Years ago I embarked on a journey that became my most foundational exercise for gaining a better understanding of modern music genres. I realized I lacked knowledge on swaths of genres, and there were many classic artists I wasn’t personally familiar with. So one year, I decided to change that.
I decided to spend a week or two in each decade of recorded music history. When I felt like I had a good basis for that time period, I moved to the next decade. My goal was to experience music genres and artists in context of their times and what preceded them.
Reflections on this experience
I started with 1910, listening to many songs written to bolster National pride during The Great War. I didn’t find it entirely enjoyable, but I read about the songwriters, singers, movements in music, and the early recording process.
The following week I began listening to music from the 1920s. With each decade, I found artists that I connected with emotionally. Artists like Billie Holiday, Django Reinhardt, and Louis Armstrong moved me deeply.
Processing forward also meant digesting a larger catalog of music, since more and more records were released. Music genres would continue to splinter, becoming a complex mix and increasingly difficult to distinguish as they blended.
When I reached the 1950s, it was the classic jazz artists that blew my mind. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy them as much as I did, but after hearing this form of jazz in the context of what was happening musically, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I spent months listening to late 50s and early 60s jazz. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and of course Miles Davis all became favorite artists. They still are.
I listened to Chess Records artists, such as Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, and I couldn’t get enough. Exploring other artists of the 1950s gave me the context to what was about to happen in music.
I stepped into the 1960s, and wasn’t ready for the flood of change. The Kinks, Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel, Nick Drake, Jimi Hendrix… and the list continued. Many of the artists were not new to me, but hearing them in context made them feel entirely new. Since the 1960s is so plush with incredible music, I broke it down per year. I would spend days exploring songs and albums from 1961, before moving on to 1962.
When my ears were invaded by The Beatles, my mind was blown. I read Geoff Emerick’s autobiography of being the engineer of The Beatles (it moved me to tears). They were making sounds that had never been heard; it sounded so fresh to my ears. The experience gave me a heightened appreciation of their albums, some of which are favorites of mine. (They deserve their own article because there is so much to be said of this band.) I continued exploring The Beatles while progressing forward.
Bob Dylan disrupted my music journey
Then I came to Bob Dylan. To be honest, Dylan derailed the entire experience for me! I spent an entire year listening to very little except Dylan. I became obsessed with the nine studio albums he released, and sat entranced with each one. It felt as though he was speaking directly to me through his music.
I was a graduate student at the time, and both Blonde on Blonde and the 1966 Royal Albert Hall bootleg changed my life. Diving in, I read his autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One (Sean Penn’s reading of Dylan’s book is golden), watched the documentaries Don’t Look Back, and Eat the Document, and cried as I watched No Direction Home, directed by Martin Scorsese. I watched his interviews, even reading books that compile his interviews. I even considered working toward a PhD on Bob Dylan. As I bustled around the campus at Indiana University, it was Dylan playing in my Grado headphones.
I never completed the journey. Between school and other things going on in my life, I had to shift my focus. I have since gone back and listened to a lot of music from the 1970s and 1980s. But as a child of the 80s and 90s, I was familiar with much of it already. My experiment gave me the basis for understanding what shaped those sounds… sounds that shape today’s music genres.
Suggestions for embarking on this journey
I do look forward to repeating this journey. Yes, I can be an obsessive person, so I would likely map it all out as I enter each decade. I might give each timeframe a month or more so I could sprinkle in movies, books, documentaries, and live footage. Pushing myself to explore music genres would also be central to the challenge. I certainly wouldn’t rush the experience, and I would take the time to uncover lesser known artists.
If you’re thinking about engaging in a similar experience, consider journaling your thoughts. Start a blog (Medium, Blogger, or WordPress), a Tumblr, or find ways to share experiences on social media. You’ll be glad you wrote things down when you move on toward the next decade.
Also, get high quality headphones. These headphones will make a major difference. You don’t have to break the bank, either. A pair of AKG K240 headphones, or a set of Grado SR60e cans will elevate the journey (there are so many great headphones to choose from).
And if you engage in this music journey, please let me know (or comment below). I would love to hear about your progress, and what you gain from the experience of hearing music genres change over time.