Music Trends throughout the Decades

13 November 2019

By Dané van Hemert 

The start of an academic year brings about many changes: new courses, new people, a new ACE board, and of course a new year for EmbrACE Online! Just like many events or experiences that are new to your life, they generate excitement and curiosity. People seem to always seek for newness and change – why is that? An answer could be that it gives us a sense of fulfillment and confidence, since we are developing ourselves by stepping into the unknown. As logical as this may be, there are few things in life which makes us step back in time in order to achieve fulfillment and feelings of satisfaction. One of these things is music. Indeed, new music is being made every day, but have you stopped to think how much of this new music includes samples from years ago, and how many new songs are actually covers of older ones? Or, on a more personal level, how many of the songs that you listen to in a day are from ten or more years ago? If we compare the music trends from different decades, we can see that the most popular genres vary greatly. Let’s take a look at the history of music trends to illustrate those very different kinds of music people are willing to set a step back in time for.


In the 1940s, the main music trend was Jazz & Big Bands. In the decade of the Second World War, such swinging and often uplifting music seems contradictory. However, big bands (lots, lots, and lots of instruments on stage) often worked as a motivating force to citizens and troops. Bands often performed in front of soldiers in order to lift their spirits and make them forget about their hardships for a moment. An iconic artist from this decade is the jazzy Frank Sinatra, known for (amongst many, many other songs) “Fly me to the moon” and “My Way”.


The 1950s are without a doubt the decade of Rock & Roll, with the one and only King as its most iconic artist: Elvis Presley. With his eccentric dance moves he rocked the youth, but worried many parents who saw him as a bad influence. However, there was no stopping him and the genre of Rock & Roll was born – guitars, out-there outfits, and intriguing vocals. To go back to the beginning of Rock & Roll, have a listen to “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog”.


The beginning of the phenomenon of celebrity adoration was in the 1960s. In that time, British bands took over the world with their new sound – also called the “British Invasion”. The Beatles were at the forefront of this movement, as they sparked a worldwide obsession called “Beatlemania”. Their songs were unlike any music that was being played at US radio stations, as they were very melodious, lyrically advanced and catchy. The British Invasion saw the dawn of a new era of pop and rock music, and nothing has been the same since.


When you say the 70s, you say disco. The genre emerged in the US, and is best known for its use of synthesizers and electric pianos. Not unimportant to this genre were the outfits – look at this image of the Bee Gees and you know exactly what I’m talking about. This genre sparked the emergence of disco clubs all over the Western world, bringing along a culture of extravagancy and drug use. 70s disco songs like “Stayin’ Alive” and “We Are Family” definitely give you that feeling of busting out your best moves on the dance floor.


Whilst disco extended into this decade, the 1980s are best known for the new sound and look of Pop Music. At the root of this new sound were digital recording and commercial stardom. Additionally, the music videos that accompanied pop songs were of an unprecedented production level, and the concerts of artists became more and more extravagant. An artist who clearly brought about and embraced all these changes is Michael Jackson. His music video for the single “Thriller” was almost movie-like, something that had never been done before. The 80s also saw a lot of female pop singers rise to success, such as Madonna and Whitney Houston.


The roots of the grunge music movement are in the 1980s, however it became popular and more mainstream in the 1990s. Grunge music originates from Seattle and it’s simply described as a mix between punk rock and heavy metal. The lyrics of grunge songs are often about feeling misunderstood, being on the margin of society and overall discontent. These words are accompanied by heavy guitar strings and moody melodies. The “Big Four of Grunge” are Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. You have probably heard of the immensely popular Nirvana, but if you haven’t heard of the other Big Four Grunge bands – definitely give them a listen!

And then we arrive in the 21st century, in which most students have grown up. Music in the 2000s and 2010s decades probably don’t feel like they are from “the past”. But, when you listen to “Mr. Brightside" by The Killers on your way to university to get energetic for the day, don’t forget that you’re stepping back sixteen years (!) into music history (I know, a shocking fact).

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