Music Theory For Dummies
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The difficulty in putting together a Top Ten list of revolutionary music or musical movements is that so much of what modern Western civilization knows of revolutionary music is very limited. History is full of people like the Spanish priest Diego de Landa, who dedicated his life to destroying Mayan literature and history, or Emperor Jovian, who destroyed all non-Christian texts and musical scores in the Library of Antioch, or Genghis Khan, who famously sacked and destroyed the libraries of Iran and Iraq.

The following can only be considered a partial list of some of the revolutionary techniques that changed music in general as well as some of the revolutionary music that changed the world.

800 A.D.—England, Gregorian chant

Gregorian chant may not seem like a revolutionary form of music, in that its history and use is almost inextricably tied to the Roman Catholic Church—it’s even named after Pope Gregory I, who is credited for popularizing the form. However, since music was such an important part of Church services, and so much of Western civilization was influenced by what was and wasn’t allowed by the early Church, it makes sense that the advent of it is a starting point for many musical innovations and revolutions.

Gregorian chant music ©Fotowan/

Way back in the days when all entertainment was live, one of the many reasons many people flocked to Church services was for the entertainment value—lots of work and money was poured into the construction of medieval churches, resulting in huge, beautiful buildings with amazing acoustics for choir performances. In the 9th century, Pope Gregory I began gathering hymns from smaller country churches and picked out the best to be used in standard church services throughout Europe. Because musical instruments weren’t allowed in the Church at the time, all of the hymns collected were performed a cappella, usually by an all-male choir. While most music theorists dispute the notion that Pope Gregory I invented Gregorian chant, it’s well understood that the man was a true music lover, and dedicated most of his life in seeking out, collecting, and introducing music to the masses.

The defining feature of Gregorian chant is that it’s performed monophonic a cappella. In monophonic music, a single musical line is performed by one or multiple voices, with no contrasting harmony. The more voices you put together in a monophony, the louder the resulting music is, and when you use multiple-pitched singers, that single line gains great depth and resonance. In short, it’s perfectly suited for the acoustics of a large, hollow interior of a Gothic cathedral.

Gregorian chant was aggressively promoted by the Church, and especially by Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who was apparently a big fan of the style, required the clergy to only perform Gregorian chants in their services on pain of death. By the time Pope Stephen V came into power in 885 A.D., Gregorian chant had spread throughout England, Germany, Scandinavia, Iceland, Finland, and the Eastern Catholic lands of Poland, Moravia and Slovakia.

One of the most important side effects of gathering hymns from these small country churches was the realization that there did not exist a standardized way to write music down, so all of the songs, in order to preserve them for posterity, had to be recorded using some sort of universal system. Eventually, these experiments with music transcription led to Bishop Guido D’Arezzo’s invention of solfege, which was the first universally-used (and understood) music notational system in post-Roman Empire Europe.

1100 A.D.—Organum/European polyphony

Not long after the invention and quick spread of solfege, it became possible for composers—still mostly elite members of the Roman Catholic Church—to start adding little harmonic flourishes to the melodic line of Gregorian chant. Because, while it was entirely possible for people to sing these harmonic flourishes on their own, most singers following a piece of sheet music don’t do that, and when those singers are part of a 12th-century church choir, they most certainly do not add those vocal flourishes on their own. These flourishes are called organum, or polyphony, which just means a piece of music with more than one singing part—specifically, melody plus harmony. Some of the first experiments with transcribed organum were written down by Guido D’Arezzo himself, which shows how confident he was in his new system of universal music transcription.

Several types of organum were used in early European polyphony. There’s parallel organum, in which the same notes are sung by all members of the choir but are expressed in different octaves. In free organum, the top (highest) and the bottom (lowest) voices of the choir can vary how they hold a note, with the strong middle section of the choir carrying the melody. In Notre Dame melismatic organum, the bottom voice can vary from the melody in both tone and rhythm, while in St. Martial melismatic organum, these variations are expressed in the top voice.

Taken in the context of modern music, these don’t seem like huge leaps in compositional style, but the fact that these tiny flourishes could all now be written on a piece of sheet music for other choirs to replicate near perfectly was probably a huge incentive for composers to come up with more interesting and complicated music. It’s also fitting that around the same time that D’Arezzo presented his solfege system, stained glass had been perfected and the Church began installing huge stained glass windows in its cathedrals, making a visit to your neighborhood church a visual as well as aural event.

