A brief history of musical ensembles

When you think of a “band”, you might think of Nirvana, Aerosmith, The Foo Fighters – but people have been playing music together for nearly as long as music has existed! Over time, the purpose and function of musical ensembles has shifted based on social movements and structures, technology, and other factors. 

Here’s a brief history of musical ensembles: 

Ancient Times (before 4th century CE) 

 [[File:Ancient Egyptians playing music.png|Ancient_Egyptians_playing_music]]

Ancient music was recorded in Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Persian, Mesopotamian, and Middle Eastern societies. African music was first recorded by Egyptian musicians in the 3rd millennium BC. The Egyptians used a wide variety of musical instruments, including harps, flutes, drums, and cymbals. Music in ancient Greece and Rome often involved ensembles for religious ceremonies, entertainment, and theatrical performances. Instruments included lyres, aulos (a type of reed instrument), and various percussion instruments.


Medieval Period  (500 to 1400 CE) 

Much of the recorded music we have from the medieval period is religious music – since religion was one of the most pervasive forces in people’s lives during that period, and most of the record-keeping was done by members of the clergy. 


Members of medieval church choirs performed plainchant or plainsongs – chants that were annotated with simple sheet music in books that were up to three feet tall.

Secular music also existed during this time period. Troubadours and minstrels formed small ensembles to play in royal courts or in cities. They often played instruments like the lute, vielle (a precursor to the violin), and various wind and percussion instruments.


Renaissance (1400 to 1600 CE) 

The Concert/Gerard van Honthorst

The Renaissance period saw a flourishing of new musical styles and genres, as new instruments were invented and new ideas about harmony, rhythm, and notation were born. Chamber music, developed for small groups of two to eight people, originated in the 15th century. They often played music with accompanying dances. Bands as we know them originated in 15th century Germany and were made up mostly oboes and bassoons. These German musicians joined other groups in France and England before spreading to America.

By H.G. Hine (1811-1895) – Illustrated London News [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18249538

“Waits” were a staple of British towns and cities from the medieval period to the end of the 18th century. They were watchmen who patrolled throughout the night, using instruments to mark the hours. They also woke people up during the dark winter months by playing under their windows and welcomed guests at the city gates. The term “band” was first used in England to refer to King Charles II’s “king’s band” of 24 violins. He reigned from 1660 to 1685.

Charles II/Public domain


1700s to 1800s

Storming of the Bastille/Anonymous. Public domain.

The 1700s and 1800s were marked by upheaval, including the Industrial Revolution, the American and French revolutions, the Haitian Revolution and the Irish Rebellion, and the Age of Enlightenment. Musical groups often served a practical purpose during this period. 

“The Turkish Janissary band provided entertainment at the Abide commemoration” by Priceypoos is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

During the Industrial Revolution Near the end of the 18th century, a style of band music called Turkish, or Janissary music became popular. It was inspired by the Turkish occupation of Eastern Europe. Medieval Turks  have been credited with developing the first truly military bands.  Turkish band music was characterized by shrill flutes and large drums, jangling triangles, cymbals, and Turkish crescents.

During the French Revolution, large wind bands of as many of 2,000 musicians played at the revolution’s large open air festivals. Each regiment in the British Army maintained its own military band. Drummers summoned men from their farms and ranches to muster for duty. Musical instruments were the only means of commanding the men to advance, stand or retire. In England at the end of the 18th century, brass (or “silver”) bands began to replace the waits. Throughout the 1800s, groups were formed to represent towns, factories, social clubs, and religious organizations such as the Salvation Army.

Pori Workers’ Society Brass Band/Public domain

In the United States, town bands performed at parades, concerts, balls, and other social events. They often played marches or polkas. Many were original compositions of the band leaders or members and were never published. Bands brought music to the public who might not have had access to orchestras. John Phillip Sousa helped bands present “serious music” by hiring top-notch musicians and writing original works for bands that included suites.

“John Philip Sousa, ca. 1880-1892” by Archives Branch, USMC History Division is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


20th century 

During the Jazz Age of the 1920s, bands and band music underwent more changes. Jazz developed in the Black communities of New Orleans, Louisiana during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Its roots were blues and ragtime music. Bands like Kid Ory’s Original Creole Jazz Band played in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. The advent of music recording and radio broadcasting in 1919 made it possible for more people to hear music of all kinds, including jazz. The 1930s belonged to popular swing big bands, with band leaders like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway. 

“Duke Ellington Big Band” by Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

In the 1930s and 1940s, country music became popular thanks to the romanticization of cowboy culture in films. 



