Music Video

by Henry Keazor, Thorsten Wübbena

1 “The Picturesque of Sound”

2 The First Recorded Moving Images

3 First Complex Combinations of Film and Music

4 Visual Jukebox 1: Soundies

5 Visual Jukebox 2: Music Films and Promotional Films for Television

6 MTV and the Music Video Aesthetic

7 The First Crisis Periods and Zeniths: The Perfection of Form

8 The Current Crisis: New Formats and Distribution Channels


Music videos are short films in which images accompany a piece of music. Initially they were usually commissioned from a director and a production company by the performer’s record label for promotional purposes, and until the end of the 1990s they were primarily produced to be used by cable companies specializing in music (e.g., MTV, VIVA). More recently, however, the Internet has played an increasing role in their reception. Following an artistic and financial apex in the 1990s, when a single video could have a budget of as much as seven million dollars, record companies are investing less and less in music videos, as a consequence of financial setbacks in recent years, with the result that more and more directors are moving into films, art, and advertising. Whereas those branches provided the inspiration for the video for many years, now they are increasingly influenced by the formal idiom of the music video. Despite such often close interrelationships to these and other art forms—such as the opera, the musical, video art, and the feature, dance, avant-garde, and concert film—the music video did not emerge directly from these fields. Rather, it should be seen a genre that developed in parallel through different, constantly recurring stages. Its brevity—videos are usually the same length as the music they promote—also distinguishes the genre from most of the other forms mentioned above.


1 “The Picturesque of Sound”

In order to define the forerunners and beginnings of the music video precisely, and to trace its historical development from there, it is important to first recall the two main functions of the genre:

  1. Reproducing as accurately as possible a natural phenomenon—i.e., one occurring in everyday reality—and its simultaneous esthetic staging, whereby this reproduction should be repeatable at will and, in contrast to such forms as theater, opera, and the musical, should not require narration.
  2. Making available the mediatized presence of a musical performer in a way that is, like a stage production, primarily addressed to an audience and speaks to it. This aspect explains why videos often have the performer facing the camera.

The specific points of departure for its technical evolution to be mentioned here are, first, the Eidophusikon by the French-born English painter Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740–1812) and Thomas Alva Edison’s Kinetophone of 1891.

De Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon, first presented in 1781 in London, was an audiovisual miniature theater. Scenes from nature were realistically reproduced on a small stage with the aid of painted and modeled elements that could move, thanks to a clever technology, to the accompaniment of noises and music. The Eidophusikon’s effort to reproduce nature as convincingly as possible (the name is derived from the Greek: eidos meaning form or image and phusikos meaning original or natural) were judged extremely successful by contemporaries. De Loutherbourg was praised not only as a genius who could create a copy of Nature, to be taken for Nature’s self but also as the inventor of a new audiovisual art: He introduced a new art—the picturesque of sound.[1]

This emphasis on close interweaving of image and sound characterizes each of the genres that can be seen as a transitional medium between the Eidophusikon and Edison’s Kinetophone. In 1836 the writer August Lewald described a form of presentation in which the strikingly similar, moving portrait of a recently deceased mezzo-soprano was projected while a singer in a hidden location accompanied it.[2]

2 The First Recorded Moving Images

This singing ghost portrait can be seen as an early forerunner of so-called song slides, which came into fashion in the United States between 1890 and 1915 and were shown during intermissions in vaudeville performances and cinemas. They represented an effort to depict the text and mood of a song visually with the help of a slide show, which included as many as sixteen individual images per song (the refrain was then projected on the screen, so that the audience could sing the song, in the style of today’s karaoke videos). The objective of such presentations was, like the music video later, to advertise the song, the music for which was sold after the performance.

Whereas in the song slides movement could only be suggested by means of clever superimposition tricks, a moving image accompanied by music was the declared goal of Edison’s Kinetophone, a combination film projector and phonograph that he first presented in 1891. It was promoted with a phrase that is highly reminiscent of Lewald’s report cited above: the illusion is complete and we may see and hear a whole opera as perfectly as if actually present although the actual performance may have taken place years before.[3] A journalist in Berlin said the purpose of the device was that anyone sitting in an armchair in his own room could not only hear an entire opera performance telephonically but also see the activities on the stage.[4] The convincing presence of the sound and image (though not their esthetic staging) of musical events occurring away in space and time was thus the stated goal of this apparatus, which is described as a forerunner of the television.

