A Brief History: Visual Soundtracks

Music plays a huge role in video production, evoking an emotion or feeling that you want to get across to your audience. Music is primarily used in movies and TV in the background to support what is happening on-screen but in some instances, like musicals and cartoons, the music becomes the main character and the visuals are tailored to the song.   From this general concept we get the “music video” which has a history as far back as the late 19th century when music was played alongside a projected slideshow.

Some of Walt Disney’s earliest animated features are a good starting point for discovering the history of music videos. Fantasia was released in 1940 and contained numerous classical compositions throughout. With its triumphant score and brilliant visuals, Fantasia was not only a milestone for animated cinema but also one of the earliest instances of a music video.

“Nutcracker Suite (Russian Flowers Dance)”

By the end of the 1950’s, a television set was in every household in America, with color broadcasting just around the corner.  TV became a new platform in which promotional clips could find an audience.  Bob Dylan’s promotional clip for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was pivotal in laying the groundwork for what has become the modern day music video.  SIDE NOTE: the term “music video” was first coined in 1959 but not commonly used until the late 70’s.

Bob Dylan “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

The first cable network was launched via satellite in 1976, revolutionizing the television experience.  The cable industry grew at an exponential rate and in 1981 a cable channel devoted specifically to music videos aptly named MTV (Music Television) went on the air.  This was cathartic for the music industry as it now provided another venue for artist exposure beyond radio airplay and usage in films.  This also spawned a burst of creativity in the videos that were aired and technological advances in computer graphics had a place to be showcased.  Dire Straits’ ”Money For Nothing” (1985) took the world by storm and quickly became a landmark for CGI applications.

Dire Straits “Money For Nothing”

In regards to music videos, to cover all the ground over what has occurred in the last 30 years since the birth of MTV would take another 10 or so blog posts, minimum.   Other music-based cable networks such as VH1 and CMT were birthed, well known directors such as Spike Jonze and Hype Williams got their start, and music video budgets got up into the millions.  And then, the Internet happened.

As is the case with all new technology or applications, creative people find new ways expand, explore, and exploit a new medium.  The ability to easily share media changed the way music videos are created and how they are consumed (thanks YouTube).   Musicians and web developers have utilized the tools of the modern day world wide web to give the user control over how they view and experience their music.

Red Hot Chili Peppers “Look Around”

"Look Around" Interactive Video

As new advances in web technology and mobile devices present themselves there will undoubtedly be a visual soundtrack that pushes the boundaries of the audience’s imagination.   

Now I wanna hear your two cents -- what do you think is the next big advancement in visual soundtracks?

by Kevin Strick

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