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Timeline is a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition. Hosted by VPR Classical's James Stewart.

Listen to the series, Timeline: Elements, a four-part educational series based on the elements of antiquity: FIRE, WATER, EARTH and AIR.

If you'd like to go deeper, please see our suggested reading list.

Timeline is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation.

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James Stewart / VPR

Originally aired March 20, 2017...

Musical labels are useful. The title of a genre or style comes in handy in the record store, on the radio or for streaming services. But these labels can also be problematic and divisive.

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Originally aired April 10, 2017... 

In the 20th century no medium affected culture more than film. The music written to accompany the images, story and dialogue has become a huge part of the movie-going experience. In many cases it’s impossible to separate the musical theme from the film itself; the two become one in our minds.

Explore the connections between music and the mind in this special Timeline presentation.
Vermont Public Radio

Explore the validity of "The Mozart Effect", trace the use of music in advertising and political campaigns, experience auditory illusions and experiments and follow the history of music therapy in this special episode of Timeline.

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Here is another favorite episode...

Originally aired January 2, 2017

Today, music is everywhere. Invisible signals fly through the air carrying every possible genre and style that a person could ever want. We can access them from our homes, cars and phones enjoying content from around the world. In the 19th century this type of technology was just a dream in the minds of scientists and inventors, but the 20th century saw an explosion of communication and the rise of a device we call the radio.

Timeline: Not Musical

Dec 16, 2019
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Here's another favorite episode from the vault...

Originally aired January 8, 2018 

It was her first piano lesson with me, but she wasn’t new to the instrument. She had learned from YouTube tutorials and her own explorations to play some of her favorite songs. After a good first lesson her mother came over and said, “She is very talented”. I smiled and agreed. Then her mother said, “It’s surprising to me because I’m not musical at all.”

Timeline: Soundwaves

Dec 9, 2019
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Here is another favorite episode...

Originally aired on December 11, 2017

Picture yourself at the beach watching the waves rise and break over the sand. You can see the water gather and rise as each waves comes in. Once a wave breaks the water level drops again. You watch the peaks and valleys rolls onto the beach. These waves transfer huge amounts of energy from one place to another traveling through the water and displacing it. We call this a mechanical wave because it needs to travel through a medium, in this case water. The number of waves that crash during a specific period of time is called the frequency.

mattabbe / iStock

Another featured episode from Timeline's vault...

Originally aired December 4, 2017

Why do humans sing? Why do we make music at all?

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Here is another favorite episode...

Originally aired October 30, 2017

Let’s start from the beginning… Where does music come from? I believe that music is at the heart of everything. It is the language of a vibrating, living cosmos. And this isn’t exaggeration; this is the basis of a current theory about what truly makes up the universe.

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Let's revisit a favorite episode...

Originally aired April 27, 2017

Music has always been created with a specific venue in mind. The composer may not know who will be in the audience or how it will be received but they know it has to be played on an instrument or sound system in a place. Throughout all of history, whether it was a church, a ballroom, a dance hall, an opera house or a dive bar, music was written to fill that location.

Learn about ancient musicians and societies in the new book by Vermont author Lewis M. Homes.
Lewis M. Holmes / Used with permission

We’ve spent over a dozen episodes exploring ancient musicians. We’ve covered more than four millennia of time, traveling from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to medieval Europe and Japan. In the fourth chapter of the book The Mystery of Music, Vermont author, Lewis Holmes, makes an intriguing observation; the role of music and musicians in society throughout known history hasn’t changed… period.

This is a detail photograph from a 17th Century screen-painting depicting a scene from "The Tale of Heike."
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“The sound of… bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the… flowers reveal the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”

That is the famous opening passage of The Tale of the Heike, a mammoth, epic work that tells the story of the 12th century Genpei War. This tale of civil-war has become a center-piece of Japanese literature for centuries. I can’t even begin to summarize this story of cultural clashes, political intrigue and war. The level of detail, place and character puts the works of Tolkien and Wagner to shame. The Tale of the Heike is like a giant oratorio, with a thousand characters. It’s separated into 12 chapters containing 182 cantatas, each 30-to-40 minutes long. In other words, it is a story so big it takes a lifetime to tell and master.