The intentions of the Eidophusikon and the Kinetophone—on the one hand, making the presence of the performer available in sound and image and, on the other hand, the esthetic presentation of events by staging them in a way appropriate to the music—intertwined with and permeated each other to the extent permitted by the available technology.

3 First Complex Combinations of Film and Music

Thanks to the Chronophonograph by the French engineer and film pioneer Léon Gaumont, by late 1902 it was possible to create rather complex combinations of image and sound, which approached the lip-synching technique used to produce video clips today. The phonoscène for the song Anna, qu’est-ce tu t’attends; ou, Vas-y, ma poule (1907), produced by Gaumont and directed by Alice Guy (1873–1968), should thus be considered a direct forerunner to the music video. The action described in the song lyrics (an impatient husband demanding that a woman hurry up with her domestic chores) is interpreted in scenes in which the absurd consequences of male nervousness and hectic rushing are brought home. Long before the first full-length musical film, The Jazz Singer by Alan Crosland (US 1927), which established the genre of the cinematic musical, the complex possibilities of intertwining an action, music, and sung text had already been explored. Combining music with dance interludes as a truly film-specific staging was developed in musical films such as Footlight Parade (US 1933, dir. Lloyd Bacon). In sequences like By a Waterfall, Busby Berkeley choreographed the movements of the dances into abstract or floral arrangements that recall Oskar Fischinger’s Studies. The formal idiom developed in that series of abstract films was influential on the esthetic of the music video as was the exact synchronization to the rhythms of the music. Moreover, Fischinger often used popular hits as the music. In his Study 2 (DE 1930), set to the song Vaya Veronica, the final credits included a reference to the recording and its availability in stores, which prefigured the commercial function of the music video. The music video likewise would serve as a place for technical and esthetic experimentation for things that would later be used successfully in feature films.

4 Visual Jukebox 1: Soundies

A certain routine in the production of short music films was introduced in the United States in 1939 in the form of so-called soundies: short, approximately three-minute-long, black-and-white music films in 16-mm format, which could be watched on visual jukeboxes. The soundies usually featured famous jazz musicians and already offered a broad palette of ideas for staging. The acoustic and visual presence of the performers and the esthetic presentation of the music they played was juxtaposed or intertwined, for example, in the short film made to Count Basie’s Take Me Back, Baby in 1941. This is particular evident when the staging of live performance functions as the visual realization of the framing instrumental parts, while the central vocal passages are translated into a visual narrative that interprets the song lyrics. By contrast, the photographer Gjon Mili opted for a direct visual translation of musical structures for his film Jammin’ the Blues, produced together with Norman Granz, using dance interludes and superimpositions that produced kaleidoscope effects, which were then taken up again in a similar context thirty-one years later in Bruce Gowers’ video for Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen (1975). One clear homage to these jazz soundies was the prizewinning video directed by Godley & Creme for Every Breath You Take by the Police in 1983.

5 Visual Jukebox 2: Music Films and Promotional Films for Television

The basic possibilities for visual presentation of music within the framework of a (short) film were exploited almost entirely in the soundies. When the French visual jukeboxes dubbed Scopitones (from scope a tone) were developed in 1960, color was added as an artistic means. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Beatles were already using short music films, which required such jukeboxes to show them, to promote their music on television.

Examples include the short films directed by Peter Goldman in 1967 for the double-A-side single featuring Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. That same year saw a fifty-minute-long music film, Magical Mystery Tour (UK 1967, dir. Bernard Knowles and The Beatles), about a psychedelic bus ride that the Beatles directed themselves. The Beatles also played the main roles in a series of feature films such as A Hard Day’s Night (UK 1964) and Help! (UK 1965), both directed by Richard Lester, and in the animated film Yellow Submarine (1968), directed by George Dunning.

