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The Music of Spain

Music in Spain has a long and diverse history with its influences stemming from various cultural streams, the strongest coming from centuries of uninterrupted Roman rule, which left an enduring imprint upon the culture of music in Spain.

Early origins of music in Spain

When Roman culture was dominant, it brought with it the music and ideas of Ancient Greece, whereby the reciting of epic poetry and folk music played an integral role.

In the sixth century, Saint Isidore of Seville recorded the first information about the early music of the Christian church. Isidore’s influences were predominantly Greek, yet, being an original thinker, he recorded some of the first information about the early music of the Christian church.


Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries a surge in the ‘Zarzuela’, a Spanish form of opera, popular and folk music occurred throughout Spain. This secular, lyric-dramatic genre of music allegedly derived from the Palacio de la Zarzuela, near Madrid, when it was presented as a type of entertainment to the court.  Although in the 20th century this expressive form of entertainment was supressed and forced underground, when Franco sought to create a uniform country, free of musical disparity across the regions. In the wake of Franco’s death, zarzuela came back into mainstream music in Spain, particularly among the younger generation.

Contemporary radio and television dedicate time to zarzuela, perhaps the most well-known and popular zarzuela program being a series produced by TVE titled ‘Antologia de la zarzuela’ – (Zarzuela Anthology).  

The Cobla

These diverging styles of music that Spain has nurtured for centuries include the cobla, a traditional music ensemble of Catalonia, which was generally accompanied by the Sardana, a traditional Catalan folk dance. The cobla contrasts vividly to the distinct musical traditions of Galicia in northwest Spain, that dates back to the Middle Ages which, because of the Celtic influence in Galicia, bagpipes is the signature instrument.

Pedro Nadal, Mythical Aragonese jota singer known as
El Royo del Rabal ('Redhead from the Peasant's Quarter')


Jota, which blends the guitar, castanets, tambourines and sometimes the flute, is popular throughout the whole of Spain, although its historical roots are attributed to Aragon. It varies considerably from region to region, ranging from uniquely slow in Castille y Leon to a more energetic in Leon.

Also stemming from Aragon is the ‘guitarro’, a small unique guitar which remains a popular instrument today in the Murcia region.

The guitar was invented in Andalusia in the 1790s when a sixth string was added to the Moorish lute. It gained its modern shape in the 1870s. Spanish musicians have taken the humble guitar to dizzying heights of virtuosity and none more so than Andres Segovia (1893-1997), who established classical guitar as a genre.


Flamenco, music rooted in the cante jondo (deep song) of the gitanos (gypsies) of Andalusia, is experiencing a revival. Paco de Lucia is perhaps one of the best known (internationally) flamenco guitarists.

Perhaps the most famous musical style derived from Spain is the world-famous flamenco, which has helped to make Andalucia the cultural phenomenon this southern province of Spain remains today.

The unique popularity of flamenco music has irrefutably influenced modern day pop music, with the flamenco rhythm and zest Spanish artists brought to the international music scene in the 1980s with the rise of ‘movida’, hints of which you can still find in popular music today.

The Gypsy Kings

Amongst the many music legends Spain has produced through the decades, Ana Belen, Alejandro Sanz and the popular 80s and 90s pop band Bebe, immediately spring to mind. However there is one name that remains a present-day embodiment of the individuality, diversity and influence Spanish music has had on international music – the Gypsy Kings.

The Gypsy Kings were actually born in France to parents who were mostly ‘gitanos’, Spanish Romani people who fled Spain during the Spanish Civil War. It is the Gypsy Kings who have been recognised for bringing the sounds of progressive pop-orientated flamenco to the world.

The popularity of this Andalucian-accented group reached unprecedented heights for Spanish language music in America, during 1989, when the band’s first album ‘Gipsy Kings’, spent 40 consecutive weeks in the U.S charts, further proof of how merging rumba flamenco style music with mainstream pop influences, appealed, and continues to appeal, to a worldwide audience. It was said that the last music album to be heard by Michael Jackson before he died was by the Gypsy Kings.

The proficiency to create popular music for both Spanish and English markets, which, the Gypsy Kings were and still are masters of, is still being conserved through Spanish artists today, with the likes of Shakira and Ricky Martin being household names both sides of the Atlantic. In 2010 Shakira and Ricky Martin joined forces and added their voices to a Spanish-language adaptation of a famous English song to raise money for the Haiti earthquake.

Los 40 Principales (The Top 40)

Founded in 1966, the Spanish music charts, ‘Los 40 Principales’ is one of the key radio stations in Spain with over 4,000.000 listeners. Owned by Grupo PRISA, Los 40 Principales has local stations in every region and plays mostly pop, pop-rock and house with a mix of Spanish, European, American, South American, and British bands and singers.

Musical events and festivals

Festivals, concerts and other important musical events, like the International Music Festival of Trujillo (Extremadura), are fervently held in every Spanish city, town and village, adding to an already vibrant and extensive music scene and attracting fans of almost every musical genre from all over the world.

One of the biggest contemporary music festivals in Spain is the Benicassim Festival, which has become known as the ‘Glastonbury of Spain’. Having attended Benicassim and Glastonbury, I can personally vouch that with lines ups that mirror the major British music festivals, including Oasis, Kings of Leon and Franz Ferdinand, Benicassim is certainly resonant of Glastonbury, but thankfully without the mud!

P2P Piracy and Music Sharing

Once thing that casts a murky shadow over Spain’s otherwise prolific music scene is the fact that it is known for having the worst problem with piracy in Europe. Peer-to-Peer (P2P) piracy of music in Spain is broadly observed as a tolerable cultural phenomenon, not helped by the fact that up until now few successful prosecutions have ever been brought against downloaders. With such a prolific amount of music piracy occurring in Spain, frustration is inevitably growing within the music industry giants, some of whom are threatening to bypass their products from Spain altogether. Solid process is now being made however with Spain’s new ruling party (since November 2011) ‘El Partido Popular’ pushing ahead with the Sinde Law (named after former Spanish Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde) which promises to pursue and punish websites or other resources that promote or offer pirated material.

Despite this gloomy blip threatening to dampen what has been, for centuries, a bourgeoning, successful and prominent musical existence, we cannot deny that music in Spain, plucked from various cultures of Spain’s colourful history, has played a prominent part in shaping its popular music today.