5 influential women in music history

Posted on: 08 March 2018

Whether they’ve been included in the history books or not, women have always been, and continue to be, important figures in all genres of music. In honour of International Women’s Day 2018, we’ve put together a list of five female musicians who’ve shaped music through the decades and continue to inspire us today.  

1) Clara Schumann - German pianist and composer (1819-1896)

You’ve probably heard of her husband Robert Schumann, by whom Clara herself has been woefully overshadowed in history – which is ironic, considering that it was actually Clara’s skilful piano playing which inspired Schumann to stop studying law and take up piano lessons with her father.

Clara had a long and successful concert career, spanning an impressive 61 years. In 1830, at the age of just eleven, she left on a concert tour to Europe and gave her first solo concert at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. She performed a series of recitals in Vienna when she was 18 to sold-out crowds, and was awarded Austra’s highest musical honour.

Clara Schumann was one of the first pianists to perform from memory, and was instrumental in changing the types of programs typically expected of concert pianists.

1) Nadia Boulanger - French composer, conductor and teacher (1887-1979)

For most of the 20th century, female conductors were almost nowhere to be seen, and some orchestras even refused to play for women on the podium. But in 1937, Nadia Boulanger famously became the first woman to conduct London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and in America, she was the first woman to lead the New York Philharmonic.

Even today, female conductors are still vastly outnumbered by men. It was only in September 2013 that Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in its 118 year history – and a 2014 survey found that in a list of the top 150 conductors in the world, only five were women. 

3) Sister Rosetta Tharpe - singer, songwriter, guitarist and recording artist (1915-1973)

Now widely known as ‘the Godmother of rock and roll’, Sister Rosetta Tharpe influenced the likes of Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.

She was responsible for bringing gospel music into the pop world, and was a pioneer in her guitar technique. She was one of the first recording artists to use heavy distortion, and her playing had a strong influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s.

Despite the fact that she could outplay many male guitarists, Tharpe was often chastised rather than praised for being able to “play like a man”. Her influence has been widely recognised since her death, and she was posthumously indicted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007, and later the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 as an Early Influence. 

4) Delia Derbyshire - electronic music composer (1937-2001)

Delia Derbyshire was best known for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop during the 1960s, particularly her arrangement of the theme music to Doctor Who.

She was mostly ignored during her life and banned from working in studios simply because she was a woman – but she has since been credited for creating new sounds and arrangements in music, and for paving the way for women to work in music production.

Her efforts have been recognised far more widely since her death, and she has been honoured with a posthumous PhD from Coventry University. 

5) Sandy West - drummer for The Runaways (1959-2006)

Sandy West began playing drums at the age of 9, and by age 13, she was
the only girl in local rock bands who played at any teenage parties. She met Joan Jett and producer Kim Fowley at the age 15, and formed The Runways, the first teenage all-girl rock band to record and achieve commercial success in the 1970s.

She was a commanding and intense drummer with a strong stage presence who inspired many. As her bandmate Joan Jett said in tribute:

“Sandy was an exuberant and powerful drummer. So underrated, she was the calibre of John Bonham. I am overcome from the loss of my friend. I always told her, we changed the world.”

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