Music has always played a pivotal role at times of social change. On Saturday 9 May –  the weekend after polling day for the General Election of 2015 – we premiere 16 songs by composers considering the society they hope to see. Their chosen subjects range from the NHS and sex trafficking to homelessness and education.

We’ve looked back at the stories behind some influential pieces of music which shaped the society of their time.

  1. Sir Hubert Parry/William Blake Jerusalem (1916/1804)

Originally called And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times, Jerusalem was renamed around the time it was performed at the Suffrage Demonstration Concert in early 1918. After the concert, suffragette Millicent Garrett Fawcett asked Sir Hubert Parry’s permission to use Jerusalem as the Women Voters’ Hymn. Permission granted, it became the anthem for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Later that same year the Representation of the People Act was passed in parliament.

  1. Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (1824)

Ludwig van Beethoven’s popular ninth symphony has been the soundtrack for a variety of pivotal transitions throughout history. It all began with the world premiere in Vienna, when police were drafted in to prevent standing ovations for a composer whose popularity threatened to rile the Austrian emperor. At the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein performed the work as the renamed Ode to Freedom, before it became the official anthem for the European Union. Later, Symphony No. 9 also became Kosovo’s national anthem in recognition of the European Union’s role in the creation of that state.

  1. Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 (1942)

Dan Cruickshank, art historian, honorary fellow of the Royal Institution of British Artists, author and TV/radio broadcaster describes the symphony’s impact: “The Leningrad premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 was given in 1942 – and perhaps never before in history had music been used as such a direct weapon of war. The city had been under siege by Nazi Germany for nearly a year but continued to resist. Its people needed their morale and spirits lifted, and the work was intended to do that. It was also to proclaim the spirit of resolve and resistance to the Germans. The Leningrad premier was to be an act of defiance and of war, but it was also to be symbolic. 9 August – the day chosen for the performance – was also the date Hitler has chosen to celebrate the expected fall of Leningrad. Loudspeakers broadcast the performance to the whole city and to the encircling German army, with the premiere preceded by a bombardment of the German positions and a military sortie. The city endured – no doubt partly thanks to this symphony – until relieved in January 1944.”

  1. Bob Dylan The Times They Are a-Changin (1964)

Reflecting both the folk protest movement of the 1960s and also the civil rights movement in the US, Bob Dylan wrote The Times They Are-a-Changin as a deliberate attempt to capture this time of transitions. He wrote: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. This is definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.”

  1. Nina Simone Mississippi Goddam (1964)

Mississippi Goddam was written by Nina Simone as a response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four black children in Birmingham, Alabama. The song became a civil rights activist anthem representing the fight for equality and an end to racism. She performed it to 40,000 people during the Selma to Montgomery marches when she and other activists, including Sammy Davis Jr., James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte, crossed police lines.

  1. Stevie Wonder Happy Birthday (1981)

After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, a campaign began to get the civil rights leader’s birthday declared a national public holiday. After a defeat of the bill in congress, Stevie Wonder was asked by the King Centre for his help. Wonder wrote Happy Birthday to bring the cause into public consciousness and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference to inspire people to sign the petition for a public holiday. Six million signatures were thus obtained, making it the largest petition for a single issue in the country’s history. In 1983 Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law.

  1. U2 Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983)

Sunday Bloody Sunday captured the raw emotion of many people in Ireland and the UK growing up in the early 1980s. With the Falkland War still recent, in 1984, a year after the song was released, the IRA bombing in Brighton stunned society and its Tory leadership. With lyrics such as ‘How long – must we sing this song’, subsequent performances of U2’s song captured its audience’s feelings about the futility of war and violence.

  1. Band Aid Do They Know It’s Christmas? (1984)

Band Aid was a supergroup founded by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money towards ending poverty in Ethiopia. Their song had worldwide success in 1984 and resulted in similar acts of support from countries such as Canada, France, Spain and the United States. Its impact also directly inspired the development of huge charity concerts such as Live Aid. In total, Band Aid and Live Aid raised over £100 million for the famine relief effort in Ethiopia. In 2014 the United Nations asked Geldof to reform the group and release a remake of Do They Know It’s Christmas, raising funds to fight Ebola.

Do you agree with our choices? Would you have picked any other pieces of music? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. Nigel Braithwaite says:

    Fabulous suggestions. Don’t disagree with any but I would like to add everything I enjoy! Forcing myself to be selective I’d like to nominate all music that has been banned/suppressed for political reasons. This demonstrates the power of music and why regimes are so scared of it.
    However, the opening “Victory V” motif of Beethoven’s 5th symphony must surely have changed the world.

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