The music films by the Beatles were in part a result of their decision not to organize lavish concert tours and thus represented a way to replace live performances—a concept that was taken up by other musicians in the 1970s (ABBA’s Waterloo, 1974, by Lasse Hallström and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, 1975, by Bruce Gowers). These promo films were shown, for example, on music shows like the extremely popular Top of the Pops, which was launched by the BBC in the United Kingdom in 1964.

6 MTV and the Music Video Aesthetic

For the inaugural program on MTV in August 1981, the video for the Buggles song Video Killed the Radio Star, directed by Russell Mulcahy two years earlier, was chosen, since the number of available short music films was modest at the time. The existence of a station specializing in music videos, and commercially successful at it, provided such impetus for the production of the genre that the video director Rudi Dolezal observed in retrospect that during the 1980s a suitable video was automatically produced for every stupid band.[5]

In the wake of the explosion in the production of music videos, design features began to crystallize that have often been subsumed under the term music video esthetic. Its characteristics include, among other things, the use of high frequency cuts, compositing and collage techniques, visual effects and graphic elements, and their precise synchronization with the musical beat. The music video became an experimental field at the intersection between technology and art, inspiring numerous filmmakers and visual artists. Moreover, the technical possibilities made it easier to expand the pop cultural strategies of citation, sampling, and appropriation that had been developed in the context of mass media.

Over the course of its history/ies, the music video developed into a highly referential medium that appropriated more and more esthetic forerunners. Very early on, familiar elements from the musical, advertising, the feature film, the visual arts, and avant-garde film were employed in order to offer the viewer, despite the possible density in a video lasting only the brief duration of the piece of music, an arc of visual tension that was as easy to follow as possible. One example of such use and combination of stylistic means of diverse origin is Bill Konersman’s video for Sign ‘o’ the Times (1987), in which typographic elements and abstract and narrative cinematic forms are interwoven.

7 The First Crisis Periods and Zeniths: The Perfection of Form

The 1990s are generally regarded as the first crisis period for the music video but also one of its zeniths. On the one hand, the beginning of the decade saw the first economic downturn for the record industry and a certain glut of product, which meant that the previously common widespread generosity in the financing of music videos became much more focused. That led, on the other hand, to music videos with budgets as high as between 2.5 million dollars and 7 million dollars (e.g., Mark Romanek’s video for Michael Jackson’s Scream in 1995). In the end, the video developed a high-art form as it increasingly began to be used successfully as an experimental platform for technical innovations that then made their way into the cinema. Examples include digital techniques such as the frozen moment that was integrated into the narrative of The Matrix in 1999, which had been employed in Michel Gondry’s video for Like a Rolling Stone (1995) and taken up again in the videos for Bally Sagoo’s Dil Cheez (1996) and Underwater Love by Smoke City (1997).

Beginning in the 1990s, video directors made increasing references to the conventionalized formats of the mass media and their stylistic means. For example, in his video for Revolution 909 by Daft Punk, Roman Coppola borrowed narrative forms from documentary films and cooking shows. Other filmmakers, such as Spike Jonze, took their lead from the esthetic features of film trailers or the opening credits of television series from the 1970s, with their rapid, seemingly heterogeneous series of images that are nonetheless held together by the music, to which Jonze paid a lovingly ironic homage with his 1994 video for Sabotage by the Beastie Boys.

This kind of tension-filled construction of high visual density combined with heterogeneous visual subject matter found its equivalent in terms of musical and textural structure in such new musical styles as hip-hop, with its citation and collage techniques. This technique permitted enormously complex interweaving of music, images, and text in videos. The video Dave Meyers directed in 2002 for Missy Elliott’s Work It! uses its samples and quotations as building blocks to evoke ever new visual associations, which then begin to take on their own lives and ultimately feed back into the levels of music and text that had originally provoked them. This meshing and interaction of the specific video parameters that intersect and dovetail in the music video can open up with extreme concision sometimes extremely ambitious discourses on experiences of personal or supra-individual loss (September 11, 2001) and issues of race. This marked a zenith of density and complexity that would be followed by a contrary division and diversity of distribution formats.

