquestionably special" "floating vocals (with) Four Freshman-ish harmonies riding over a droned, propulsive burden". The Beach Boys' songwriter Brian Wilson grew gradually more eccentric, experimenting with new studio techniques as he became associated with the burgeoning counterculture.
The counterculture was a youth movement that included political activism, especially in opposition to the Vietnam War, and the promotion of various hippie ideals. The hippies were associated primarily with two kinds of music: the folk-rock and country rock of people like Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons, and the psychedelic rock of bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Doors. This movement was very closely connected to the British Invasion, a wave of bands from the United Kingdom who became popular throughout much of the 1960s. The British Invasion initially included bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Zombies who were later joined by bands like the Moody Blues and The Who. The sound of these bands was hard-edged rock, with the Beatles originally known for songs that resembled classic black rock songs by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, The Shirelles and the Isley Brothers. Later, as the counterculture developed, The Beatles began using more advanced techniques and unusual instruments, such as the sitar, as well as more original lyrics.
Folk-rock drew on the sporadic mainstream success of groups like the Kingston Trio and the Almanac Singers, while Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger helped to politically radicalize rural white folk music. The popular musician Bob Dylan rose to prominence in the middle of the 1960s, fusing folk with rock and making the nascent scene closely connected to the Civil Rights Movement. He was followed by a number of country-rock bands like The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and folk-oriented singer-songwriters like Joan Baez and the Canadian Joni Mitchell. However, by the end of the decade, there was little political or social awareness evident in the lyrics of pop-singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Carole King, whose self-penned songs were deeply personal and emotional.
Psychedelic rock was a hard, driving kind of guitar-based rock, closely associated with the city of San Francisco, California. Though Jefferson Airplane was the only psychedelic San Francisco band to have a major national hit, with 1967's "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit", the Grateful Dead, a folk, country and bluegrass-flavored jam band, "embodied all the elements of the San Francisco scene and came... to represent the counterculture to the rest of the country"; the Grateful Dead also became known for introducing the counterculture, and the rest of the country, to the ideas of people like Timothy Leary, especially the use of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD for spiritual and philosophical purposes.
One day several years ago Valorie Salimpoor took a drive that would change the course of her life. She was at the peak of what she now calls her “quarter-life crisis,” not knowing what kind of career she wanted or how she might use her undergraduate neuroscience training. Hoping an outing might clear her head, that day she jumped in her car and switched on the radio. She heard the charging tempo and jaunty, teasing violin of Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5.
“This piece of music came on, and something just happened,” Salimpoor recalls. “I just felt this rush of emotion come through me. It was so intense.” She pulled over to the side of the street so she could concentrate on the song and the pleasure it gave her.
When the song was over, Salimpoor’s mind raced with questions. “I was thinking, wow, what just happened? A few minutes ago I was so depressed, and now I’m euphoric,” she says. “I decided that I had to figure out how this happened — that that’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”
Music moves people of all cultures, in a way that doesn’t seem to happen with other animals. Nobody really understands why listening to music — which, unlike sex or food, has no intrinsic value — can trigger such profoundly rewarding experiences. Salimpoor and other neuroscientists are trying to figure it out with the help of brain scanners.
Yesterday, for example, researchers from Stanford reported that when listening to a new piece of classical music, different people show the same patterns of synchronized activity in several brain areas, suggesting some level of universal experience. But obviously no one’s experience is exactly the same. In today’s issue of Science, Salimpoor’s group reports that when you listen to a song for the first time, the strength of certain neural connections can predict how much you like the music, and that these preferences are guided by what you’ve heard and enjoyed in the past.
After Salimpoor had the car epiphany, she rushed home to her computer and Googled “music and the brain.” That led her to graduate school at McGill University, working in the lab of neuroscientist Robert Zatorre.
A few years ago, Salimpoor and Zatorre performed another type of brain scanning experiment in which participants listened to music that gave them goosebumps or chills. The researchers then injected them with a radioactive tracer that binds to the receptors of dopamine, a chemical that’s involved in motivation and reward. With this technique, called positron emission tomography or PET, the researchers showed that 15 minutes after participants listened to their favorite song, their brains flooded with dopamine.
