Skip to Main Content

"Song is man's sweetest joy," said the Greek poet Museaeus in the eighth century B.C. Singers use their voices as instruments of sound and are capable of relating music that touches the soul. The verb to sing is related to the Greek term omphe, which means voice. In general, singing is related to music and thus to the Muses, the goddesses in Greek mythology who are said to watch over the arts and are sources of inspiration.

Singing, or vocal performance, is considered the mother of all music, and is thought of as an international language. Before musical instruments were created there existed the voice, which has had the longest and most significant influence on the development of all musical forms and materials that have followed.

A precise, formal history of the singing profession is not feasible in an article of this length, for singing evolved in different parts of the world and in diverse ways at various times. A 40,000-year-old cave painting in France suggests the earliest evidence of music; the painting shows a man playing a musical bow and dancing behind several reindeer. Most civilizations have had legends suggesting that gods created song, and many myths suggest that nymphs have passed the art of singing to us. The Chinese philosopher Confucius considered music, with its ability to portray emotions as diverse as joy and sorrow, anger and love, to be a significant aspect of a moral society.

There are certain differences between Eastern and Western music. In general, music of Middle Eastern civilizations has tended to be more complex in its melodies (although music from the Far East is often relatively simple). Western music has been greatly influenced by the organized systems of musical scales of ancient Greece and has evolved through various eras, which were rich and enduring but can be defined in general terms. The first Western musical era is considered to have been the medieval period (c. 850–1450), when the earliest surviving songs were written by 12th century French troubadours and German minnesingers; these poet-musicians sang of love, nature, and religion. The next periods include the Renaissance (c. 1450–1600), during which the musical attitude was one of calm and self-restraint; the Baroque (c. 1600–1750), a time of extravagance, excitement, and splendor; the Classical (c. 1750–1820), a return to simplicity; and the Romantic (c. 1820–1900), which was a time of strong emotional expression and fascination with nature.

In primitive societies of the past and present, music has played more of a ritualistic, sacred role. In any case, singing has been considered an art form for thousands of years, powerfully influencing the evolution of societies. It is a large part of our leisure environment, our ceremonies, and our religions; the power of song has even been said to heal illness and sorrow. In antiquity, musicians tended to have more than one role, serving as composer, singer, and instrumentalist at the same time. They also tended to be found in the highest levels of society and to take part in events such as royal ceremonies, funerals, and processions.

The function of singing as entertainment was established relatively recently. Opera had its beginnings in the late 16th century in Italy and matured during the following centuries in other European countries. The rise of the professional singer (also referred to as the vocal virtuoso because of the expert talent involved) occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries. At this time, musical composers began to sing to wider audiences, who called for further expression and passion in singing.

Throughout the periods of Western music, the various aspects of song have changed along with general musical developments. Such aspects include melody, harmony, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, texture, and other characteristics. The structures of song are seemingly unlimited and have evolved from plainsong and madrigal, chanson and chorale, opera and cantata, folk and motet, anthem and drama, to today's expanse of pop, rock, country, rap, and so on. The development of radio, television, motion pictures, the Internet, and various types of recordings (LP records, cassettes, compact discs, and digital audio) has had a great effect on the singing profession, creating smaller audiences for live performances yet larger and larger audiences for recorded music.

Related Professions