1649—England, the Diggers

The Diggers started out as a group of fifteen Protestant farmers and landowners that decided to form their own commune and isolate themselves from the rest of England, specifically from the power of the monarchy and the Church of England. Founded by Quaker activist Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers (or True Levellers, as they’re also sometimes called) believed in economic equality and a strict leveling of the social order. They are considered to be the first post-Roman Empire European socialist/anarchist community, and while they were a relatively small community of group-owned farms scattered across England, the impact of their ideas, and especially their music, lasted centuries longer than they did.

In 1649, the Diggers began vegetable gardens in common land in Surrey and posted announcements in the area announcing free meat, drink, and clothes to anyone who would join their commune and help work the common land. Their intent was to get enough citizens to join the Diggers and contribute their small parcels of land to the cause that the whole area would become privately-owned communal property. Because property ownership equaled power, this would make the Diggers a powerful political influencer, so the local authorities stepped in and chased the Diggers out of Surrey. For the next couple of years, smaller Digger communities appeared in other parts of England, but by 1651, the movement was over, largely due to government interference. Gone, but not forgotten—more than 300 years later, an offshoot of the San Francisco Mime Troupe calling themselves Diggers set up camp in Golden Gate Park and gave out free food, free clothes, and preached to passersby about socialism, anarchy, and the joys of living an agrarian lifestyle.

One of the surprising legacies of the short-lived Diggers is their protest anthem, composed by Winstanley, called “Diggers’ Song.” This anthem was carried by Quakers into the New World, where it was adopted by the Amish, Mennonites, and other agrarian religious groups, and later, labor movements in the U.S., the U.K., and the Soviet Union. English folksinger Leon Rosselson recorded the anthem under the title “You Noble Diggers All,” while pop band Chumbawamba included it in their 1988 release English Rebel Songs 1381-1914.

17th century: Italy, opera

Even though today opera is presented as something mostly appreciated by elite music consumers, when it first made its appearance on the stage, it was meant for everybody. Just as the ancient Greeks had their theatre, the Romans had their Coliseum, and Elizabethan England had its plays, 17th century Italians had their opera. While most opera performances were initially unveiled at their patrons’ houses—such as the first recognized Italian opera, Daphne, which was first privately screened in 1598 at the estate of composer Jacopo Corsi—after the first performance, you could see and hear that same opera repeatedly performed in spaces all over Italy. Puppeteers would often base their acts on popular operas, reenacting the live stage show in miniature to the delight of children and adults. The one defining quality of opera is not the costumes or the set or the quality of singers—it’s that the entire performance is sung, and if there are any significant speaking parts in a performance, then the production is considered musical theatre.

Even though opera was meant for popular consumption, this is not to say that the inventors of opera, specifically Italian opera, didn’t have incredibly lofty aspirations for their compositions. The original intent of Italian opera was to combine complex poetry with equally complex music with the purpose of driving a storyline across, so that you’d end up with a synthesis of all popular genres of entertainment. In this way, opera really was meant to be for everyone—fans of great music, fans of great literature, and fans of beautiful sets and costumes. There are no rules regarding what kind of music is in the opera, too, which is why its basic form has survived for hundreds of years, and has evolved to produce spectacular rock operas like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and comic operas like “The Mikado” (and its lounge-music-filled film adaptation, “The Cool Mikado”).

1789-1799: The French Revolution

Many consider the French Revolution as the birth of the modern protest song, in that songs were introduced that could be easily learned and adapted to suit whatever was happening. Proper names were easily interchanged in these songs, as well as specific events and place names. They made the perfect marching song for mobs of revolutionaries.

Perhaps the most famous of these songs is 1792’s “La Carmagnole,” now considered the official song of the French Revolution. The name of the original composer has been lost, but the tune, often accompanied by wild dancing, spread like wildfire among the French peasant classes. During the Revolution, the song was turned into a battle cry at the Battle of Jemappes in 1792, along with another popular song, “La Marseillaise.” In that same year, thousands of peasants stormed Paris’ Tuileries Palace, singing “La Carmagnole” (“Go, Louis, big crybaby/from the Temple into the tower”) as they forced Louis XVI and his consorts to flee the palace.

Since the revolution, “La Marseillaise” has become the French National Anthem, often sung in conjunction with “La Carmagnole.”

1913—Atonal Music and Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”

Atonal music is music without a tonal center, which simply means it is not set in any key. Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and Leon Kirchner are some of the better known composers of classical atonal music, while jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Eric Dolphy composed a great many free jazz pieces without a tonal center.

