Music of England

From Academic Kids

England has a long and rich musical history. The United Kingdom has, like most European countries, undergone a roots revival in the last half of the 20th century. English music has been an instrumental and leading part of this phenomenon, which peaked at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s.




Little survives of the early music of England, by which is meant the music that was used by the people before the establishment of musical notation in the medieval period. Much that survives of folk music must have had its origins in this period, although the melodies played by morris dancers and other traditional groups can also be from a later period.

Some of the earliest music to remain is either church music, or else is in the form of carols or ballads dating from the 16th century or earlier. Troubadors carried an international courtly style across western Europe. It was common in times before copyright for melodies to be interchangeable, and the same melodies will often have been used (with differing words) for secular and religious purposes. Melodies like that of the Sussex Carol or Greensleeves will have had a long history of eclectic use over the centuries.

During the 15th century, a vigorous tradition of polyphony developed in England, as exemplified in the music of composers such as Leonel Power, John Dunstable and Robert Fayrfax. The music of this school was famous on the continent, and occasionally rivaled the music of the contemporary Burgundian school in expressiveness and renown; indeed Dunstable is recognized as one of the strongest influences on the early development of the music of the Burgundians. Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of English music manuscripts from this period were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries carried out by Henry VIII in the late 1530s; only a few isolated survivals remain, including the Old Hall Manuscript, the Eton Choirbook, the Winchester Troper, and a handful of scattered sources from the continent.

16th to 17th Centuries

With the growth in wealth and leisure-time for the noble classes, tastes in music began to diverge sharply. While in the early part of the period it is possible for tavern songs like Pastime with Good Companie to be attributed (apocryphally) to King Henry VIII, by the middle 16th Century there were distinct styles of music enjoyed by the differing social classes. Renaissance influences made the acquisition of musical knowledge an almost essential attribute for the nobleman and woman, and ability to play an instrument became an almost mandatory social grace.

The Rennaisance influence also internationalized courtly music in terms of both instruments and content, the lute dulcimer and early forms of the harpsichord were played, ballads and madrigals were sung. The pavane and galliard were danced. Henry Purcell became court composer to King Charles II and wrote incidental music to plays and events.

For other classes instruments like pipe, tabor, bagpipe shawm, hurdygurdy and crumhorn accompanied folk music and community dance. The fiddle gradually grew in popularity. Differing regional styles of folk music developed, in geographically separated areas such as Northumbria, London and the West Country.

English Madrigal School

Main article: English Madrigal School

From about 1588 to 1627, a group of composers known as the English Madrigal School became well-known in England and abroad. These madrigalists composed light a cappella songs for three to six voices, based off Italian models. The School began when Nicholas Yonge published Musica transalpina in 1588, using poetic forms like the sonnet and inspired by the work of Alfonso Ferrabosco, an Italian composer in Elizabeth I's court.

18th Century

As courtly music grew more elaborate and internationalised, with composers such as Handel and Mozart, writing operas, oratorios and symphonic works, an English musician called John Gay produced The Beggar's Opera, a revolutionary popular opera which used English folk forms.

19th Century

With the Industrial Revolution came a parallel revolution in English popular music as people moved from stable agrarian communities into the growing industrial centres. Folk Music went through a rapid series of transformations as different regional idioms came together and reformed themselves into the first universally acceptable and commercial popular music. This change began first in the alehouses and later in what became known as the Music Hall. Music Hall became the dominant form of English popular music for over a century from its birth in the 1850s. While folk music continued to enjoy popularity in the countryside, it was replaced for the majority by the new forms.

Early 20th Century

Classical composers such as Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten reached the peak of their talents in the early years of the new century. English tastes also tended towards light classical composers such as Edward German, Ketelbey and Eric Coates, whose music was spread by the new medium of Radio.

Radio also played a part in the increasing popularity of big band dance music, popularised by the orchestras of Geraldo, Ambrose, Henry Hall and Billy Cotton, and singers like Al Bowly, and Jack Buchanan.

Operetta and Musical Comedy were very popular forms in this period, and leading English composers included Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, and Noel Gay.

Popular singers in the Music Hall idiom included, Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, George Formby, Flanagan and Allen and Gracie Fields. With the advent of World War II the taste for a more reflective and romantic style of music was led by singers like Anne Shelton and Vera Lynn.

The Fifties

A significant factor in the early growth of folk clubs was Topic Records. A.L. Lloyd wrote many of the sleeve notes for the records for the next 20 years and sang on several of their albums. Ewan MacColl toured widely in England, and recorded many of the Child Ballads. Collets records in London was the best shop to find folk records and magazines. From the mid-fifties skiffle and Rock and Roll songs began to be home-produced by English performers.