8 The Current Crisis: New Formats and Distribution Channels

Behind the crisis of the music video that is frequently diagnosed today stand two distinct yet related sets of problems. The Internet plays a part in both cases. The record industry experienced another economic downturn in the late 1990s as the result, among other things, of the possibility of downloading music more or less free of charge from the Internet. This in turn led to extreme cuts in the budgets for music videos. Music television also lost its monopoly to the Internet, since it was now possible to play videos immediately rather than waiting—as was previously the case with MTV, for example—until a particular video is shown. In a sense, it represents a return to visual jukeboxes, which also made it possible to choose specific films directly.

The change in distribution channels for music also had an effect on music videos and additionally engendered new forms resulting from certain requirements of the media. For example, music videos are increasingly viewed in the form of audiovisual mobile-phone ring tones, so-called machinimas (films produced with the help of game engines), or on the Internet (e.g., the Internet platform YouTube). The circumstances of their reception (e.g., lower image quality) are taken into account by reducing the complexity of the relationship of image, music, and text. The smaller budgets for music videos also means that one finds more esthetically simplified reproductions or simulated depictions of (live) performances. Consequently, one of the basic functions of the video—as a substitute for a live performance—is given more emphasis, as is the case, for example, with the video Mark Romanek directed in 2005 for Speed of Sound by Coldplay.

At the same time, the continuation of a certain innovative vitality of the music video is evident from the fact that creative impulses have sometimes come from its new form of presentation: whereas the director Walter Stern, in his video for The Prayer by Bloc Party (2006), made the medium of the video—film—seem to get hot and break out in flames, directors such as Ray Tintori (in his video for Evident Utensil by Chairlift) or Nabil Elderkin (in the video for Kanye West’s Welcome to the Heartbreak, also from 2009) deliberately employed the interference and distortion that can result from flawed data transfer via the Internet as an esthetic stylistic feature in so-called datamoshing.

In addition, the availability of digital tools and the spread of Internet platforms such as YouTube have led to the updating and recombination of already familiar techniques—for example, when the traditional technique of mashing is applied to videos shot by ordinary users and uploaded to YouTube. Using an idea that Matthew Cullen had employed in his video for Pork and Beans by Weezer (2008)—namely, inviting people famous from YouTube to participate in his video— the Israeli musician Kutiman used excerpts from YouTube videos as samples for his Thru You project and mixed them into new audiovisual compositions.

There are also approaches that expand the music video by combining it with software applications. One example of this is Erik Schneider’s Choose project (2005–2007), which entailed developing an interactive video structure based on a vvvv patch. Other directors have exploited the possibility of digital image manipulation to open up room to play with innovative combinations of sound and image that also demonstrate the associated increasing virtuality of visual worlds, as Michel Gondry impressively demonstrates in his video for Star Guitar by the Chemical Brothers. Starting out with real photographs, a visual object is assigned to each musical event by subsequently editing the visual elements, though this is not evident on first glance.

The esthetic innovations of the music video by experimenters like Gondry have since been used increasingly in the cinema, not least because many video directors have gone over to the film industry. There videos influence entire film sequences and establish new forms of narrative. As far back as the Scopitone era, individual directors—Claude Lelouch, for example—applied the experience they acquired there to their film work, while other directors, such as Chris Cunningham, have become established in the art world.

all footnotes

[1] Ephraim Hardcastle (pseudonym of William Henry Pyne), Wine and Walnuts; or, After Dinner Chit-Chat, 2 vols., vol. l.1 (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1823), 296.

[2] August Lewald, Album der Boudoirs (Stuttgart: Literatur-Comtoir, 1838), 42–43.

[3] Thomas A. Edison: Patent Caveat (8. Oktober 1888), The Thomas Edison Papers, Digital Edition, TAED [PT031AAA] Patent Series-Caveat Files: Case 110: Motion Pictures (1888) [PT031AAA1; TAEM 113],, accessed August 4, 2009.

