What gives music its sound?

by camilleecarter

What makes music sound the way that it does? Alternatively, what characteristics of musical pieces enable us to distinguish between works of different genres and disparate time periods? There are only so many chords, notes, and rhythms that we can use, yet all music does not end up sounding the same. In examining popular music from the 20th century, it is interesting to note how attributes of songs can give sound to a whole decade of music. In other words, certain fundamental aspects of music can exemplify the sound of an era.

I grew up listening to classic hits from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. My parents would always have some Motown, Elton John, or Roberta Flack playing in house and during family road trips. I enjoyed most of what my parents played, but I really took a liking to music from the 1950’s. There was just something about the sound of doo-wop. The serene 4 part harmony, rich and warm, enveloped me. It took me back: making me dream of a time of sock hops, poodle skirts, and root beer floats. I was so enthralled with this period, that when I learned I had to write a short song for a music class, I decided that I wanted my composition to sound definitively 1950’s. What was is it though that makes songs from the 50’s sound like they are from the 1950’s? It turns out that most songs from this decade followed a specific chord progression:  I-vi-IV-V. This progression was so prominent during this time that it is now called the “50’s progression.” In using this progression, my song actually did end up sounding like something from the period. I was amazed that with just a little ingenuity the feel was mimicked and recreated.

After this experience, I wondered what aspects of contemporary music make it sound the way that it does. Will we be able to look back sixty years from now and identify a 2000’s chord progression or rhythmic motive? I’m not sure that we will. It seems as though different genres are becoming more and more disparate. There doesn’t seem to be many unifying characteristics between the various forms of modern musical expression. Perhaps this is merely a transitional period and music will once again display qualities that link it to a particular era.

Two songs that use 50’s progression