In the early part of the 20th century, however, the mainstream classical audience had almost no contact with atonal compositions. Bartók, while considered an influential atonal composer now, was better known in his heyday for seeking out and reproducing Eastern European folk music, and most of his atonal compositions were only heard by people who actively sought them out. Schoenberg was another atonal composer considered highly influential now, but during the time he was professor at the Second Viennese School of music, much of his work in atonality was considered more of an academic exercise than an attempt to create music for the masses. In fact, the stated goal of composing atonal music by the Second Viennese School was to combat a perceived “crisis of tonality” in mainstream music.

Atonal music had been fomenting in the dark underground music scenes of universities and galleries for several decades by the time Igor Stravinsky unfurled it on a public already rattled by the advent of World War I in the 1913 Paris premier of his best-known orchestral work, “The Rite of Spring.” Famously, the performance resulted in reported violent confrontations between the upper class who came expecting to hear beautiful, accessible music and the “Bohemian” group who loved anything and everything new because they hated the status quo so much.

“The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic of the night. The unusual use of bassoons for the high-pitched opening section of the melody was also repeatedly commented on, as was the “aggressive” pulsating rhythms that apparently inspired the man seated directly behind music critic Carl Van Vechten to start pounding in time on the noted journalist’s head. While following performances of the Rite of Spring have not resulted in riots as the premiere did, audiences continue to be alarmed, dismayed, and enthralled by the composition, including generations of children who will forever equate the orchestral composition with peaceful herbivorous dinosaurs being terrorized by a marauding Tyrannosaurus Rex in Disney’s Fantasia.

1950-1990: Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula, “Nueva Canción” (the New Song Movement)

Nueva canción was a musical movement that started almost simultaneously in Argentina, Chile, and Spain, and spread across the Iberian peninsula in Europe and everywhere in Latin America. Its highly political lyrics, set to whatever music was traditional the specific region, reflected the disquiet of Iberian peoples under the dictatorship of Franco’s Spain and the authoritarianism of Salazar’s Portugal, while in Latin America, nueva canción focused on shrugging free the last vestiges of European colonialism.

Both in Europe and in Latin America, the music was integrally tied with revolutionary politics and labor movements. The musicians were often jailed, “disappeared,” exiled, tortured, and blatantly murdered by various right-wing dictatorships for their music. Chilean songwriter Víctor Jara’s music far outlived its composer—during the Pinochet coup in Chile, Jara was taken with thousands of other protestors to Chile Stadium, where he was tortured and shot. Under Pinochet, nueva canción recordings were seized and destroyed, and radio stations were forbidden to play the music. Even traditional Andean instruments were banned in an attempt to quash nueva canción music entirely. This period in Chilean history is known as the apagón cultural—the cultural blackout.

However, as history has shown many times, political intervention and suppression doesn’t always destroy a song or an idea. Forty years after it was first recorded, Chilean songwriter Violeta Para’s song, “Gracias a la Vida” (“Thanks to the Life”) found new life as the anthem for the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, clear on the other side of the planet. Meanwhile, Argentinian folksinger Atahualpa Yupanqui went from being a political exile from his homeland in 1931 to being invited by the French government to compose a piece to commemorate the Bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989.

1960s: U.S. Civil Rights Movement

There are perhaps no protest songs more familiar to audiences in the U.S. than those of the Civil Rights Movement. This is probably because most of the songs now considered the official Civil Rights canon were turned into standards by some of the best blues, jazz, and folk music performers of the 20th century.

Even though it predated the Civil Rights Movement itself, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching, is considered by many to be the official song of the movement. Even though the single was banned from the airwaves at the time of its 1939 release, it was such an amazing, powerful song that it still sold over one million copies. In 1965, Nina Simone recorded her own powerful, stark version of the song, causing some music critics to immediately name it “The Song of the Century.” John Coltrane’s dark, moody jazz piece, “Alabama,” was written after he heard about the four little girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and may be one of the few recognizable protest songs with no lyrics.

Conversely, another song that exemplified the Civil Rights Movement was Curtis Mayfield’s powerfully joyful “People Get Ready,” which carried the basic message that good times were just around the corner, so you’d better get ready for them. Also on that theme was Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” allegedly inspired by his own experiences trying to perform in whites-only venues across America. These sentiments are also echoed in the lyrics of folk singer Bob Dylan’s counterculture anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” But perhaps no song said it better, louder, or bolder than that outspoken social activist and self-proclaimed leader of the Afro-American movement, James Brown. Brown wrote “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” during a trip to Vietnam to entertain the troops—the song has become the anthem for the Civil Rights Movement through its many permutations to this day.

