64 Years of Music Innovation in One Playlist

64(This post originally appeared here.)

There are only 12 notes in all western music. Somehow, musicians have forged those musical chromosomes into millions of recorded-and-released songs in over 1255 distinct genres.

Like biological species, artistic movements evolve independently, inter-dependently, and dependent on the environments that shape their development. In the music scene, new “discoveries,” such as birth of the cool or the explosion of punk rock in 1977, send shockwaves through the ecosystem, as other musicians attempt to reconcile new musical movements and breakthroughs with their own distinct approaches and capabilities.

Sometimes, a new musical movement emerges seemingly out of nowhere (Detroit techno, punk, rap, glam rock, grunge, etc.), but every style has its antecedents. The history of music might be described as musical ideas bouncing off of people and each other through time, and you can listen to it all unfold below.

To distill pop music’s evolution from 1950 to present day into a 170-song playlist you can play in one day, The Echo Nest data alchemist Glenn McDonald identified groundbreaking points in pop music when new genres came to the fore.

To keep things fresh, he wrote code to pick songs representing each genre, including no more than two from any one genre, and no more than one from any artist. One result of this research is a playlist that takes you on a musical tour of pop music. You can literally hear new musical movements emerge, as musicians pass the torch from one genre to the next, decade after decade.

“What this attempts to do is work through the years picking songs that represent the styles that were coming into prominence at each point,” explains McDonald.

Here’s the history of pop music as one playlist:

 And here it is, year by year:


 (Top image courtesy of Flickr/Pranav Yaddanapudi)