What Are Music Videos?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Back in the 1940s, an experimental collaboration between musicians and filmmakers resulted in movie shorts known as Soundies. These films generally depicted jazz or pop performers singing popular tunes of the day, most likely in a studio or nightclub setting. While few people may remember Soundies today, they did help pave the way for future musical visualizations known as music videos.

Music videos can depict stories that fit with a song or simply show musicians playing.
Music videos can depict stories that fit with a song or simply show musicians playing.

Music videos primarily began as promotional films created by a music label's publicity department or an artist's management team. When in-studio appearances became virtually impossible for groups such as the Beatles, their label would often send these promotional tapes in the group's place. Early videos were not always creative, but they did showcase the artist performing an upcoming single from an unreleased album or a live performance of a current hit.

Music videos can be watched and published on video sharing websites.
Music videos can be watched and published on video sharing websites.

Not every musical artist from the 1960s or 1970s had a collection of promotional films or taped performances, however. Highly successful solo artists such as Rod Stewart and Elton John did have a number of promotional music videos, but many other groups relied on videotaped television appearances or documentarians to provide such material to their fan base. The idea of actually producing stylized videos was largely foreign during the 1970s.

In 1981, a new cable channel called MTV, short for "Music Television," made its debut, choosing a music video by The Buggles, "Video Killed the Radio Star", as its first song. Because there were so few professional videos available, MTV hosts relied heavily on promotional videos provided by a handful of labels.

As demand for professional-grade videos increased, a number of aspiring filmmakers began to collaborate with popular bands in order to create artistic visual interpretations of their songs. Instead of simply performing the tracks in a standard linear progression, bands could incorporate all sorts of images and visual effects to enhance their music. Directors could also employ a number of experimental film techniques rarely seen outside of commercials or short films.

Music videos are designed to capture the essence of an audio performance and interpret it visually. Some videos, particular those created during the 1980s, do follow a relatively linear path, combining staged shots of the band in performance with a subplot based on the song's lyrics. Others use the band members as actors in a short film, or leave the band out of the video entirely. Animation is also a popular visual device in videos.

What was once considered a throw-away element with little commercial value has now become a recognized film genre of its own. Mainstream directors such as Spike Jonze began their careers by producing high caliber videos, and many of the editing and visual effects used in many motion pictures and commercials today can be traced back to experimental music videos.

Although both MTV and its competitor VH1 have largely abandoned the video genre for other types of programming, many bands still produce cutting edge videos as a way to promote their work and create iconic images for their fans. In fact, many modern music fans consider the visual impact of a song's video to be just as important as the song itself.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Iconic music video example: Thriller (Micheal Jackson).


Actually, if a music video is considered to be a piece of music with a video, either physical or animated is inspired by the video. The first music videos were those Merry Melody cartoons. Then came Fantasia, a feature length animated music video so avant garde that it was, for a while, considered a failure. During the 40s and 50s there were a number of Bugs Bunny "music videos" (remember the one on Rossini's Barber of Seville released in 1950?) that would certainly fit in the music video genre. So when I look at the kids that think the first music videos came from MTV in the 80's, I just have to sit back and smile.--JKS


VH1 is owned by MTV, so they are not really competitors.


Even before the Beatles, Elvis Presley did what could be considered a stylized modern music video. Take a look at "Jail House Rock"; although it's in B&W, it is well done and has good choreography (for the day) - and it was probably done in one day and one take!

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