The dopamine system is old, evolutionarily speaking, and is active in many animals during sex and eating. “But animals don’t get intense pleasures to music,” Salimpoor says. “So we knew there had to be a lot more to it.”
In the new experiment, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track real-time brain activity as participants listened to the first 30 seconds of 60 unfamiliar songs. To quantify how much they liked the music, participants were given the chance to buy the full version of each song — with their own money! — using a computer program resembling iTunes. The program was set up like an auction, so participants would choose how much they were willing to spend on the song, with bids ranging from $0 to $2.
You can imagine how tricky it was to design this experiment. All of the participants had to listen to the same set of never-heard-before songs, and yet, in order to get enough useable data, there had to be a reasonable chance that they would like some of the songs enough to buy them.
Salimpoor began by giving 126 volunteers comprehensive surveys about their musical preferences. “We asked them to list all of the music they listen to, everything they like, everything they’ve ever bought,” Salimpoor says. She ultimately scanned 19 volunteers who had indicated similar preferences, mostly electronic and indie music. “In Montreal there’s a big indie scene,” she says.
To create the list of unfamiliar songs, Salimpoor first looked at songs and artists that showed up on many of the volunteers’ surveys. She plugged those choices into musical recommendation programs, such as Pandora and iTunes, to find similar but less well-known selections. She also asked people who worked at local music stores what new songs they’d recommend in those genres.
Here’s a sampling of 3 songs from the final list of 60:
The brain scans highlighted the nucleus accumbens, often referred to as the brain’s ‘pleasure center’, a deep region of the brain that connects to dopamine neurons and is activated during eating, gambling and sex. It turns out that connections between the nucleus accumbens and several other brain areas could predict how much a participant was willing to spend on a given song. Those areas included the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotion, the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making.
The data are “compelling,” especially because the study objectively quantified the participants’ preferences, notes Thalia Wheatley, a psychology professor at Dartmouth College who has studied links between music, motion and emotion. The emphasis on connectivity between regions, rather than any particular region by itself, is also intriguing, she says. “Cortical activity alone does not predict bid value. Hooking up the temporal and evaluative processing in the cortex with the (more primitive) reward areas appears to be the key.”
So why is it that one person might spend $2 on a song while another pans it? Salimpoor says it all depends on past musical experiences. “Depending on what styles youre used to — Eastern, Western, jazz, heavy metal, pop — all of these have very different rules they follow, and they’re all implicitly recorded in your brain,” she says. “Whether you realize it or not, every time you’re listening to music, you’re constantly activating these templates that you have.”
Using those musical memory templates, the nucleus accumbens then acts as a prediction machine, she says. It predicts the reward that you’ll feel from a given piece of music based on similar types of music you’ve heard before. If you like it better than predicted, it registers as intense pleasure. If you feel worse than predicted, you feel bored or disappointed.
“New music is presumably rewarding not only because it fits implicitly learned patterns but because it deviates from those patterns, however slightly,” Wheatley says. But this finding leads to new questions. “It just made me wonder whether people have different preferences or tolerances for how much a new song deviates from the well-worn path of previously heard music structures.”
There are lots of other questions for future studies to probe. How does our brain make those musical templates? How long do we have to listen to a song before we know whether we like it? Why did my sister and I have such drastically different musical tastes growing up, even though our exposures were pretty much the same?
But for now the study has given Salimpoor a new way to think about what happened to her that day in the car. “That day, it all seemed like such a big mystery — what the heck is happening in my brain?” she says. But if she heard the song again today, she’d be able to tell a reasonable story of her mind’s workings.
“I’d be like, oh my god I just released dopamine, and my nucleus accumbens is now communicating with the superior temporal gyrus, and that’s pulling up some other memories of when I was 12 and playing the violin,” she says, laughing. “And then that’s linking it to my visual centers, so I can imagine this perfect synchronized orchestra and me playing a violin in there. And I’d be predicting the next sounds from each instrument in the orchestra, and the whole orchestra, so it’s a local and global prediciton going on at the same time.”
Music, she says, is an intellectual reward. “It’s really an exercise for your whole brain.”