100 iconic moments from music history
Think back to the first concert you ever attended. You can probably remember the energy of the crowd yearning for the band to finally take the stage, the reverberation of the first strum of the guitar, the beats of the drum that seemed to thump inside your body. The lights, the charisma of the performers, finally hearing your favorite songs live—as they were meant to be listened to—the experience remains vivid for the rest of your life. You might still have the overpriced T-shirt you bought as a souvenir of the show buried in your closet.
There’s something about music that embeds itself deeply inside memories. But this phenomenon doesn’t just happen at the individual level—music can form a collective cultural memory, as well. If you think back over the past few generations, certain moments in music stand out as markers of time and reflections of a generation. Anyone alive in 1980 can tell you where they were when Beatle John Lennon was killed, while younger music fans have had a similar experience with the death of Michael Jackson. There are also those hopeful, unforgettable shows—like Queen’s renowned performance at Live Aid, Elvis’ hip thrusts on “The Milton Berle Show,” and Kurt Cobain’s moody acoustic concert on “MTV Unplugged.” No matter how you feel about these artists, there’s no doubt that they made an impact on culture and changed music for future generations.
To compile a list of the most iconic moments in music history, Stacker looked at an assortment of sources, including music publications such as Billboard and Rolling Stone, general news outlets like the Guardian and NPR, and Norman Abjorensen’s “Historical Dictionary of Popular Music.” While there were no strict criteria for what was included, a wide range of memorable moments, like record-breaking albums, major music festivals, and headline-making stunts by musicians from a variety of decades and genres are showcased.
Explore this slideshow and reminisce about the history of music—and see if your favorite music memory made the cut.
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American ballad becomes internationally famous for the first time
American-born songwriter John Hill Hewitt wrote “The Minstrel’s Return’d From the War” in 1827. It would become the first ballad from a U.S. songwriter to gain international fame, according to Norman Abjorensen, author of “Historical Dictionary of Popular Music.” The original song sheet is housed at the Library of Congress.
The Battle Hymn of the Republic is published
The Atlantic published abolitionist Julia Ward Howe’s poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861. The now-iconic song would become associated with the Civil War and influence future generations of activists, according to Dominic Tierney of The Atlantic.
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Thomas Edison invents the phonograph
Thomas Edison revealed his latest creation, the phonograph, in 1877. While there had been other devices that could record and play audio, the phonograph was far more reliable, making music accessible to the masses. “It forever transformed the face of music,” wrote Clive Thompson of Smithsonian Magazine.
Billboard magazine hits newsstands
Billboard magazine published its first issue in November 1894. While it was initially focused on the advertising and poster printing industry, it would eventually shift gears into the music industry. In July 1940, it would develop its first Music Popularity Chart, which would go on to become the guide to which songs and albums are most popular every week.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot establishes the black spiritual in music history
African American a cappella group The Fisk Jubilee recorded “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in 1909. The song would be instrumental in preserving African American spiritual folksongs in American history, according to Norman Abjorensen, author of “Historical Dictionary of Popular Music.” The original song sheet is housed at the Library of Congress.
Bessie Smith records Down Hearted Blues
Jazz and blues singer Bessie Smith saw immediate success after her first recorded song, “Down Hearted Blues,” was released in 1923. She is now considered one of the greatest vocalists of her time and an influence on future generations of blues and jazz singers.
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Duke Ellington gives the Swing Era its name
The jazz composer, musician and orchestra leader wrote the song that would become the namesake to the swing era, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” in 1932. Big band swing music would become the most popular genre of music in the United States for the next 15 years.
Frank Sinatra performs to crazed teen fans in Times Square
America got its first glimpse of teen music fandom when Frank Sinatra performed at New York City’s Paramount Theater on Dec. 30, 1942. Frenzied “bobby soxers” flooded Times Square for the occasion and a riot broke out. The event would drive the music industry to shift its marketing efforts to adolescent fans, rather than 30-to-50-year-olds, according to Samantha Sokol of Untapped New York.
Ike Turner records first rock ’n’ roll song
The first-ever rock ’n’ roll song, “Rocket 88,” was recorded by Ike Turner in 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee. Saxophone player Jackie Brenston sang lead vocals on the track, which was released under his name, according to Christopher John Farley of Time magazine.
[Pictured: Ike Turner's Kings Of Rhythm band.]
First rock ’n’ roll riot occurs at Moondog Coronation Ball
Riots broke out at Ohio’s Cleveland Arena when around 15,000 people were turned away from the Moondog Coronation Ball in 1952. Widely considered the first notable rock ’n’ roll concert, the event was thrown by rock disc jockey Alan J. Freed.
[Pictured: Moondog Coronation Ball Poster.]