Canadian Music History

Canadian Music History

The Tunedly Team
Drake, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion, Shawn Mendes, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Avril Lavigne…what do all these famous, albeit different, musicians have in common? When most people think of Canadian music, names such as these are among the first that come to mind.

But the land of the Maple Leaf (and, more recently, the home of the Raptors) is the birthplace of many more celebrated music artists. Collectively, they have gifted humanity with some of the biggest hits and contributed to the upper (and colder) North American country's recorded music industry being ranked the sixth-largest in the world.

Canada’s music scene goes way back and beyond its impressive record in the modern music business. Its music creators have always been on the cutting edge…long before Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill became one of the bestselling albums of all time. Long before Bryan Adams wrote his tribute to the “Summer Of ’69.” Long before Paul Anka wrote Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and long before Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn To Freedom” became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

Yes, Canada’s music is as diverse and interesting as its people. To fully understand the extent of its music history would require much reading and writing. With that said, we have put together a basic outline of the country’s musical story.

Where Canada’s music comes from

As a sovereign country, Canada is just over 150 years old. This makes it a relatively young nation when compared to some first world countries such as England and Germany or even its closest neighbor, the USA (over 240 years old). But Canada’s love of music began before it became recognized as an independent society.

A lot of the music currently enjoyed in North America evolved from cultural practices brought over by immigrants from European locations. However, music was already a big part of the lifestyle of the Eskimos and other indigenous people living in that part of the world for hundreds of years before. Throat singing and Aboriginal drumming for ceremonial/religious purposes, for example, was a part of the culture of the original settlers.

When French settlers arrived in the 17th Century, they naturally introduced different types of music to the Canadian landscape. The French not only brought with them a bevy of instruments (violins, flutes, guitars, drums, etc.), they also taught their style of music to the indigenous people. This included their ways of singing and dancing and led to music of an indigenous nature being watered down or totally replaced. The influence of immigrants on the music scene came from the fact that music in Europe was a more developed art.

Colonization by the British also brought different styles of music to Canada as the 18th Century rolled around. The music then, not surprisingly, was largely of a military nature due to the period of political upheaval. Also, the continued proliferation of immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland meant the musical landscape was increasingly becoming more westernized.

In the latter part of the 1700s, this westernization was reflected in the operatic performances and concerts that started to become a common feature in Canadian music culture. By the early 1800s, music from some of the most well-known classical artists was being performed in places such as Quebec City, which had a heavy French presence (it was referred to as New France) and Halifax. Immigrants also brought their ballads, hymns, and love songs to the party.

Music in Canada at this time, was largely relegated to a pastime, compared to Europe where music publishing and sheet printing had already taken off. Whereas composers in Europe could make a living from their compositions, most early musicians in Canada made a living from any number of odd, music-related jobs, from playing in churches to teaching music lessons and even fixing instruments. Some musicians also joined groups that went around performing for various audiences. Many of these musicians wrote original folk songs which they played on fiddles, harmonicas, and accordions at these events. Some of these folk songs have endured the test of time and are still sung in modern day Canada.

The commercialization of music in Canada

The opening of a music store in Toronto in 1844 heralded a shift towards commercialization of Canadian music. Canadians could now buy sheet music and pianos, giving people more access to music creations as well as making it possible for people to practice music on their own. People, particularly from middle class families, were starting to engage in singer-songwriting and instrumentalism. Leading up to and beyond Canada becoming a sovereign state in 1867, Canadians had access to the works of several European artists. These included Jenny Lind, a Swedish singer; violinists Henri Vieuxtemps and Ole Bull; and Sigismond Thalberg, a noted Swiss pianist.

Canadian music as a thriving industry was still a far way off from turning the corner, however. This was due to several reasons, one being the vastness of the Canadian landscape coupled with the relatively small population. There was also the disdain of the upper class, who probably didn’t find the music of their countrymen/women as tasteful enough for their liking. As such, Canadian musicians started to seek out greener pastures, with the easiest route being to head south to the U.S. which had a more vibrant music scene by this time.

The classical music scene

Due to the strong European influence, classical music soon took hold, with selections from Bach, Handel, and Mozart, being performed in concert halls. Opera music also became a common feature for those seeking musical entertainment. Churches set up by immigrants encouraged people to learn to play a diverse array of instruments such as pipe organs and pianos. In turn, this emerging classical and church music scene resulted in public schools introducing the teaching of music in their curriculums. Later in the 19th Century, several universities began offering music degrees as well.

