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The Soundtrack to a Future in the Making: Music from 1930-1950 

 
Jackson Knight - Final Paper - May 2016 
 
 
Music from the 1930s to 1950s was pivotal to the evolution of music itself. Swing was in its heyday 

and rock and roll was about to erupt out of the volcano of invention that in the 1930’s and 40’s was 

oozing out huge artists like Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. Radio was the main form of 

listening to said artists, and music worked a lot differently at its core. One-hit wonders were extremely 

common, new songs were often covered only around a month after they were originally released, and the 

radio censored many beloved songs. Of course, during this time World War II was also raging, and music 

reflected the feelings of the people during the time. Many, if not most of the songs written and produced 

during that time aimed to capture the emotions of both the soldiers and the families who missed those 

soldiers. Swing music went to war alongside the men fighting overseas. Popular big band name Glenn Miller 

joined the army with many other musicians for the sole purpose of serenading the soldiers and keeping 

their morales up.  

The dynamic of the music industry in the 1930’s would look very unfamiliar if you were to compare 

it to the dynamic of the music industry today. A lot of things were different, down to the number of people 

per band. The 30’s was the age of big band, which was exactly what the name implies. Big bands were ten or 

more member bands with an assortment of different brass, woodwind, string, and percussion instruments, 

usually being played by multiple members of the band. Occasionally jazz singers would come sing with the 

bands, but they were rarely a permanent fixture. These bands played jazz for the most part, which was also 

performed commonly by smaller combo jazz bands. Combo jazz bands usually consisted of bass, drums, and 

piano serving as the rhythm section, and two to four melody players on instruments like the clarinet, 

saxophone, guitar, or trumpet. Dancing, usually to swing, was also very common in the 1930’s. Many 

people danced as an escape from gloomy parts of life such as the Great Depression which was was 

happening at the time. It was also a popular form of entertainment. Large towns featured ballrooms for 

dancing, communities organized their own elaborate dances, and people who had them hosted barn dances. 

Romances were born and troubles were forgotten. People also participated in dance marathons which 
were special events in which couples would compete against each other by dancing almost non-stop. 

Rarely these competitions could even go on for as long as a month. Jazz, swing, and dance dominated the 

1930’s, but they did not do it alone. 

Musicals and musical movies were an enormous part of the music industry in the 1930’s. Composers 

like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Irving Berlin infested the ears of the public. Many broadway 

musicals were written, and the Great Depression caused a boom of movie musicals. Insanely iconic 

musicals like ​The Wizard of Oz​, ​Snow White and the Seven Dwarves​, and ​Moulin Rouge​ were all written 

during the 1930’s. All of these musicals and more were essential to the success of musicals in the future. 

Today, musicals such as ​Hamilton​, O


​ nce​, ​Waitress​, and ​Hairspray​ would not be around if it was not for the 

amazing musicals in the 1930’s. These musicals also inspired movie adaptions of themselves.  

In the 1940’s, jazz continued to reign supreme. With jazz juggernauts like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis 

Armstrong who dominated the 1940’s jazz scene, people were sure to keep being moved by the music. 40’s 

music was based mostly on jazz and the big band sound that the 30’s brought. Radio continued to be the 

most popular way of listening to music, but phonograph players were starting to make their way into 

homes everywhere as they were just starting to be affordable for the average family. Phonograph players 

gave people the power to listen to what they wanted to listen to, as opposed to having a radio disk jockey. 

decide for them. Large, bulky batteries were needed to power radios as many families lacked electricity. 

Songs in the 1940s were usually very romantic, often funny, and usually connected back to home as many 

Americans were off fighting in World War II. Music was generally very important to soldiers overseas, and 

they would listen to songs that reminded them of their home. Later in the 1940’s, bebop emerged.  

Bebop was always performed in small groups, steering away from the trend of the time to have a 

big colossal band with many different roles for each person. This gave each person more solo potential, 

and opened up the world to the idea of compact bands like the ones we essentially only see today. The 

genre as a whole hosted more complex melodies and chord progressions than other songs and types of 

music at the time. Bebop also gave much needed attention to the rhythm section, making songs sound 

fuller and more polished,his newfound way of making music paved the way for the creation of rock and roll 

that took place in the 1950’s. Some of the most influential bebop artists include but are not limited to Dizzy 
Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, and Dexter Gordon. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in particular 

were very influential as they experimented with new sounds, placement of accents in melodies, and 

discordant sounds.  

Music during World War II was all about expressing the torrent emotion I. Songs that spoke about 

separation between loved ones, songs about mourning what was lost, and songs about hope were all 

common. Jazz music became comfort music for soldiers and families. Musicians joined the army solely to 

perform for soldiers, boost their morale, and to entertain at army camps. Glenn Miller, a big name in the big 

band scene joined the air force in fall of 1942 and played trombone in a fifteen-piece band. He then was 

given the chance to to form his own military marching band, and promptly took it, and the marching band 

ended up with fifty members. Clarinetist and composer Artie Shaw also joined the army as a band leader. 

V-Discs (Victory Discs) were distributed to soldiers who couldn’t be present for live music performed by 

army musicians and bands. V-Discs were discs full of upbeat, and morale raising music. Popular singers, big 

bands, and orchestras created V-Discs to aid the fighters without being in the fight.  

Music ever since that of the 1930’s to 1950 has been traceable back to jazz, swing, big band, and 

bebop. The music of this time period was incredibly influential- big names like Louis Armstrong, Ella 

Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, George Gershwin, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker are still hugely inspiring to 

musicians today, and are still very commonly listened to. Beyond 1945, composers favored the 12-tone 

system of big bands and famous 1930’s and 40’s compositions, and jazz is still played today as it is 

intricately beautiful and melodically unmatchable. The emergence of rock and roll and the British Invasion 

both would have never happened without the musical and pop culture influence of the 1930’s and 40’s. 

Rock and roll itself is prominently influenced from rhythm and blues, and rock and roll still incorporates 

blues scales very heavily. Modern music stands in the shadow of music from the 1930’s and 40’s, with 

inspired chord progressions, forms, and scales becoming obvious even in modern pop songs with closer 

inspection. Modern Pop is a very similar to bebop, rock and roll looks up to blues, and swing is remixed and 

remade into electro-swing.  

In closing, the music of 1930 to 1950 was inspiring and hectically groundbreaking. It was upbeat, at 

times tragic, and gave birth to immense innovation. The legends of jazz and swing are the most notable 
music legends of them all, because they are technically what started everything in the world of modern 

music. They were the deciders of which way music would go, and the way their music sounded defined the 

steps music would take for the next century. In a way, the music of that time period inspired the 

innovations in music even today. Country, reggae, hard rock, and metal all owe respect to jazz, swing, and 

bebop. With colossal events like World War II, and the Great Depression to change the course of other 

parts of history, every feeling and emotion was expressed eventually through music. Music has kept the 

theme of being one of the best expressions of emotion. Essentially, music from 1930 to 1950 was a bolt 

of progress for the evolution of music. It was a revolution in the music industry and paved the way for all 

music following it. The first thought rock and roll song to exist, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and His 

Delta Cats, was recorded and produced in 1951 and was meant to be an upbeat blues song. This shows just 

how huge inspiration from the past twenty years in music was. From that came the British Invasion in the 

60’s with bands like The Beatles and The Yardbirds and the 60s saw development of soul music and 

eventually Led Zeppelin came in 1969 and from that, rock and roll took off. 

 
 
 
 
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RetroWaste Staff. "Music in the 1930s." ​RetroWaste​. RetroWaste, n.d. Web. 16 May 2016.

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