Music history, for many kids, extends only as far back as 1999, the year Napster opened for business. Yet the Internet can provide an enriching (and legal) way to broaden their horizons. Using text, images, and sound, a number of ambitious sites have turned the Internet into the powerful educational tool it was meant to be.
Broadest in scope is the BBC’s A Journey Through 2,000 Years of Western Music (www.bbc.co.uk/music/timeline), which chronicles each of the last 20 centuries of music through audio clips, scholarly writings, and contextual general history. Along with the sometimes-dense material is enough high-tech flash to draw curious surfers along: From the first century, we hear renditions of a Greek epitaph and the bells of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; for the ninth century, we listen as scholars debate the effect of standard musical notation with all the fervor of a tastes great/less filling face-off. The 20th-century section leaves us a little drowsy from entries on Debussy, Mahler, and Ives but picks up a bit with the fascinating Millicent 2000 (a piece improvised by a computer). And despite its claim to be an ”amazing overview of 2,000 years,” it ignores some of the biggest innovations of the last hundred years, like blues, jazz, and rock & roll.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s History of Rock and Roll Visual Timeline (rockhall.com/timeline) fills in a lot of the BBC’s blanks, covering the span of American pop music, beginning in the 1920s with entries on country, R&B, gospel, and blues, and ending the century with sections on grunge and British pop. But despite its distinctly more colorful source material, the timeline is about as exciting as study hall: There are no audio files, and the artist biographies contain only the most cursory details.
Visitors looking for a more in-depth overview might want to try the Experience Music Project’s online collection (www.emplive.com). We emphasize the word try: The site is so overloaded with audio, video, and interactive features that only the most powerful plug-in-loaded machines will be able to utilize all of it. But oh, how the fly and mighty will be rewarded: See handbills and posters from the riot-grrrl scene in early-’90s Olympia, Wash., hear Muddy Waters’ early recording of ”You Shook Me,” watch an interview with Exene Cervenkova of L.A. ’80s punk heroes X, experience an interactive feature on Quincy Jones’ life and work. And if your computer gets through all that without crashing, it wins a spot in the PC Hall of Fame. BBC: B+; Timeline: C; EMP: A-