Classical music reigned as the music of choice among the wealthy and powerful coming towards the beginning of the 1900s. This was evident in the types of compositions that gained popularity and the grand performances of the time. Large orchestras consisting of hundreds – and even thousands – of instrumentalists and singers performed across various Canadian cities during the early 1900s. Soon, the Société symphonique de Québec (later called the Orchestre symphonique de Québec) was formed, followed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The role of the piano

Heading towards the 20th Century, Canadian music got a boost from the taking off of the piano industry. Pianos made in Canada had a reputation for durability, which led to growing demand in other countries as well as within Canada. This led to a high number of people being employed in the over 40 piano-making factories that were in operation by 1900. It also resulted in more Canadian families having pianos in their homes, which naturally led to more citizens learning to play the instrument and becoming more interested in music.

The gramophone, which had by now been invented, also found its way into many homes across Canada. Canadians could now easily listen to popular songs from American and British artists. Access to music provided added inspiration for young Canadians to become artists themselves. Before long, Canadian musicians were releasing hits of their own, which were available as sheet music.

Although World War One put a dent in the progress of the Canadian music industry during the early 1900s, it provided inspiration for the creation of songs that celebrated Canadian patriotism. The movement was not restricted to Canadians at home; one composer, Sir Ernest MacMillan, while not a creator of patriotic music, managed to make an impact while he was a prisoner of war in Germany during WWI. In addition to being a music director and performer, he composed music works of his own and gave lectures, which resulted in a doctoral degree from Oxford University. Later on, he returned to Canada where he took up directing the famous Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), which had been disbanded due to the war.

The period of the Great Depression put a damper on Canadian music but by then there were 34 radio stations, including a French-language spot on the dial, which allowed people to listen to music. Among the genres which were played heavily at the time included swing music, which was popular in neighboring America. Jazz, also popular in the U.S., made its way across Canada’s airwaves in the 1930s as well. These types of music influenced artists such as Guy Lombardo, who became a star while performing big band jazz as part of the The Royal Canadians, a group made up of his brothers and friends.

Country music, which evolved from American folk, also made its way to Canadian ears via the radio. Slowly but surely, Canada’s music industry began to take shape, starting with the Compo Company, Canada’s first independent record label. Next, the passing of the Copyright Act, followed by the launch of the Canadian Performing Rights Society (CPRS) in 1925, sought to secure royalties for copyright holders and provide music licensing services. Canadian music creators could now earn whenever their works were played on radio (followed soon after by the TV), or performed at concerts, in cinemas, and theaters.

CPRS soon became CAPAC (Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada), after being partially bought out by the US’s ASCAP. In addition to its original role, CAPAC also invested in the education of musicians through scholarships, assisted with booking and promotion, and launched Canada’s first bilingual magazine dedicated to music. The Broadcasting Act was also created to regulate how music and other content was broadcasted throughout Canada.

The 1930s and 40s saw a number of Canadian music stars emerging such as Hank Snow, who set himself apart as a Country music phenomenon. Snow was not only popular in Canada, his music managed to become an influencing factor in the United States as well. Oscar Peterson, who excelled as a jazz pianist from Montreal, also achieved critical acclaim in Canada and the wider music world.

The music scene became even more interesting after Newfoundland became a part of the Confederation in 1949. The province was a hotbed of traditional Irish and Celtic music, which had descended from immigrants, and now had access to the ears of the wider Canadian public.

Now a melting pot of sounds, Canada’s music evolved rapidly in the 50s and 60s, with artists such as Ronnie Hawkins helping to popularize American Blues and Rockabilly across the country. Canadian musicians were starting to make an impression on international charts such as America’s Billboard. For instance, Paul Anka, one of the early teen idols – akin to America’s Frank Sinatra – landed a number one hit on Billboard, the first Canadian to achieve such a feat. Since then, there have been dozens of artists across various genres to make a mark on the interantional music stage.


The success of Canadian musicians has, arguably, been curtailed in Canada, due to the volume of artists that have been produced in comparison to the country’s relatively low and diverse population. The result is that many of its greatest artists, including Neil Young, Bryan Adams, and Joni Mitchell, have had to seek greener pastures, particularly the United States, where their music could be heard.

But this has been mutually beneficial since their music has helped to enrich the listening public, in general. Today, the music industry in Canada has become way more dynamic and it keeps expanding while further defining its own music identity. For example, the top genre in Canada in 2015 was listed as singer-songwriter/folk, with Alternative close behind and rock, pop, and country also being in the top five.

Artists who have continued the tradition of flying the Canadian flag high include Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Drake, Robin Thicke, Justin Bieber, and Alessia Cara, just to name a few. These, among others, represent the rich diversity of Canadian music, ranging from rock and pop to soul, jazz, and country.