Sampling: An Overview

Sampling has existed almost as long as music has been played. Oral musical traditions were passed around, and fragments of melodies and rhythms were recycled into new folk compositions. Quoting from earlier musicians, classical composers in the 18th century regularly borrowed from their contemporaries and their forbears, weaving a theme in an earlier composition into a new context.

In composing his 1920 ballet “Pulcinella,” Igor Stravinsky used music by 18th century composer Pergolesi so thoroughly that the ballet’s score is entirely composed of original Pergolesi musical phrases thoroughly reworked and rearranged into something completely original.

According to Guy Garcia, author of the TIME Magazine article “Play It Again, Sampler; A Revolutionary Device Turns Pop on its Ear by Enabling Musicians to Beg, Borrow and Steal Sounds From All Over,” Stravinsky was hardly alone. “Charles Ives created entire vocal lines out of fragments of other people's songs. In his 1960 opera, Die Soldaten, Bernd Alois Zimmermann directly quoted a Bach fugue, a Gregorian Chant, and conventional jazz figures,” writes Garcia.

In the 1950s, author William Burroughs used his “cut-up technique” to rearrange entire musical compositions. And in the late 1960s, The Beatles used a similar technique for “Revolution Number 9.” The rock era brought the use of borrowed audio snippets in earnest. Simon and Garfunkel famously overdubbed a Christmas carol with a harrowing 1966 radio news report in their song “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News.”

But what we consider sampling in the modern sense probably began with the Dub movement in Jamaica in the 1960s, and came to prominence in the 1970s with the arrival of rap and then hip-hop in the United States. It was a leap forward in technology that made the equipment necessary for sampling easy to come by, thereby democratizing the production and performance of digital music.

Keeping up with the quickly evolving science and culture of sampling can be tough. It has its own historical milestones and language, in the same way classical and jazz music do. Check out our timeline and glossary to help you navigate the landscape of this relatively new art form.

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