How music genres reflect the times

Music has long been imbedded into American Society and prevails to this very day. It is heard and adored around the country and it is reflective of the society’s interests. Popular songs are simply a result of a multitude of people enjoying and promoting a song by means of ratings and purchases. Based on this principle, it leads one to believe the idea that the general mood of the country, as well as prominent events, is reflective of the popular songs during that time.

This principle is due to the fact that people are very much influenced by their surroundings. The music industry conforms to the ideas and emotions of cultural movements in American Society. Throughout America’s history there are many different movements and events that helped shape the society. At every point in those movements (or lack of) there is a popular genre or song that reflects the cultural interests of Americans as a whole. This genre or song closely reflected the feelings of the popular party or group they emerged from and showed a lot about the culture of that time. This is evident enough so that even historians use songs to learn about the attitude of the culture they lived in, whether it is bad, good, sad, happy, etc (Madrigal 1). Google used these principles of time and its reflection on music in order to create Music Timeline. Big Picture and Music Intelligence, which are both research groups at Google, developed music Timeline. In collaboration they collected information from user’s music libraries and related the genre to the time it was recorded/released. With that information, Google created an interactive timeline that shows the popularity of genres during certain times in American history. The popularity and therefore thickness of the stripe is determined by the percentage of users who own music of that genre in a certain time period. Google provides a very easy to understand example: “the “jazz” stripe is thick in the 1950s since many users’ libraries contain jazz albums released in the ’50s.” This provides a very nice visual about what music was prevalent during which points in time.

Despite the ease in which Google makes this information available and simply to use (like many Google products) it can be argued that Google Timeline gives a false pretense of popularity especially in the eyes of Douglas Wolk, a 20-year veteran in the world of music and music history. The fact that these genres and albums are in users libraries doesn’t exactly mean that’s what older generation listened to. Wolk summarizes Google’s music timeline into one short sentence, “What it’s reflecting is what Google play users have in their personal libraries, which is different from what people listen to, which in turn is different from what people historically listen to.” (Madrigal 1) Wolk makes a good point not to misinterpret this information as what people historically listened too in fact the article states also states that Music Timeline shouldn’t be relied upon in any college research papers (which I found amusing). However, I believe that Google’s information is in fact accurate at showing popularity. I am not saying that the 20-year music veteran is incorrect in his statement, however the fact that the albums exist is evident of their popularity. If most of the albums that came out in the 50’s for example are classified as Jazz that means that most people wanted to listen to Jazz so they made more Jazz music and more music of one genre is indicative of the popularity of the genre. Simply because current users don’t listen to the music the same way that people listened to music in the past, it does not discredit the information given by Google.

The most popular songs are arguable the best reflection of peoples interests during that period in American history. The general theme of society and culture would prove to produce music related to and expressing that theme. This is basically due to the fact that the certain genre reflects how people feel. This is the same as when people are sad they listen to sad music or when they are happy and energetic they like to listen to up beat music.

Below is list of the different Genres that emerged during different decades:

Genre Timeline

*Since this essay strictly pertains to the United States the focus of this paragraph will only be on the blue lines (Week 3)


The different genres of music that developed are evidently shown in the above chart. They reflect the culture in which they were created for and/or by. Some of the most popular of these are Bebop, Psychedelic rock, and Disco.

Modern Jazz for example developed during the late 40’s, which pertains to immediately after World War II. If you look at Google’s timeline, it shows that Modern Jazz or Bebop music peaked in the early 50’s shortly after its creation. The Swing Jazz of the ‘20s proved to the soundtrack of World War II. It was a way for people to “vent the angst and exorcise the fear” (Scaruffi 2). During World War II, Swing Jazz brought stability to and chaotic world, however as the smoke cleared all swing Jazz had become associated with the atrocities brought upon by World War II. This gave rise to new style of Jazz called Bebop that rejected the old styles of swing and in fact emphasized the idea of listening to Jazz musicians instead of dancing to the swing bands. Bebop music attempted to reject the old ways of Jazz music and created its own new and creative masterpiece (Scaruffi 3).

Psychedelic rock is a genre created for the counterculture of the ‘60s. During this time period, the youths created in the Baby boom after World War II decided to defy convention and be rebellious. Psychedelic rock is highly influenced by the drugs that it stemmed from hence the name Psychedelic. Some of these drugs included LSD, marijuana, and mushrooms. The influence of drugs on musicians as well as the counterculture produced music that seemed confusing and personally reflective. Lyrics of these songs for instance made no sense for the most part since they are suppose to reflect the altered reality created by the use of psychedelic drugs. The genre as a whole reflects the counterculture ideals of American youths (Pollick 1).

Disco is another genre that developed as an escape. Disco can be highlighted by its ability to make people move or dance, which can be easily ascertained since Disco is characterized by “energetic dance moves and vibrant sounds”. The ‘70s saw a dramatic increase in crime rates, inflation, and unemployment creating a very depressing environment. This environment was a result of the end of counterculture and economic prosperity during the ‘60’s. This led many youths to embrace Disco as a form of escape through movement. While dancing people could forget about the pains of the times and the overall negative situations most people had gotten into during that time period. Disco became an escape for people who need some break from life for a little while (Essential 1).

Music is product of the times. It is reflective of the situations it arises from and indicative of prevailing themes in American culture. Most of the different genre’s that emerged from the different time periods closely reflect not only the musicians but also what people want or needed to give them some peace during troubling times or even to influence rebelliousness. Music genres are reflective of the times for they are bound close to the culture of American society.


Works Cited:


“ESSENTIAL QUESTION.” The Rise of Disco. N.p., 30 May 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.


Madrigal, Alexis C. “The History of Popular Music, According to Google.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.


“Music Timeline.” Music Timeline. Big Picture & Music Intelligence, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.


Pollick, Michael, and Niki Foster. “What Is Psychedelic Rock.” WiseGeek. Conjecture, 05 Oct. 2014. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.


Scaruffi, Piero. “A History of Jazz Music.” A History of Jazz Music. N.p., 16 Sept. 2011. Web. 01 Nov. 2014.


“Week 3, Music Genres, Genealogy.” Pop Culture Politics of Media Literacy. N.p., 07 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.