Chuck Berry

The 1950s saw the birth of Rock and Roll Music as electric guitars, designed to be heard over other band instruments, became popular. Chuck Berry, , Little Richard, and Buddy Holly helped pioneer the genre that broke away from the more conservative music of the past. 



Public Domain: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at 1963 March on Washington by USIA (NARA)

The 1960s saw more musical revolution. Folk music, which used more traditional acoustic instruments, became a major movement with socially-conscious lyrics. 

The Supremes/Public Domain

Detroit-based label Motown put out pop-influenced soul music including The Four Tops and The Supremes. 

The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport.

British Invasion: Bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones arrived in America in the 1960s, shaping how pop music sounded. 



“1977 Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page – Robert Plant #1 70s Rock Concert” by Whiskeygonebad is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Rock groups like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Queen were popular.

“Kool & the Gang – Leverkusener Jazztage 2017-1963 (cropped)” by Foto: Andreas Lawen, Fotandi is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

 The 1970s also saw the emergence of disco music with groups like The Bee Gees, KC & The Sunshine Band, and Kool and the Gang. 

Jackson 5/Public domain

Pop bands like The Carpenters, the Jackson 5, and Hall & Oates were also popular. 

“Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five” by Kevin Andre Elliott is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Hip hop/rap music originated in African American communities in New York City in the 1970s (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang). 



Digital recording gained in popularity in the 1980s, and synthesizers started to be used to create synth-pop and electronic music. 

Another huge change for music was the advent of MTV. MTV played music videos 24/7. Suddenly, bands rose to fame quicker and became famous for their fashion and personas as well as their music.

Metallica in a press photo dated to 1983/Public domain

Hard rock bands like Guns ‘n Roses, Def Leppard, and Metallica were popular. 

Jeff Pinilla, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Hip hop/rap music became more mainstream and part of popular culture in the mid to late 1980s, like Run DMC, Public Enemy, and Salt + Pepa. 

Billy Idol. From the 1984 yearbook from the Rochester Institute of Technology, titled Techmila. Public domain.

“New wave” artists emerged – creating a new sound using different sounds and textures, thanks to electronic synthesizers and beats. Examples are Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Billy Idol. 



The 1990s saw the emergence of grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. Grunge is a style of alternative rock characterized by distorted guitar and angst-filled lyrics. 

Alice in Chains, 1988 promo photo. Public domain.

The Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s led to a wave of woman-led punk bands like Bikini Kill, Calamity Jane, and Babes in Toyland who sang about topics like sexism and female rage. 

Bikini Kill in 1991/jonathan charles, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The “Golden Age of Hip Hop” was happening from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. It was considered to be golden because of the huge innovations happening within the genre. Significant groups of the 1990s included A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, and Wu-Tang Clan. 

A Tribe Called Quest/WRBB 104.9 FM, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Teen pop had a huge resurgence in the 1990s with groups like The Spice Girls, The Backstreet Boys, and NSYNC. 

Spice Girls/cw from USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons



The early 2000s saw a new interest in pop rock and pop-punk, with bands like Blink-182, Newfound Glory, and Sum 41 rising to popularity. 

Blink 182/Sony Music Entertainment Sweden, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

A new form of metal called “nu metal” incorporated electronic sounds and sometimes rap. Examples are Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Slipknot. 

Korn/Sébastien Paquet, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The subgenre of Southern hip-hop reached the peak of its popularity in the mid-2000s with groups like The East Side Boyz (led by Lil Jon) that started the dance craze movement in hop-hop. 

Lil Jon/Gamerscore Blog from USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Emo music, defined by confessional lyrics and raw instrumentation, became popular in the 2000s with bands like Jimmy Eat World, My Chemical Romance, and Taking Back Sunday. 

My Chemical Romance/Jimack32, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Indie rock bands like Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and Arcade Fire put indie rock on the map in the 2000s. 

Death Cab for Cutie/deep ghosh, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons



The 2010s saw a huge wave in popularity for electronic music and EDM (electronic dance music), although electronic music got its start in the 1970s/1980s. Groups like Disclosure, Swedish House Mafia, and Daft Punk helped to popularize the genre. 

Daft Punk/Minyoung Choi, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Folk rock saw a resurgence in popularity with bands like The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons coming onto the scene, using traditional instruments like mandolins and banjos. 

Mumford and Sons/Roostertopgun, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

K-pop made a splash into Western markets with groups like BTS, Blackpink, and Twice hitting the U.S. airwaves. 

BTS/Divine Treasure, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


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