The modern period

In the 60s and 70s, England was in a state of social upheaval as a counterculture developed, from which came an explosion of American blues-derived musical innovation as well as a revival of English folk, inspired by pioneering artists like the Copper family. There was mixing between the two groups, with bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span pioneering a folk-rock fusion. Nic Jones, Davy Graham, Roy Harper, Ralph McTell, June Tabor, Shirley Collins, John Renbourn and John Kirkpatrick were among those who balanced innovation with tradition, and criticized the worst excesses of folk-rock. When Martin Carthy "plugged in" in 1971, the English traditional scene erupted in an uproar of criticizing. Ashley Hutchings and Dave Pegg had been earlier innovators of the fusion, and Hutchings helped propel Fairport Convention into the star position of the English folk-rock scene, starting with the album "What We Did On Our Holidays".

The popularity of English folk declined in the later 1970s, however, losing ground to glam rock, disco, punk rock, heavy metal and lovers rock. In the mid-1980s a new rebirth began, this time fusing folk forms with energy and political aggression derived from punk rock. Leaders included The Men They Couldn't Hang, Oyster Band, Billy Bragg and The Pogues. Folk-dance music also became popular in the 80s, with the English Country Blues Band and Tiger Moth. Later in the decade, reggae influenced English country music due to the work of Edward II & the Red Hot Polkas, especially on their seminal Let's Polkasteady from 1987. In the 21st century, Oxford produced a young duo Spiers and Boden

Morris dancing

Morris dancing is an ancient form of music and dance, performed by men in distinctive clothing. Women have only recently been involved in morris dancing, which is done in teams. The practice is complex, and regulated by Morris Ring, the unofficial governing body of morris dancing.

Broadside ballads

Broadside ballads were a form of popular music from the 16th century to the early 20th century England. They were purchases on streetcorners for a small amount and performed at home and at fairs and other gatherings.


Sussex's traditions are best known from mid-20th century performer Scan Tester and perhaps the biggest stars of the English revival's predecessors, The Copper family. Shirley Collins is from Sussex and retains her local accent.


Yorkshire's Waterson family, especially Norma Waterson, are a long-running institution that incorporates influences from the area. Other traditional performers include Fred Jordan.

East Anglia

Though East Anglian folk has not played a major part in the British roots revival, two major singers have emerged from the area to help inspire it: Sam Larner and Harry Cox. More modern performers include Peter Bellamy's mid-1970s revival of Norfolk's folk traditions, especially pioneer Walter Pardon.

Northumbrian folk

Northumbria, at the northern edge of England, bordering on Scotland across the Tweed River has the most vital traditional music of England, with a strong scene and some mainstream success. Many of the most popular traditional songs of today were written by legendary composers like Tommy Armstrong in the late 19th century. In contrast to the rest of England, Northumbria shows a strong Irish Celtic influence in the music, the result of immigration. Accordions and fiddles, for example, remain popular as a lasting influence from Ireland.

Northumbria is known for its long history of border ballads, such as "The Ballad of Chevy Chase" and dances, including social ones like the Elsdon Reel and others, like rapper dancing and Northumbrian clog dancing, more typically seen in concert halls.


Northumbrian folk is most characterized by the use of Northumbrian smallpipes as well as a strong Scottish and Celtic influence. Northumbrian pipes are small and elbow-driven and the music is traditionally very swift and rhythmic. Another distinct form of Northumbrian pipe is called the "half-long" or "border" pipe. Perhaps the most important of the old masters of the pipes is Billy Pigg. Drawing on these pioneers, popularizers like Louis Killen, The High Level Ranters and Bob Davenport brought Northumbrian folk to international audiences, while Jack the Lad, Hedgehog Pie and Lindisfarne used regional sources for folk-rock fusions.

Northumbrian pipe music has seen a recent revival due to the touring of artists like Kathryn Tickell.

West Country

The West Country is most noted for its Scrumpy and Western music, much of it fusing comical folk-style songs with affectionate parodies of more mainstream musical genres, delivered in the local West Country Accent.

Sea shanties

Sea shanties are a form of work song traditionally sung by sailors working on the rigging of ships. There are several types, divided based on the type of work they set the rhythmic base for. For example:

  • short haul shanties: for quicks pulls over a short time
  • capstan shanties: for repetitive, longer tasks that require a sustained rhythm
  • halyard shanties: for heavier work that require more time between pulls to set up


  • Irwin, Colin. "England's Changing Roots". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 64-82. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Mathieson, Kenny. "Wales, Isle of Man and England". 2001. In Mathieson, Kenny (Ed.), Celtic music, pp. 88-95. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-623-8

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