[4] Berliner Lokal-Anzeiger, March 3, 1895, quoted in Martin Loiperdinger, Film und Schokolade: Stollwercks Geschäft mit lebenden Bildern (Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld / Roter Stern, 1999), 58.—Trans. S. L.

[5] Rudi Dolezal, “Musikvideos: Die Avantgarde der 90er Jahre,” in Visueller Sound: Musikvideos zwischen Avantgarde und Populärkultur, eds. Cecilia Hausheer and Annette Schönholzer (Lucerne, Switzerland: Zyklop, 1994), 168–169, esp. 169.

List of books in this text

Album der Boudoirs
1838, Author: Lewald, August

Film und Schokolade: Stollwercks Geschäfte mit lebenden Bildern
1999, Author: Loiperdinger, Martin Publisher: Stroemfeld

Musikvideos – Die Avantgarde der 90er Jahre
1994, Author: Dolezal, Rudi Publisher: Zyklop-Verl.

Patent Caveat (8. Oktober 1888) [PT031AAA] Patent Series-Caveat Files: Case 110: Motion Pictures (1888) [PT031AAA1; TAEM 113]
1888, Author: Edison, Thomas A.

Wine and walnuts; or, after dinner chit-chat
1823, Author: Hardcastle, Ephraim (i e. Pyne William

see aswell

  • Lloyd Bacon
  • Count Basie
  • Busby Berkeley
  • Roman Coppola
  • Alan Crosland
  • Matthew Cullen
  • Chris Cunningham
  • Rudi Dolezal
  • George Dunning
  • Thomas A. Edison
  • Nabil Elderkin
  • Missy Elliott
  • Oskar Fischinger
  • Léon Gaumont
  • Peter Goldman
  • Michel Gondry
  • Bruce Gowers
  • Norman Granz
  • Alice Guy
  • Lasse Hallström
  • Toshi Ichiyanagi
  • Michael Jackson
  • Spike Jonze
  • Bernard Knowles
  • Bill Konersman
  • Kutiman
  • Claude Lelouch
  • Richard Lester
  • August Lewald
  • Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg
  • Dave Meyers
  • Gjon Mili
  • Russell Mulcahy
  • Mark Romanek
  • Bally Sagoo
  • Erik Schneider
  • Walter Stern
  • Ray Tintori
  • Kanye West
  • Works
  • A Hard Day’s Night
  • Anna, qu’est-ce tu t’attends
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • By a Waterfall
  • Choose
  • Chronophonograph
  • Dil Cheez
  • Eidophusikon
  • Every breath you take
  • Evident Utensil
  • Footlight Parade
  • Help!
  • Jammin’ the Blues
  • Kinetophone
  • Like a Rolling Stone
  • Magical Mystery Tour
  • Penny Lane
  • Pork and Beans
  • Revolution 909
  • Sabotage
  • Scream
  • Sign ‘o’ the Times
  • Song-Slides
  • Speed of Sound
  • Star Guitar
  • Strawberry Fields
  • Studien
  • Study II
  • Take me back, Baby
  • The Jazz Singer
  • The Matrix
  • The Prayer
  • Thru You
  • Top of the Pops
  • Underwater Love
  • Vaya Veronica
  • Video killed the Radio Star
  • vvvv
  • Waterloo
  • Welcome to the Heartbreak
  • Work it!
  • Yellow Submarine

  • Timelines
    1780 until today

    All Keywords
  • Entgrenzung (Chap. 1)
  • Intermedialität (Chap. 3)
  • Polysensualität (Chap. 1)
  • Verzeitlichung (Chap. 2)
  • collage (Chap. 6, 7)
  • rhythm (Chap. 3, 6)
  • sampling (Chap. 6, 8)
  • substitution (Chap. 8)
  • synchronicity (Chap. 2, 3, 6)

  • Socialbodies
  • Abba
  • Beastie Boys
  • Bloc Party
  • British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
  • Chairlift
  • Chemical Brothers
  • Coldplay
  • Daft Punk
  • Godley & Creme
  • MTV (Music Television)
  • Police
  • Queen
  • Smoke City
  • The Beatles
  • The Buggles
  • Weezer
  • Privacy Policy / Legal Info (Impressum)