What Was the First Music Video Ever Made?

The first-ever music video is considered to be “The Little Lost Child” by Edward B. Marks and Joe Stern from 1894, which was called an illustrated song. It was a series of projected still images, accompanied by a live music performance of the song.¹

Music Videos went through a long history of development, starting from illustrated songs, then the invention of the first motion picture with sound-on-film, all the way to animated videos that were structured around music, to eventually get the official term “music-video” which was first used in 1959 by Jiles Perry Richardson.

Music videos are short films that showcase a musician or band to promote their songs. They usually feature performers singing or playing, sometimes with animated sequences. Originally starting as promotional tools in the early 1980s, they quickly evolved into a unique art form.

Key takeaways

  • The first-ever music video is considered to be “The Little Lost Child” by Edward B. Marks and Joe Stern from 1894, which was an illustrated song with still images and live music.
  • The term “music video” was first officially used in 1959 by Jiles Perry Richardson. Early videos included motion pictures with sound, animated singalongs, and performance clips.
  • MTV revolutionized music videos by airing them as part of its programming starting in 1981, greatly influencing the music industry and artists’ promotional strategies.
  • Music videos evolved from simple performance footage to complex short films, incorporating storytelling, elaborate choreography, and innovative visuals.
  • Iconic music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” set new standards for creativity and production, inspiring artists to use the medium for artistic expression and storytelling.

MTV (Music Television) started airing music videos in 1981. The first video shown was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles, which was filmed in 1979 but aired in 1981. 

This was partly because MTV originally only showed music videos and also because the technology to produce high-quality music videos emerged in the early 1980s. The Buggles were one of the first bands to have a video made with this new technology.

Talkies, soundies, and shorts before MTV

Music was essential in the earliest films. Many people called these early films “talkies” since they included only talking and singing.

In the 1920s and 1930s, music made its way into silent films. Singers used hand signals, called “subtitles,” to cue audiences when to sing. The 1926 film Don Juan, featuring John Barrymore, was likely the first “soundie”. Warner Brothers then released The Jazz Singer in 1927, the first movie to use sound throughout.

The 1940s brought musicals like Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Goldwyn Follies. These films showcased popular singers and dancers, designed for screening before the main feature in theaters.

In the early days, music videos were called “soundies,” featuring only music and performers. Over time, artists started talking, acting, and showcasing their live performances. Eventually, music videos became so complex that they resembled short films, or “shorts” rather than simple performance clips.

Promotional Clips Before MTV

The Czechoslovakian “Dáme si do bytu” (“Let’s get to the apartment”), directed by Ladislav Rychman, is believed to be the first promotional music video.

In the late 1950s, a visual jukebox emerged in France featuring short films with songs. This concept quickly spread globally, leading to the development of similar machines. Shows began airing with pre-recorded music, where producers filmed various visuals of musicians lip-synching and then edited it all together.

Early music videos were simple, just showing artists performing. With technology advances, they evolved into their own form of art. Today, music videos can be incredibly creative, often telling stories or conveying messages.

How MTV revolutionized music videos 

MTV aired its first music videos on August 1, 1981. The inaugural video was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.

MTV changed the music industry by giving artists a way to promote their work. As the industry evolved, music videos grew more complex, offering artists extra income. They also brought visibility to jazz, classical, and reggae, helping these genres reach mainstream audiences.

Today you can find almost any popular song on MTV. The network now airs full-length movies too. MTV has launched many celebrity artists. Icons like Madonna, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Mariah Carey all began their careers on MTV.

Music Videos Then and Now  

Early music videos were simple, showing musicians performing or being interviewed. As MTV’s popularity increased, so did the quality and complexity of the videos. 

In 1984, Michael Jackson released his groundbreaking music video for “Thriller.” Directed by John Landis, it’s celebrated as one of the best music videos ever made. Influenced by horror movies, the video features Jackson and his dancers performing in a graveyard. “Thriller” was nominated for eight MTV Video Music Awards and won six, including Video of the Year. 

Since “Thriller,” music videos have grown more creative and elaborate. Some even tell whole stories or showcase complex choreography. Despite this, most still show footage of musicians performing or being interviewed. 

Recently, music videos have evolved into short films, offering creativity and innovation. Notable examples include “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyoncé, and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.