British music as a unique style or a national tradition dates back to the 15th century, when it became distinct from a wider European style of music. Despite the lack of a large number of major composers born in England, British music has a rich history and has made a major impact on world music through the centuries.
In the earliest periods, British music took the form of minstrelsy, in which performers who were paid by the king played and sang, usually to mark important occasions. The English were also known for "part singing," in which each performer sang a separate part of the song, rather than all performers singing together as was common in other European countries. In the Middle Aes, music was associated primarily with the church; most British compositions that survived from this period were written for religious services. With the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, a new phenomenon of psalm-singing gained popularity in England, as the biblical texts were set to music and sung in Reformed churches and homes. Instrumental music, particularly for the lute by composers such as John Dowland, was also common during the Renaissance. At the end of the 17th century, Henry Purcell's compositions for the church, to celebrate events in the life of Queen Mary II and for the theater, were among the most important contributions to English music of the period.
The German-born George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), who lived in England after 1712, is one of the most well-known English composers. Handel's operas were influential throughout the world. His Messiah (1742) had a particular influence on English music, as it became the inspiration for widespread amateur choral singing among the middle class.
In the 19th century, the growth in sheet music publishing and the manufacturing of pianos further contributed to the traditions of amateur and popular music. The tradition of composing for the theater was carried on in Victorian England by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, whose popular comic operas, including The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore, set the stage for the tradition of modern musical theater in England and the United States.
In the middle of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten helped to keep the English operatic tradition strong, especially with his very popular and influential Peter Grimes. During this period, several important orchestras were founded, including the London Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic. British music festivals also started during this time and continue to be popular.
Perhaps the most important contributions of British music have come not from its classical composers but from its flourishing popular music culture. In the period between the two World Wars, Britain experienced a general rise in leisure time and culture that led to increased appreciation for popular music and a significant growth in its production and distribution. During these years, the development of radio and the gramophone also increased the spread of popular music in England. The music of brass bands and dance halls was especially popular, as was jazz. Performers like Jack Hylton, Jack Payne and Ray Noble performed and recorded prolifically and sold records in the millions of copies in the years after World War I.
In the early 1960s, British music reached its peak of popularity, success and influence. Beginning in 1960, the "British invasion" was an influx of British bands into the American music scene. Super groups, especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones but many others as well, topped the American popular music charts and created sometimes hysterical reactions among fans when they arrived to play concerts in the United States. The "Beatlemania" that swept the United States during the Beatles' 1964 tour helped fuel the success of these bands. At the end of the 1960s, many American performers took up the styles -- in both sound and fashion -- that the Beatles and other English groups had made popular, continuing the influence of British culture on American popular music. Among the lasting influences generated by English pop music in the 1960s are the importance of the singer/songwriter and the makeup of the rock band with a vocalist, drummer and lead and bass guitarists.
English bands also dominated another important trend in late 20th-century popular music with the punk rock bands of the 1970s. Groups such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash produced music that was loud, fast and guitar-heavy. They set out to shock audiences with their attitudes and appearance and are often seen as giving voice to the economic and political struggles of 1970s England. British punk was, like the British pop music of the previous decade, a major influence on the American music scene. In the 1980s, a second British invasion hit the U.S. airwaves, led by the New Romantic, New Wave and Synth-Pop styles of groups such as A Flock of Seagulls, The Human League, Pet Shop Boys and, later, Depeche Mode and New Order.