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According to ancient art and artifacts, humankind has enjoyed music at least since the establishment of early civilizations in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. Musicians of these early cultures played instruments that were blown, plucked, or struck, just as is done by the musicians of today. Most of the early music, however, was vocal. In the ancient Egyptian temples, choirs sang to honor the gods, while in the court, musicians accompanied their songs with instruments of the wind, string, and percussion families. The ancient tribes of Israel used a shofar (a ram's horn trumpet) to accompany some religious services, a practice that has been continued to the present day. It was the development of music in Greece, however, that clearly influenced Western music. The Greeks had a system of writing their music down, and they invented a system of scales called modes that was the forerunner of the modern major and minor scales. Roman music was founded on the Greek model. A seven-tone scale evolved under the Romans, and instrumentation was further developed, including the straight trumpet.

During the Middle Ages, a great catalyst for both change and preservation in music arrived with the development of musical notation, the written language of music. Much credit for this accomplishment is ascribed to Guido d'Arezzo, an 11th-century Italian monk who devised a system for writing music down on paper so that it might be preserved and later read and played by other musicians. Many monks during this period devoted their lives to the preservation of the music of the church, and much of the knowledge and development of music is owed to their dedicated efforts. Throughout the Middle Ages, singers and musicians traveled from town to town to play for new audiences. During the Renaissance, singers and musicians often had to depend on wealthy patrons for support. What we now call classical music developed during the Renaissance.

During the 17th century, the operatic form developed, most notably in Italy. Opera, combining orchestral music and theater with an extremely popular form of singing, opened up a whole new range of opportunities for musicians, particularly singers. Singers soon began to gain fame in their own right for their incredible vocal feats, and great public demand for their performances allowed them to sever their dependent ties to wealthy patrons.

From about the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, opportunities for instrumental musicians expanded as composers began to write more complex musical pieces for larger ensembles. During this period, many of the world's great symphonies, concerti, and chamber music were written and performed by musicians playing an ever-widening array of instruments. In the early 1800s came the onset of the Romantic movement in music, in which composers wrote with a new degree of emotionalism and self-expression that conductors and musicians were expected to express in their performance. Around the beginning of the 20th century, musical performers faced another challenge as composers, seeking to break new musical ground, adapted atonal and discordant sounds and new rhythms to their compositions, a direction greatly influenced by the 12-tone scale of Arnold Schoenberg.

The operatic, classical, and nationalistic music of Europe was brought to America by the migrating Europeans. Throughout the early history of the country, virtually all of the music played was European in style. By the end of the 19th century, however, and through the 20th, musicians increasingly came to play music that was distinctly American in style and composition. At least one musical form, jazz, was entirely an American invention.

The development of popular music and the development of recorded music greatly increased opportunities for musicians. U.S. popular music and jazz influenced music throughout the world. Swing grew out of jazz, and big swing bands mushroomed all over the United States during the late 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s. Big bands diminished by the late 1950s as rising costs and new popular music styles, such as rhythm and blues and rock and roll, directed the move to smaller groups using electric and electronic instruments. With the advent of electronic mass media, the musical superstar was created, as millions of people at a time could hear and see musical performers. Although the mass electronic media created an enormous market for popular music, it has ironically limited the market for live performances by musicians. The demand for live musicians was also reduced by the widening use of advanced electronic instruments, such as the synthesizer, which itself can replace a whole band, and the DJ (disc jockey), who plays recorded music over highly sophisticated sound systems, replacing musicians at clubs and gatherings.

Until about the mid-1900s, musicians and singers were largely an exploited group who made little money for the use of their skills. The growth of organizations designed to protect performing artists has helped greatly to improve the lot of musicians. Particularly effective was the American Federation of Musicians, the musicians' union, which created a wage scale and oversaw the rights of musicians in recording, broadcasting, theater, and at any event in which musicians or their recordings are used. In some situations the union requires that live musicians be hired.

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