For our July '21 Sounds Like... playlist we’re looking at other kinds of music leader... and by that we mean musicians who blazed a trail for others to follow. If you hadn't heard already, Sounds Like... is our monthly series of songs and music representing a different theme.

We’ll start with Duke Ellington – one of the world’s most successful band leaders for 50 years, beginning in the 1930s and the era of segregation. A musical innovator and writer of more than 1000 compositions, leading world class musicians who either stayed in the band for decades or left for a while only to return. Dedication and determination also meant that he kept a big band going when fashion and economics turned to smaller bands in the 1960s.

Here’s a video from 1943...

Leading a band (or an orchestra) from the keyboard was a musical habit that persisted from the earliest days of instrumental ensembles, until the 1830s or so. As orchestras increased in size (and composers wrote for larger ensembles), the players needed someone standing at the front in order to be able to play together well. There were objections though, and plenty of players who thought that waving a stick at the front wasn’t ‘a real job’. What conductors did do was improve musically technical stuff like balance between different instruments and sections, and giving solos space to play. Here’s a short video about John Wilson – with plenty of people to tell you just what a great job a really good conductor can do:

Now for a musical inventor – the great grandfather of electronic music and instruments, Leon Theramin. A scientist at the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd, working on many different projects. One of his inventions (built to measure the content of gases, no less) had the curious habit of making sounds which changed pitch when he moved his hand around it. Naturally enough this became a competition in the lab, to see who could play recognisable tunes, and eventually into one of the world’s first electronic instruments, the Theramin. You can make them easily yourself from a kit.  Here he is playing it himself. It may not be the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard, but electronic music had to start somewhere:


We thought about Adolphe Sax as an alternative, and we bet you can guess what instrument he invented!

What about a composer? Well, yes, we probably should but there are so many to choose from, who have led the way where others have followed. So we’re going to pick Debussy, for his interest in the colour and sound of non-European music, pictures in sound (the sunken cathedral) and search for a new path away from the enormous symphonies and operas of Wagner and others:

Honorable mentions that ultimately didn't quite make our cut were Hans Reichel for his amazingly inventive sound and instrument compositions and creations... and Django Bates, purely for this inventive way of teaching intervals, through music!