The Roaring Twenties (1920s, that is) were a decade of change and progress in many areas. This decade marked the beginning of modern music as we know it today, with the emergence of new technologies and the growth of the music recording industry. From the invention of the radio to the birth of revolutionary music genres and dance styles, the 1920s was a time of innovation and creativity in music and beyond. History characterizes this decade by economic prosperity, excess, and exuberant optimism. You can hear it all in the popular music of the time.
The invention of the radio took place in 1895, but the First World War inevitably advanced the technology. After the war, the United States created several radio stations. On November 2, 1920, the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company of Pittsburgh made the first scheduled transmission of a commercial radio station under the call sign KDKA. Just four short years later, there were 600 stations across the U.S.!
This new form of entertainment caught on quickly because it revolutionized communication. Information and entertainment were now being shared instantly with the public. While purchasing a radio was relatively expensive at the beginning of the decade, the price became very affordable within a few short years, and most households had one. The prosperity of the era gave families more time to devote to leisure activities, like listening to the radio. The first broadcasts focused on news, serial stories, and political speeches. Eventually, stations needed to fill more programming hours, so they aired more entertainment like music, comedians, sports, and children’s programming.
Music and Dance
The popular genres of the time were jazz, blues, swing, dance band, and ragtime, with African American culture and heritage influencing almost all of these genres. Before the prevalence of radio, people could only share music through sheet music, piano roll, or live performance. It was now possible to introduce all kinds of music from many different backgrounds to the masses.
We often refer to the 1920s as The Jazz Age due to its popularity. Jazz’s improvisation and syncopated rhythms influenced fashion, dances, and culture. Women cut their hair short, their hems even shorter, and everyone was doing “The Charleston.” Made famous in the 1923 Broadway show “Runnin’ Wild,” this swing step quickly became a favorite in dance halls. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ma Rainey were popular musicians of the time.
The 1920s dance styles reflected the relaxing social norms of American culture. Popular dances were becoming far less rigid than the waltzes of the past. People danced the foxtrot to big band music. Couples got passionate with the tango, and the streets of Harlem were ever-present, with folks in swing dance halls twirling the Lindy Hop.
Influence on Modern Music
Jazz spread across America very quickly and evolved over time. By the 1940s, a jazz subgenre called Bebop emerged in New York City and was made famous by artists such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Art Blakey. The playing was lightning-fast, with a lot of soloing over chord changes and syncopation.
By the 1960s, Bebop had changed to the post-bop (or post-bebop) movement. The new sound was characterized by harmonic sophistication and a slower tempo compared to Bebop. Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus were all musicians who began their careers in Bebop but became more well-known for their post-bop work.
The influence of 1920s music continues to evolve. It is present in many current popular music standards, modal music, pop, rock, funk, and even avant-garde works. Jazz is pervasive and is the foundation of American music and pop culture.
Tips for using 1920s-style music in your creative projects
Wondering how to find the perfect music for your production? Below are some tips for incorporating that 1920s style into your work.
- Setting the scene for a 1920s documentary or historical piece is easy with the right backing track. Imagine introducing the early, carefree days of your subject’s life or story with Phil McCormick’s Best Of Friends – Ragtime. You can see the grainy footage of rickety cars and smiling faces with the opening notes of the bouncy piano and clarinet, can’t you?
- Evoke the feeling of a speakeasy or the more secretive underworld of the 1920s, with tracks like Roaring 20s by Antonio De Giovanni. The frantic rhythms call for you to say the password for entrance into the dark, smoky nightclub filled with glamour flappers.
- Use the sounds of the 1920s to set a scene of nostalgia for happy, simpler times in any project with upbeat, joyful rhythms like the track Jelly Roll Jam – (1920S Speakeasy Jazz) by Matthew Reid.
The Cat’s Pajamas
If you want to evoke the feeling of 1920s optimism for your next project, a Pond5 music subscription gives you access to original 1920s-style tracks, including music from the artists we’ve highlighted here and more of the world’s top musicians.
Visit the Pond5 Playlist to explore more niche and unexpected music. Each month will feature a different genre, and a new free track is available for your next project!