1980s: Estonia Singing Revolution

Perhaps one of the most amazing revolutions of recent years was the Estonian Singing Revolution, which attained its goals of becoming independent from the Soviet Union by mostly nonviolent, peaceful means.

Under Russia’s—later, the Soviet Union’s—occupation, for centuries, Estonians were forbidden from singing their traditional songs or even speaking their language. However, instead of letting their native culture die under this occupation, the people of Estonia kept their songs and literature and language alive in secret, until 1869, when publisher Johann Voldemar Jannsen organized the first Song Celebration as part of an underground Estonian national awakening movement. Over 800 singers participated in the first festival, and all the songs were sung in Estonian.

Russian authorities didn’t pay much attention to the festival, possibly because too many people were participating in the peaceful festival for them to respond in any way that wouldn’t bring about really bad publicity for them. A second and third festival were organized within a few years, and by the fourth festival in 1891, women were also participating in the choirs. A few years after that, hundreds of children had joined as well, and by then, there wasn’t anything anyone could do to stop the people of Estonia from singing.

The choir continued to grow steadily through World War I, World War II, surviving several fierce and terrifying propaganda campaigns aimed at the singers and Estonian nationalism in general by Stalin. Despite threats of arrest and imprisonment under the new U.S.S.R, 20,000 to 30,000 singers at a time would show up to sing Estonian folksongs defiantly every year, with the rest of the country pouring into the fairgrounds to watch and sing along. Raising the banned Estonian flag over them as they sang, the performances continued to be peaceful and nonviolent even in the worst of times.

In 1988, musicians in the Tartu Pop Music Festival contributed original material as well as singing the banned traditional songs, unleashing a sense of national identity that saw tens of thousands of audience members linking hands and singing together. Subsequent festivals saw politicians from around the world showing up to support the Estonian cause and to witness the singing festivals, especially the choirs that had grown to include a full 10% of the population of Estonia.

In 1991, after the Estonian Congress and Supreme Soviet formally repudiated Soviet legislation and declared Estonia an independent state, Soviet tanks crossed into the republic in an effort to suppress the Estonian nationalism movement. The Soviet tanks specifically targeted the radio towers that were broadcasting Estonian music to bolster the populace, and hundreds of Estonians retaliated by forming a nonviolent human shield around the radio stations that the tanks could not penetrate without drawing the military ire of the rest of the world. That same year, the new Russian leadership formally recognized the independence of Estonia and the other Baltic states.

2010-2012: Arab Spring

Despite the fact that in many Arab states, singing and dancing is considered shameful, popular music, particular hip-hop and rap, has thrived as an underground musical movement. In the 1990s, Arabic communities outside of the Middle East, especially in Germany and France, even started up record labels specializing in Turkish, Palestinian, and Tunisian rap music, featuring performers that received no radio play in their home countries and were barely known outside of their immediate fan base. American hip-hop and rap music was also smuggled into Arab states, where fans of the contraband genre made multiple copies to pass around to friends.

Much of this changed with the Arab Spring, which started when Tunisian protestors overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Almost overnight, similar protests sprung up in Egypt, Yemen, and Morocco, most of which were organized by young men and women who felt they didn’t have a voice in a government made up of aging theocrats. One of the many issues repeatedly brought up was that of censorship of art, music, and youth culture in general, and as a result, perhaps the most lasting impression the outside world had of the Arab Spring were the hundreds of musical concerts that erupted spontaneously all over the Middle East. Saudi Arabian rappers like Dark2Men performed in public for the first time without fear of immediate imprisonment, as did Tunisia’s El General, Morocco’s El Haqed, and Palestine’s DAM.

While many of the goals of the Arab Spring have still not come to fruition, what has happened is that the protest music of the Arab states has successfully reached the ears of both the local populace and to the rest of the world. Many Arab bands now have YouTube channels that are regularly updated with new songs and videos, giving them the security of having an audience that knows they exist. The hip-hop music of the Arab Spring has become the voice of resistance, addressing poverty, violence, drug use, and social inequality.

About This Article

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Michael Pilhofer, MM, holds a Master's in Music Education with a Jazz Emphasis from the Eastman School of Music, and a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Performance from the University of Miami.

Holly Day's work has appeared in Guitar One Magazine, Music Alive!, culturefront Magazine, and Brutarian Magazine.

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