A 13th century miniature depicts Maracabru standing with arms folded, without a musical instrument. Perhaps he sang his pieces a cappella or paid other musicians to accompany him.
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Marcabru, the son of Lady Bruna, was begotten under such a moon that he knows how love wreaks havoc, -Listen!- for he never loved any woman, nor was he loved by another.”

These are the words of the 12th century troubadour, Marcabru. The troubadours were poets and composers of secular songs, a tradition that began with William IX, the Duke of Aquitaine. Unlike William, Marcabru was not royalty. He held no title and most likely earned a living through his art. There are 44 surviving poems attributed to Marcabru and four of them have notated melodies.

Krishna and Radha are the subjects of an epic, ancient poem by Jayadeva entitled "Gita Govinda."
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In Hinduism, Krishna, the god of compassion, tenderness and love, is the eighth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu. In art, Krishna is usually depicted with a flute in his hand; his music calling devotees to him. In many of these paintings and sculptures, Krishna stands side by side with Radha, the supreme goddess. These two are linked by divine love and together represent feminine and masculine aspects of God. This picture, this tale of supreme love, comes to us from the work of a 12th century poet and composer, Jayadeva and his epic work Gita Govinda.

This beautiful Japanese handscroll painting dates back to 1130CE, about the time of Otomae.
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As we’ve explored the book The Mystery of Music, by Vermont author Lewis Holmes, we’ve traveled to ancient Sumeria, two eras of Egypt, Israel, Greece and China. Today, we’ll visit medieval Japan and learn about the life of one remarkable composer/singer, named Otomae.

This is a depiction of a Chinese man negoitating with a courtesan, much like Fu Niang.
U.S. Public Domain

There is so much power in language, names and the meanings of words. Take, for instance, the Chinese symbols used for the word courtesan or prostitute, chang and ji. These symbols are closely related to those for sing and talent. This is no coincidence. Chinese courtesans were known for their musical ability along with the carnal services they provided. In Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music we learn about one such courtesan in the city Chang’an during the Tang dynasty. Her name was Fu Niang; which is sadly ironic because though her name means “lucky damsel” Fu Niang’s life was anything but lucky.

Emperor Wudi was a warrior king. Under his rule, the Western Han Empire grew to a strength it would not see again for nearly a millennium.
U.S. Public Domain

Let's continue our exploration through Lewis Holmes book The Mystery of Music and travel to ancient China around 100 BCE. Listen to the words of this beautiful ode written so long ago...

This classic statue depicts Apollo with the concert lyre, the eleven stringed cithara.
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During the time of Alexander the Great, the city of Athens gave rise to something new in Greek culture. Up to this point, music was seen as subordinate to words; melody and rhythm worked in service to text or “logos.” Around 5th century BCE “The New Music” movement challenged these ideas introducing songs without words, new musical tools like modulation, intense competitions and a new instrument, the cithara. The cithara was a concert lyre with as many as eleven strings. The greatest virtuoso on this new instrument was the famed Stratonicus of Athens; at least that’s how he tells the story.

Pindar was an ancient Greek poet who specialized in writing epinikia, victoy odes in honor of Olympic crown winners.
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John Williams composed the "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" for the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. The practice of celebrating sportsmanship through music and verse is almost as old as the games themselves, going all the way back to ancient Greece.

This famous painting by Rembrandt depicts young David playing the lyre for King Saul to ease the king's mind.
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We are continuing our series of episodes based on the biographical sketches found in Lewis Holmes' book The Mystery of Music. This story dates back to ancient Israel, around 1000 BCE.

This is a scene inscribed on the tomb of Nefertari in the "Valley of the Queens," a burial site in ancient Egypt, used for centuries.
U.S. Public Domain

This next excerpt from Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music reads more like a pulp-fiction mystery novel. However, the story is preserved on 3000 year old papyri. It has torture, conspiracy, bribery and, yes, a bit of music.