Tracing the history of music with Spotify’s new Facebook timeline

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It used to take years of study -- geeked-out reading, connecting far-flung dots in random discographies, combing liner notes for dates and label mates, taking a ‘jazz, pop and rock’ class in college -- to give yourself a well-rounded music education. But Spotify this morning introduced a tool that seeks to offer information and advice on music over the last 900 years, and in the process connect dots in a much easier way: A Facebook Timeline that spans the centuries and pinpoints important dates, recordings, movements, births and key releases across the entire world of music.

Considering that even five years ago something like this would have been impossible to construct due to licensing restrictions and technological shortcomings, the new timeline is impressive to behold; but even more intriguing is its potential.


Here’s what Spotify says about the idea in a post about the new timeline:

‘We’ve decided to take our page one step further and turn it into a destination where you can discover and listen to the history of music. If you’re looking to learn when Frank Sinatra released his first album, what year Monteverdi was born, when Britney released ... Baby One More Time, what were the biggest music stories in 1969, or just how old you were when L’il Wayne put out Tha Carter III then we’ve got you covered.’

That’s a pretty remarkable breadth, and although the timeline has gaping holes in it, the architecture is there. Drop down to, say, 1959, and factoids on important moments from that year, with links to key recordings, offer context: a link to Dave Brubeck’s ‘Time Out’ album notes that it was the first million-selling jazz album, and sits in the timeline aside a tidbit on Ornette Coleman’s ‘epochal’ record ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come.’ You can compare their sounds side by side, then move below to listen to another important jazz record from that year, Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue,’ which sits alongside an entry on the birth of Motown Records, which started in 1959 in Detroit.

Jump anywhere along the timeline and school yourself on the year-by-year evolution of music. What happened in 1098? Hildegard of Bingen, seminal early composer, was born (of course). What happened 900 years later? Britney Spears released her first single, '... Baby One More Time,’ Sinatra died, and Gorillaz released their debut full-length.

Granted, this is a work in progress; the only three entries in 1991 thus far are about Nirvana, Massive Attack and Bryan Adams, and there are only two so far in 1990. But Spotify in its announcement assures its listeners/readers that this is just the beginning and that the timeline will continue to add dates over the coming weeks.

Even better, the company has invited fans to chime in on what important dates should be included. Already grand declarations have arrived espousing the importance of topics including the arrival of grunge and Soundgarden and punker Sid Vicious’ death. There’s also a suggestion that ‘everything from Pimp C and UGK’ be added.

One commenter notes that there’s a gaping hole of classical composers from the 18th and 19th centuries, including Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and more. But it’s still early, so ignore the fact that the dearth of rap music is noticeable, that there’s no mention of the Kinks’ ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ but there is mention of the Monkees, that the overall coverage is spotty and that some of the entries may spark arguments. The important thing is that something like this exists, and its potential utility is obvious.


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-- Randall Roberts